French Saloon – Melbourne, City – Monday 10 April 2017 – Lunch

It is not every day a collection of restaurants has such an impact on a diverse range of dining and drinking experiences. The European, City Wine Shop, and most importantly The Supper Club (and Siglo), are three places that captured my imagination many years ago, and have held it to this day. It seems without even knowing it, the people behind these stunning establishments, have grabbed me in the opposite end of town.

Kirk’s Wine Bar is not a place that grabs your immediate attention. In fact, it looks like a lot of wine bars I’ve been to overseas. It is the feeling here that is special. Somehow many of those I’ve been with there, feel the same way too. The fascinating part is why I feel drawn to it whenever I’m in that part of town, whether shopping, after lunch, for pre-dinner drinks, or pretty much any other time.

Naturally, upstairs was always going to end up capturing my attention. It’s not the same, but the walk up the stairs is a bit like going up to the Supper Club. What is upstairs though is a tribute to the casual dining of France. Not that the French do anything that is actually that casual. The French Saloon is put together in this manner.

There is not a prestigious fitout, and the tables are not overdone, but there is a sense of bistro luxury and a feeling of belonging, even if it is just any other Monday in Autumn. From the greeting to the goodbye, there is an ease about this place. If only the menu were as easy. There was no debate, but after a fair bit of catching up, we really needed to order something.

Chris had his eye on the kingfish which I was happy to share. I like the sound of the spanner crab toast and we ordered one each. It was a great start.

The kingfish is served with delicate presentation, surrounded by thinly sliced cucumber. However, the staff direct you to mix it all up, allowing the sauce to combine with the oil and creating a smart combination. The spanner crab is curiously presented half adorned with avocado, and the other half with salmon roe. The toast works well initially, holding together, until it all falls apart in the last few bites. As you can imagine, using a knife and fork does not inhibit the delicate flavour.

For mains, we had decided to share the Cote de Boeuf, along with a side of fries and of the gem lettuce with anchovy sauce. Having ordered medium rare, the steak seems on the medium side, but was still beautifully tender and well seasoned. The strong jus was absolutely superb, lifting the steak to greater heights. The chips were excellent, while the gem lettuce could have been a touch too powerful with its anchovy dressing, to refresh and dull the impact of the steak and jus.

The Pinot Noir we were drinking from Gippsland was at the suggestion of our waitperson, as the bottle Chris selected was off the list. It was an excellent choice, not necessarily matching our choices perfectly, but versatile enough to enjoy with, or without food. In fact, the service on a reasonably busy Monday lunch was great.

As we finished lunch, I asked Chris about his phone call into 3AW, where he had shared with the breakfast presenters his insights from his experiences at Eleven Madison Park, which had very recently won the title of “world’s best restaurant”. When we walked downstairs Chris saw one of his friends at Kirk’s and he too got asked about the same conversation! Like so many meals, ending it with conversations about other meals seems fitting.

The French Saloon is different to the other offerings of this group, but it has the same hospitable feel and warmth. I’m sold on everything they do, though I almost wish I didn’t know they were all connected.

French Saloon Bar & Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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L’Hotel Gitan – Windsor – Wednesday 22 March 2017 – Lunch

The difference of opinions when it comes to restaurants, and each particular experience, can be incredible. It dawned on me that my first experience at L’Hotel Gitan was not characteristic of this good looking venue. So, a couple of years ago I didn’t share my thoughts, but I am now.

Whereas my first experience was in a large group, upstairs in the private room, this time was downstairs where it’s at. I often discount group experiences because the most usual setting is a table of two to four people. While today we have seven for a group leaving lunch, the restaurant is not even half full, so there’s no pressure on the chefs or floorstaff.

The first thing noticed by the table was that the L’Hotel version of Gitan is a bit fancier than the Bistro version. It is a stylish room, that feels adequately French. The banquettes are comfortable, and the semi-private booth looks very cool indeed.

We are here to relax and see off a good friend and colleague. Three courses are a must. Personally I find the menu a bit finicky with a lot of choices, and a touch of confusion between sharing or not. In the end a few of us decide to share some entrees, but we all have our own main.

My shared entrees are the crispy duck, lamb skewer, and king prawn. The latter is perfectly cooked, with a crisp quick fried tempura style batter. The lamb skewer is tiny, and definitely not packed with enough flavour or richness, to compensate. The crispy duck is a curious dish too, not because you expect more for the spend, but there is a questionable amount of duck.

