Yes, Rebel Rebel is named after the David Bowie song. You might even hear a cover version of it played over the restaurant’s speakers. But looks-wise it’s a far cry from Bowie’s glam-rock aesthetic. It’s refined and modern: plenty of polished concrete, bare wooden tables, black tiles, black metal and black leather. Big windows take up two walls, making the bulbs hanging from the ceiling redundant until night falls. The crowning feature is a sloping wooden rafter-like installation that occupies the five-metre roof cavity, designed by Sam Rice, who worked on the striking Grand Stair at the nearby Ovolo hotel.
“The timber has all been repurposed from a recently demolished public-housing building, the Bega flats,” says executive chef and ower Sean McConnell – brother of Melbourne chef and restaurateur, Andrew McConnell. “They have a really colourful history, and it’s a very significant building – it was first post-war government housing in Australia and just missed out on a heritage listing. It’s pretty amazing, to use this wood from 75 years ago, and have it fold and sweep through the ceiling.”
McConnell’s brief to Melbourne design agency U-P for the eatery’s menus and brand identity was to avoid Bowie stereotypes. Instead, the studio focused on the proto-punk early ’70s era from which the song Rebel Rebel was born. It took inspiration from album sleeves and fliers from the era, incorporating the influences into everything from the bold graphics on the menu to the mid-century-style fonts and the images that decorate the walls of the (extremely yellow) bathroom. (The walls and floor are all sunflower-yellow, as is the wastepaper bin and the flowers that sit on the basin.)
Defining the food as “modern Australian with a vague European lean”, McConnell says the food at Rebel Rebel is just food he’d really like to eat. That includes oysters – “my favourite food in the world” – which are from Moonlight Flat in Batemans Bay (on the NSW south coast) and served natural or with pomelo and pink peppercorn.
The all-day menu is succinct, with McConnell’s typically produce-driven approach. For breakfast there are dishes such as buffalo milk ricotta and broad beans on toast; a harissa and feta omelette; and the very British black pudding with fried eggs, pickles and house-made HP sauce. Canberra coffee roaster Barrio Collective has blended Rebel Rebel its own seasonal blend of beans.
Along with oysters for lunch and dinner there’s a varied menu that’s light on meat, and heavy on vegetables.
“We wanted to have a fairly vegetable-driven menu,” says McConnell. “It’s the way people are eating at the moment, the way people should be eating at the moment.
When the cauliflower dish is delivered to Broadsheet’s table, the server suggests we smell it before we tuck in. It’s good advice: it’s buttery and nutty in the nostril and tastes just as wonderful in the mouth. Another good call is ordering the corn and manchego croqueta with prawn-head aioli. Fresh corn kernels spill out upon biting, held together only by the gooey manchego inside. It’s the grown-up version of the creamed corn and cheese jaffles you might have been served as a kid.
The sardine piadina is like an Italian taco. The thin Italian flatbread is topped with a chunk of sardine and layered with caramelised onion, pine nuts and currants. Bangalow pork neck combines classic pork accompaniments – apple and mustard – with confit fennel and cabbage.
McConnell has brought across pastry chef Jasmine Sawa from Monster. Like the food on the main menu, the sweets menu is produce-driven. The marmalade cake is ultra-moist and citrusy, served with an almond crumb and fennel ice-cream. Again taking a cue from the Brits is the roasted rhubarb fool – it’s a delicious creamy mess of rhubarb, with a tangle of candied rhubarb sitting on top.
Rebel Rebel isn’t just a restaurant – it has an on-site takeaway wine shop to cater to the growing number of residents moving into the area. Expect old and new-world wines, with minimal-intervention and natural drops and several options from Canberran vineyards, to either drink in or take home. Visitors can also pop in for a takeaway coffee or pastry.