Short trip to Canberra – day 1 of 2

Including reviews: Gus’ Cafe, Babar Cafe & Bar, Kistchen, Brasserie, Debacle

Last Friday, having slept very few hours after a big party in the Buddhist centre, Gladys and I woke up and headed to Central Station, to catch the 9 am bus to Canberra. We chose that time because a) it was cheaper and b) we wanted to make the most of our time in our super short stay in the capital city. We followed the suggestion of a friend who lives there and chose Murrays, and I’m happy to report that it’s a very good transport company.

The purpose of our trip was to attend the Masterpieces From Paris exhibition in the National Gallery of Australia. It was a great opportunity to see original artwork from Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Monet, and others, for just $25. The price of our tickets was included in the hotel package we bought.

We met a friend from the centre on the bus, and she kindly offered to move to another seat because there were no more rows with two seats together. We had packed our breakfast to have on the bus, sandwiches I made with multi-grain sourdough bread from Rise, ham and Swiss cheese from The Deli on King, lettuce, and a four fruit spread with no sugar added. Additionally, I had an apple and some almonds and Gladys a slice of banana bread. I read a bit, slept a bit, and looked at the landscape with plenty of green, lots of trees, some cows, etc.

The bus stop was a few blocks away from the hotel we had booked: Mantra on Northbourne. We walked there, surprised of how clean and quiet and full of trees Canberra is. Breathing that cool, dry, unpolluted air felt a lot like being in the mountains of Peru.

We arrived in the hotel at 12:30 pm. The receptionist informed us that we had our suite upgraded to an apartment and gave us the room’s keys. I failed to confirm that we had two separate beds as requested in the booking form, and when we got to the room we found only one queen bed there. Gladys called to reception, in short they told her the sofa in the living room was a sofa-bed and that we’d had to wait if we wanted to downscale to a room with two beds. Because we were so short of time, we just stayed there.

After leaving our stuff and checking an entertainment guide for places to eat, we went to check the hotel’s facilities: tempered swimming pool, sauna and gym. The access to those was through the fire stairs, getting there gives you the feeling of going to an underground parking lot, with all that concrete and lack of sunshine.

The pool looked clean, I didn’t look inside the sauna because I didn’t intend to use it, but I was very interested in the gym. It was small, as most hotel gyms I’ve been to (except the cool one in the New Delhi Intercontinental hotel), with a few dumbbells (up to 10 kilos only), weight machines, a pull-up/chin-up/dip/Roman chair combo, a couple of treadmills, a rowing machine, an elliptical machine, and a gym mat. Everything was pretty old, and the carpet was really dirty, as if it hadn’t been vacuumed for at least one month. (By the way, when we walked from the lift to the fire stairs we noticed that the carpet on the first floor was all stained as a result of a flood or something similar). There was also an old TV in a rack, air conditioning, and bottled water that we chose not to drink, just in case.

We left the hotel and walked a few hundred meters towards the city centre, which is actually made of a few blocks with shops, cafes and restaurants. We decided to get a coffee in one of the recommended cafes of the guide: Gus’ Cafe. The place was packed, so it seemed like a good alternative. The coffees were not cheap ($3.80 for a latte and $4.70 for a soy cappuccino), so we expected the best. Gladys’ latte was really small. My cappuccino was about the right size but seriously overpriced. A few minutes after, we saw Matthias and Niels passing by with their backpacks; they had just arrived from Sydney. They joined us with tea, coffee and a nice chat.

Due to the size of the latte, Gladys still needed some caffeine, so when the guys left we crossed the road in search for a cheaper place to have a second fix. I spotted another recommended place: Babar Cafe & Bar. It looked a bit like a fast food restaurant, there was a family beside us eating pizza and pastries. The coffees were a bit cheaper: $3.20 for a regular cappuccino and $3.60 for a soy cappuccino. Unfortunately the taste was not good: they were bitter. Then I looked at the baristas and realised they were very young (probably too young to drink coffee themselves), so I suggested looking for older baristas next time.

So far we didn’t have a very good concept of Canberra’s food scene, compared to Sydney it seemed overpriced and lower in quality (compared to Lima, it just makes you consider living on bread and butter instead).

We went back to the hotel and put on our workout clothes: it was time to use the hotel’s facilities and get the most out of the money we paid for the room. We trained for one hour, then went back to the room to take a shower and put on our swimming suits. We went back down to the swimming pool, the water was not chilled but it was not warm either. We swam for a while, but got bored pretty quickly (I’m sure being trapped in a basement had a lot to do with it) and got back to the room for another shower. We got dressed with warmer clothes this time, as the temperature started falling down, and headed to the opposite direction this time, looking for more recommended places.