For my main I selected a scotch fillet steak, and I was happy with the product. It was medium-rare, and most mouthfuls were good. Across from me, B2 had ordered exactly the same steak, cooked the same way, but it was not as good. Seems I was the lucky one today! The bearnaise was well prepared, and the chips great too. For around $40 though you might expect a bit more impact.

The chocolate millefeuille was a big way to finish. Presented in style by the pastry chefs, this take on a millefeuille is generous and rich, exactly what you want at the end of a French meal. The use of a biscuit base, over the traditional lighter pastry, is probably the only fault, because the pastry is normally there to provide some balance.

I can see reasons why locals would like the comfortable and warm setting, but there was little to rave about. Some tweaks are needed to take L’Hotel Gitan to the next level. On the whole, this was a pleasant lunch, with nice food, and good service.

L'Hotel Gitan Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hell Of The North – Fitzroy – Saturday 16 April 2016 – Dinner

Brandade doughnut

Brandade doughnut

There are not many people I’m completely comfortable with choosing where I am dining. There are times where Catherine and I will sit in a hotel room for close to an hour before we have decided. It is that care about food that means we rarely have a bad meal, but it does cost us time, and it is obsessive.

Tonight, we are in trusted hands. My mate is introducing us to his new girlfriend and it is naturally his pick. He has good taste in food, and if there is ever a time to pick the right place it is early in a relationship! It helps that I know he has trusted advisers (ie guides and a good grip on the latest and greatest).

We finish drinks at Bad Frankie (we’ll be back for the jaffles at some stage) and there is a bit of surprise as we enter Hell Of The North. Fitzroy is grungy. There is amazing food on offer, but it is often very casual. This place has Hell in its name, but there is nothing reminiscent in the look and feel of this restaurant that in any way speaks of Hell.

Baby beets, sheep's milk curd, candied pecans

Baby beets, sheep’s milk curd, candied pecans

In fact, the space is designed beautifully, with a mix of heritage style from the building, and new world comforts, that are smartly put side by side. There is a large bar and we are on the left side that feels a more intimate space, but looking around and walking through the back, it seems they have managed to get that type of feel across the restaurant. After the maitre’d giving me a metaphoric slap for suggesting some restaurants take diners more seriously when they decide to have sparking water (rather than tap) we have a bit of a laugh and we are on our way. As you would expect from that interaction, service continues at a good quality through the evening.

It is for this reason that we put ourselves in the hands of the restaurant to select what we eat ($65). To begin we try the brandade doughnuts, and rabbit, pork and black garlic terrine. Brandade is a combination of potato, baccalau (salt cod), garlic and olive oil, but in this case comes served with squid ink in the confines of a beautifully fried doughnut. It’s a start you would have to repeat on any future visit. The terrine is also excellent quality, but there is no slant on this classic.

Snapper

Snapper

Next we are served a variety of baby beets with sheep’s milk curd, and particularly delicious candied pecans. I am waiting to become sick of beetroot dishes and have decided they are so simply incredible (subject to produce) that they are less of a fad, and more of a genuine modern classic. We also get served a nicely grilled snapper dish.

Ballotine of Milawa chicken, sage & pistachio, jus gras

Ballotine of Milawa chicken, sage & pistachio, jus gras

For our main dishes we are presented with a great looking chicken dish featuring crisp chicken skin on top of perfectly cooked juicy chicken, with carrots, and a jus that we were going back for. It was at this stage that I started thinking it would be good to have just slightly bigger servings between the four of us. Not that the amount overall was too little, just some of the dishes were ones that you could have more than a few bites.

Bavette, pommes puree, sauce tarragon

Bavette, pommes puree, sauce tarragon

The bavette of beef was a good finish to the savoury courses. Stacked on plenty of potato puree and soaked in a great tarragon sauce, this was a filling course. Also known as flank steak, bavette is not quite as tender as other cuts, but has excellent flavour when treated right, and this one is very nice. The Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon we are drinking has some good structure to go with the beef too.

Creme brûlée

Creme brûlée

We had a couple of desserts, but the creme brûlée was the definite highlight. Served in a shallow wide dish for extra toffee goodness, renditions like this one show there is always a need for the classics.

While much about tonight’s meal was unexpected, surprises like what Hell Of The North dishes up are extremely pleasant. Next time I would probably order a la carte to focus on a few dishes, but trying a broad spectrum did deliver some benefits, most notably the brandade doughnuts to start, and the brûlée to finish, both of which I may not have ever tried. Yet another reason to get to Fitzroy regularly.

Hell of the North Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Guillaume – Paddington – Sunday 3 April 2016 – Lunch

Passionfruit

Passionfruit

What better way to plan our next trip to Europe than in a beautiful dining room in Paddington, with the charm of provincial France? French food in Australia was once so cliched to the point of being stale, but modern expressions are anything but dull.

