Nestled among the tall trees of Narrabundah lies the suburb’s newest fab restaurant and Canberra’s newest addition to the long list of seriously good food spots we can offer our visitors. XO in Narrabundah is the latest and greatest in Asian fusion cuisine and is a must-try for guests dropping by the capital. We spoke to co-owner Greg Lally about how this hip new eatery came to be.
How did XO come to life? What’s the back story behind it?
Kent [co-owner Kent Nhan] and I have be good friends since we studied at Australian National University. I completed a Bachelor of Commerce (Accounting) and Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and Kent a Bachelor of Commerce. Kent’s family has run a very successful Vietnamese restaurant in Griffith for many years and he worked in the restaurant on and off throughout childhood. The shop was always a regular hangout for our friends and extremely popular for the Canberra community, including many politicians and their staff. While we took different paths since university, Kent and I have always shared a love of food and wine. We have wanted to work together on a project in Canberra for some time and have been on the lookout for a chef that could help us execute our vision.
We found this in Kent’s former colleague Anand Ramakrishna (co-owner, called AK by his mates) – an incredibly talented and passionate chef who has a stellar CV training in top restaurants in Australia and overseas. Kent and I spent a few months regularly travelling between Canberra and Sydney where AK was based to brainstorm ideas. We quickly realised that we were all on the same page with what we wanted to achieve and most importantly, became very close mates.
Together, the three of us set out a gruelling schedule of food trials and late nights spent on a business plan. We finally located the perfect site, and bit the bullet and committed to making the project happen.
We engaged my childhood best friend Dean [co-owner Dean Papas] to manage the fit out. Apart from doing an outstanding job on the space, he also became hooked on the idea of what we were doing and came on board as a key member of our team. We are great mate’s first as well as business partners, which has made the process a whole lot of fun.
We also bring experience and knowledge from different walks of life, and a strong, hard work ethic that was vital to get XO off the ground and operating so successfully in a relatively short space of time.
What kind of food can people look
The head chef behind XO is AK who, in alliance with Jeff Shim, is responsible for turning our dishes from an idea thrown around in one of our regular late-night brainstorms to staples on our menu. Our food is driven by inspiration from friends, family, childhood and travel. Our dishes are rooted by memories of food Kent and AK grew up eating, reimagined with a twist. We want to surprise and to challenge diners, while still offering something familiar.
Our shantung bao has been a favourite, with many calling it the best in Canberra. A super soft home-steamed bao, twice-cooked pork belly with cucumber, pickled daikon and ginger.
A small plate that gathers plenty of attention is our Asian bolognaise – stir-fried udon in XO chicken ragout with a 60oC egg. This is an example of a childhood recreation, with Kent’s mother throwing it together to feed the family in his youth, topping the noodles and chicken with a fried egg to make it attractive for him as a child.
The crispy lamb ribs are also a crowd favourite. Braised to perfection and tossed in a sticky plum sauce, it is a sentimental favourite that marries Australian lamb with Asian flavours.
Finally, as no meal is complete without dessert, the gluten – and dairy-free black rice pudding with a coconut ice-cream, golden honey-comb and lime meringue never fails to put a smile on our customers’ faces.
What was the idea behind offering this kind of food?
What we always wanted to do with XO is to blur the boundaries between fine dining and casual restaurants. Growing up in Canberra there has traditionally been a clear gap in the market between the two and we really didn’t like the fact that you couldn’t afford to dine out regularly and get top-notch food.
With XO we have sought to offer a unique perspective on traditional South East Asian cuisine that is grounded by a commitment to making unpretentious food that is accessible to everyone without compromising on quality.
What’s your favourite item on the menu?
If you can pick!
Our Asian bolognaise is favourite of us and by many. As I mentioned, Kent’s mother used to throw it together to feed the family, topping the noodles and chicken with shallots and a sunny side fried egg. AK’s take on this uses chicken crackling instead of the fried shallots for texture and switches up the sunny side for a 60oC egg for some added richness.
What makes XO the perfect place to visit in autumn/winter?
We are right in the heart of leafy Narrabundah. It is one of Canberra’s oldest suburbs and its leafy streets really are at their most spectacular during autumn and winter. Having grown up in Canberra, we put a lot of thought into making the restaurant a comfortable spot through Canberra’s cooler months without being completely separated from the landscape. We have close to a kilometre of underfloor heating, allowing us to closely control the temperature and make a perfect sanctuary for a long winter’s lunch or dinner.
What do you love about Canberra in autumn/winter?
We are all huge fans of Canberra, and have a particular love of winter. We grew up travelling to Thredbo for weekends on the slopes and spending nights around town at Canberra’s fantastic bars and restaurants. There is something about a crisp winter’s day in Canberra that immediately wakes you up and motivates you to spend time with friends and family, particularly around a meal and a glass of wine.
What can diners look forward to in the near future from XO?
We keep our menu as seasonal as possible to make the most of the fantastic produce that we have at our fingertips in the Canberra region. We will definitely be pushing the boundaries with our food and wine program tailored to cool Canberra days and cooler Canberra nights. We are confident that our winter menu will challenge the misconceptions that South East Asian flavours are not suited to cool climates. We are really looking forward to our first winter season here!
XO is located at
16 Iluka Street Narrabundah.