That area of Canberra is more on the “industrial” side, with some car dealers, etc. We checked out four restaurants and decided to stay in Kitschen, which has a Modern Australian menu with Italian influences. We ordered “herb bread” as a starter, plus Penne Chorizo with chicken and napoletana sauce for Gladys and Vegetable stack with polenta wedges for me. The “herb bread” arrived and we ate it just because we were starving (it was 5:30 pm already, and we hadn’t had a proper lunch). A better description in the menu would have been: “four slices of white bread soaked in butter and with a few sprigs of dried herbs on top”. We paid $5.90 for that.

Kitschen - "Herb bread": White bread slices soaked with melted butter and a very little herbs on top.

A while later the mains arrived. Gladys’ pasta looked good, with shaved Parmesan on top, but the portion seemed a bit small for the price ($16.90).

Kitschen (Canberra) - Penne with chorizo.

My meal looked small too, especially considering it costed $19.90, but the plating was interesting. On the bottom there was a grilled portobello, then a wedge of grilled polenta, then grilled eggplant, then another polenta wedge, then more grilled eggplant, more polenta, grilled capsicum and grilled zucchini, topped with a tablespoon of crumbled Bulgarian fetta cheese. On the sides of the plate there was some pesto and napoletana sauces. Unfortunately, only the sauces and the cheese had flavour in them. I had been craving polenta for a while but it was completely bland. Same with the veggies.

Kitschen (Canberra) - Vegetable stack with polenta wedges, pesto, napoletana sauce and Bulgarian fetta.

We were tempted to order a dessert but decided it was too risky. We left and started walking in direction to Mahamudra House (the Buddhist centre in Canberra), to the North-West of where we were. We walked for 40 or 45 minutes, calling Matthias every 10 minutes to check if he would be there. He never answered, so we kept walking. I remembered Mark had once said that Mahamudra House was in “the Newtown of Canberra”. As we walked through big houses with massive gardens and no people at all we wondered if that was true or just a marketing plot.

Finally we arrived to the “busy” side of the suburb. Less than a block with a few shops, a cafe, a pub, a Post office, a big restaurant, a chemist, and a medical centre. Oh yes, and a wall with graffiti. Mahamudra House was closed, so we sat down on a bench to wait until 8 pm, the official meditation time. We were a few meters away from the centre’s door, so we couldn’t see if the lights were on, we checked at 8:10 approximately and they were on. We stepped inside, where we met Wanda and her daughter Mika, Rob and Maika. We meditated with them and accepted Rob and Maika’s generous offer to drive us back to the hotel.

It was still quite early, around 9:30 pm, and we felt like having a glass of red wine and something to nibble on, to fight off the cold weather. We checked the menu in the hotel’s restaurant, but they didn’t have any appetizers, so we went back to the city centre. Nothing there appealed to us and we went back to the other side of the hotel, close to where we had dinner before.

The first place we passed by was Delissio Brasserie. It had wines by the glass and appetizers, so we got in and sat at the bar. Busy and not busy waiters passed by, anyone ever looked at us, anyone gave us a menu or told us to wait to be served. That’s when we had the certainty that customer service in Canberra simply does not exist. We put our jackets back on and looked for other place.

A bit further was Debacle, which is more a pub than a restaurant. They had wine by the glass as well, but unfortunately the kitchen was closed. We stayed anyway and drank a glass of wine each (the bottles were not properly sealed or refrigerated, so the wine tasted a bit spoiled already). On our way back, still with a bit of hunger and a big craving for something to nibble on, we bought a bag of Doritos.

We went back to the hotel, assembled the sofa-bed and went to sleep. I couldn’t sleep very well because I was really cold, and we were so tired we totally forgot to turn the heat on.

Gus’ Cafe
Shop 8 Garema Arcade
Bunda Street
Civic ACT 2601
(02) 6248 8118

Babar Cafe & Bar
9/20 Allara St
City ACT 2601
(02) 6248 6446

Kitschen
18 Lonsdale St
Braddon ACT 2612
(02) 6247 2946

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Delissio Brasserie
Elouera St
Braddon ACT 2612
(02) 6257 5733

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Debacle
30 Lonsdale St
Braddon ACT 2612
(02) 6247 1314

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One thought on “Short trip to Canberra – day 1 of 2

  1. I’ve been to Gus’ a few times and think it’s OK. The price for a regular coffee seems OK, but for the soy it’s pretty pricey. They do do really good food – tasty and you feel like you’re getting your monies worth. They do pretty good cocktails.

    Whenever we go to Canberra we never venture out of the CBD for food…we’re lazy I guess.

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