For many years, Guillaume Brahimi has been elevating the cause of French dining in Australia. The wow factor you have from dining in the Opera House is gone, left in the wake of a luxurious part-French, part-Hamptons house. I only tried the Opera House version once; an experience that provided enough great moments to merit today’s Sunday lunch.

Amuse

Amuse

Sunday lunch is only offered at Guillaume on the first Sunday of each month. There is a five course set menu with a choice of two desserts for $150 a person. The diners here have come for more than just the food, it is a glamorous feeling and there is an atmosphere of excitement.

Kingfish

Kingfish

This feeling in the dining room requires a start of Champagne and Perrier Jouet seems just right. Luckily it goes beautifully with the amuse bouche, which is a delicious diced tuna concoction complete with foam for a bit of pizzazz. Next up is our first course of Kingfish from Bateau Bay with smoked eel, shiso, walnuts and apple. Guillaume spells out where each star ingredient is from, and it shows the care and pride taken in his approach to sourcing. Looking at the size of this dish we take a deep breath knowing we probably should not have eaten breakfast, and a bircher muesli at that! In any case, each bite of the generous portion of kingfish is delicious and the combination with smoked eel works along with the classic apple and walnut flavours, and a gorgeous lemon sauce. If nothing else, a touch more apple for each bite would be good, but this is a fantastic start to the meal.

Hens of the Woods

Hens of the Woods

With that positive start behind us we go on to the “Hens of the Woods” dish of intrigue. Catherine and I had been talking about how we don’t miss the proliferation of egg based dishes during degustation menus on the Friday night. So initially the egg “oeuf mollet” from Bulla in Victoria was not overly exciting. But if any culture can prepare the perfect egg, it is the French, and when adorned with gorgeous mushrooms, truffle, and the crisp layered potato, you have a terrific dish.

KIng George Whiting

KIng George Whiting

By this stage we had moved on to the Paringa chardonnay, which naturally suits the next course. From Port Lincoln in South Australia, the King George Whiting is extremely exciting. This is one of my favourite fishes, but it needs accompaniments that lift it given its subtle flavour. The whiting itself is perfectly cooked, but the accompaniments of celeriac puree, and the sauce, whilst good, was not the quality of the previous dishes. The dish needed texture, but it was a bit fiddly with the crisp bread. There is some work to do.

Beef

Beef

The next dish was something else though. The wagyu beef from New England in New South Wales is stunning. Paris mash is served at the table from the fancy saucepan. This mash and the turnip puree are outstanding accompaniments, and the jus is delightful too. Adding to the finesse of the dish is a glorious wine from Saint-Emilion combining merlot and cabernet franc in the best possible way, with just the right age to work with the beef.

Valrhona chocolate

Valrhona chocolate

We had to try each of the desserts, so Catherine ordered the passionfruit souffle, and I chose the Valrhona chocolate. The souffle sources passionfruit from Gympie, but the star of any amazing souffle is the technique of the pastry chef. This is no exception. Add some theatre from the pouring of creme anglaise at the table and you have an exemplary performance. The banana and passionfruit sorbet is perfect too, adding refreshment and balance to each taste.

Petit fours

Petit fours

They are both different, but the Valrhona chocolate is the equal of the other dessert. The components of chocolate shards, biscuit, hazelnut cream, and textural chocolate crumb, all combine into a complete and delicious dessert. It doesn’t get more French than some souffle and chocolate for dessert, and we are perfectly fine with that! On top of this the pre-dessert was also beautiful (lychee, mango, coconut featured) and the petit fours we tried of the several offered were all fantastic!

The service is performed by a mainly French staff, adding to the feel of the restaurant. On the whole the operation is seamless, but there are some minor misses, mainly with my Aussie accent, that mean there is still the opportunity to improve. However, on one particular front the staff went above and beyond, meaning small misses can easily be overlooked.

To say this is a pleasant way to spend Sunday afternoon is a dramatic understatement. The servings are generous, the ingredients in the dishes are indulgent, and more importantly, work together in mostly classical ways, but with the right touches to enhance the flavour. Add some elegant wines to the mix, professional service and a dining room to remember, and you have all the hallmarks of what I love in a restaurant.

Guillaume Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Noir – Richmond – Saturday 5 September 2015 – Dinner

Caramelised Atlantic scallop, cauliflower veloute, black truffle and pecorino

Caramelised Atlantic scallop, cauliflower veloute, black truffle and pecorino

Neighbourhood restaurant as a tag seems a limiting, not to mention obvious, way to describe a place. Put in a positive light it merely means somewhere that is accessible to regular visits by locals, that has a comfort in belonging. It is rarely used in a negative sense the way “suburban” often can be.

