I have to start with an admission, this was not my first visit to Soju Girl. Or even my second, or third. This is one of my favourite restaurants in Canberra and definitely always on my list when people ask for recommendations of a great place to eat. So it was with no hesitation that I agreed to a dinner with friends here recently.
Soju Girl's menu is divided into small and large plates, all of which are designed for sharing. The small plates essentially form entrees with the large plates as mains. We chose 5 small plates for our group of 6, although ended up with 7 because we doubled up on the gyoza and pork belly to ensure everyone got plenty.
Zucchini flower, sticky rice, Korean pickle, capsicum compote, soy mirin ($8 each)
I can't imagine a trip to Soju Girl without having a zucchini flower. They have changed slightly since I last had them with the sticky rice now purple from the kimchi. But even with the change they continue to be delicious, slightly acidic from the vinegary rice but balanced by the sweet mirin sauce. This is a dish as much about the texture as the flavour with the crisp batter, tender zucchini and sticky rice.
Handmade gyoza of the day (6-pieces $16)
On our visit the gyoza were pork and cabbage. They had a good pork flavour, a nicely caramalised base but the thing that made this dish was the ever so delicious dipping sauce. I was very happy we had ordered two plates so that I got to eat two of these.
Char grilled Australian squid, yakitori glaze, soba noodles ($17)
This was the most disappointing dish of the night. There wasn't anything wrong with it, it just didn't pack the flavour punch of the other dishes. Still the squid was tender and the textures interesting.
Crispy pork belly, chilli salt, fried apple puree, bacon candy ($19)
OMG the pork belly. I have no idea how they manage to get it so incredibly melt in the mouth tender. It was just yum and beautifully counterpointed by the thai basil on top but honestly this dish was made by the fried apple puree that my friend scrapped the plates to get every last drop of.
Pan tossed prawns, chilli paste, crispy noodle salad ($24)
This was another spectacular dish. Perfectly cooked prawns with a really interesting salad that included lychees, one of the few fruits I like in savoury dishes. Again this is a dish with a fantastic interplay of texture. The crispy noodles make each mouthful really interesting and the chilli sauce ties it all together.
We chose to order only 2 large plates plus steamed rice for our main. We could have gone for a third dish or some sides but made the strategic decision to save space for dessert. I have had both of these mains numerous times before but I just can't go past them. Both are completely delicious with melt in the mouth tender meat.
Beef cheek, pickled cabbage salad, Penang cashew curry ($44)
Don't you love a curry where the meat falls apart at the touch of a spoon? This curry has a rich, meaty flavour. It isn't a hot curry, in fact I think of it almost like an asian goulash with the effect of the coconut cream in the sauce. But the richness is counterpointed by the freshness of the delicious salad that tops it. Just yum.
Coconut braised duck, lychees, Royal Thai yellow curry ($42)
The only thing I don't love about this curry is that it comes on the bone. That said the duck is so tender it is no effort at all to get it off the bone, onto your plate and into a very happy mouth. It is rich and creamy but punctuated by the sweetness of the lychees. So good.
As I mentioned, we had strategically decided to order less mains so that we could have dessert. I didn't try all the desserts so some of this review comes from my friend's opinions.
Chocolate fondant, caramel popcorn, vanilla gelato ($19)
The caramel popcorn and caramel sauce spread on the plate were both delicious, however the vanilla gelato was nothing particularly special and the fondant, while tasty, was not the best the tasters had eaten. They both commented that it wasn't quite as chocolately as they expected, tasted a little floury and the centre while soft didn't have that delicious ooze that makes for a great fondant. That said there were two very empty dishes quite quickly.
Yuzu cheesecake, tropical foam, orange crumble ($16)
This was the dessert pick of the night. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit and this deconstructed cheesecake had a fantastic citrus flavour. I often find cheesecake a bit heavy but this was light, almost mousse like and the two diners scrapped their plates clean.
Coconut pannacotta, rosewater tuille, raspberry and lychee salad ($16)
After much deliberating I chose the coconut pannacotta. I liked this dessert, however felt it needed more of a counterpoint to the sweetness of both the pannacotta and lychees. The raspberries did add a lovely acidic note but there were only about 5 of them on the plate so they weren't enough to counter the rest of the dish. The tuille was particularly light and delicious though.
The one great failing with Soju Girl in my opinion is their drinks. On this visit we chose to drink wine - mainly because our past experiences have found the cocktails to be highly underwhelming. On a previous visit we all agreed that they were universally watery in taste. On this visit one of my friends sent back his coffee because it was so bad (the replacement was deemed drinkable but not much better) and another person didn't finish their hot chocolate because it was overly sugary from the syrup. We all agreed that clearly they use up their quota of flavour in the food and have none left over for the drinks but it is a pity as it lets down a fantastic restaurant.
I will also say that this is a noisy restaurant with not much in the way of soft surfaces to baffle sound. There were only 6 of us dining but I did struggle to hear what was being said at the other end of the table at times.
However, those comments aside, a meal at Soju Girl is still a spectacular thing and I'm more than happy to venture back any time someone wants to go.