In Richmond, only a couple of kilometres outside the CBD, there is a growing population of diverse restaurant offerings. One staple that felt missing for many years was a bistro the likes of France-Soir, or Thierry’s, but Noir swept in and filled that void. Naturally it is not as traditional, but the feeling here as you walk in is akin to those friendly convivial environments.

In a sense we have missed out in participating in the establishment of Noir’s reputation. For one reason or another, the eight minute walk down Swan Street ended up taking a couple of years to convert into a visit, but now we are here. As you would expect, the original cheap ($15!) entree, and almost equally reasonable ($35) main have been replaced with higher price tags, but the tasting menu listing five enticing courses, is still value at $100, and there is also a very reasonable menu du jour for around $65.

When I go to a bistro and look down on the menu to see duck, lamb, gnocchi and chocolate on a tasting menu you can stop the presses on the rest of the offerings. With one tweak, care of Catherine’s early menu reading habit, we chose the tasting menu without hesitation. That tweak was to replace the kingfish (which sounded excellent too) with a scallop dish that had taken her eye in a big way.

thyme gnochetti with king brown mushroom fondue, nettle and black truffle pesto

thyme gnochetti, king brown mushroom fondue, nettle and black truffle pesto

That was our first course and what an entry into the meal to come. A beautifully pan fried caremelised Atlantic scallop surrounded by a cauliflower veloute that dreams are made of, black truffle and pecorino providing further elevation. Next came the thyme gnochetti with king brown mushroom fondue, nettle and black truffle pesto. A terrific follow up, with a huge amount of gnochetti for a tasting menu, and another banging sauce.

Duck

Crisp breast of duck with licorice, fennel and orange

There is really only a small list of savouries that a bistro needs to do well for me to be back. The biggest test is duck. Noir’s crisp breast of duck with licorice, fennel and orange ticked all the boxes. While the classic flavours pairing with the duck are very important, the way the duck is cooked is by far the most important aspect of this dish. It was cooked perfectly, and the way it looked on the plate, juicy and inviting, was the way it tasted.

Lamb

Roasted rack of lamb with pumpkin, pumpkin seed praline and parmesan

Our last savoury course was the roasted rack of lamb, with pumpkin, pumpkin seed praline and parmesan. Again the chefs showed great touch with the lamb, but in this case the pumpkin took an equally starring role.

Service, while quirky (which we liked), was utterly professional. I had to ask where our waitperson had come from previously and learned he had worked at many fine establishments across Melbourne for a long time. Good signs for Noir if it can attract this calibre of talent. The wine list is good without being unforgettable, and could even be viewed as a little pricey for a bistro, but we found some nice options starting with champagne, into chardonnay and then a pinot noir. When in Noir.

Chocolate marquise, blood orange macaron, pistachio and hibiscus

Chocolate marquise, blood orange macaron, pistachio and hibiscus

For dessert that was where the wine list became limited as I would love to see a Pedro, Muscat or Tokay to match with the chocolate marquise, served with blood orange macaron, pistachio and hibiscus. Dessert was good, but we couldn’t help noticing how much better the soufflés looked, coming out around the same time, so we will be going after one of those next time. When will deconstructed desserts have finished their time?

The biggest surprise for me is that Noir is not covered in Australian Gourmet Traveller’s restaurant guide. While it might be a tiny “neighbourhood” restaurant, it is much more than that, and is hopefully not far off being noticed more broadly. I’m equally hopeful that it keeps doing what it is doing, providing an offering that is right up my alley.

Noir Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Choux Cafe Patisserie Francaise – Swanbourne – Saturday 16 August 2014 – Lunch

Beef Bourguignon

Beef Bourguignon

It looked quiet but sitting in Choux Cafe for half an hour proved there is more than steady traffic on a Saturday afternoon.

The brief for lunch was straightforward. Quick, tasty, clean. This little French deli ticked the boxes. The Beef Bourgugnon pie had large chunks of slow cooked beef encased in a crumbly buttery pastry. The espresso I had wasn’t too bad either.

We had to try a macaron having been happy with our successful journey to date. They were not bad. The butterscotch with salted caramel was delicious but a touch overcooked.

Next time I’m in the area I’m coming back for the croissants which look amazing. With places like Jean Claude closed on the weekend thank goodness we can find a bit of Paris in Swannie on a sunny Saturday!

Butterscotch macarons

Butterscotch macarons

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