BREATH OF FRENCH FLAIR
David Bentley finds the riches of France in a Brisbane suburb
WHEN celebrity chef Bruno Loubet settled in Brisbane five years ago, foodies hailed it as akin to the Second Coming. Bordeaux-born Loubet, once the shining star of London’s epicurean scene, has since moved around Queensland’s southeast, from his own restaurant in Toowong, to Berardo’s-on-the-Beach in Noosa, and now to Baguette in Ascot.
It has taken Loubet a little time to adjust. What works at London’s cutting edge does not necessarily sit well with Brisbane’s conservative dining community, and Loubet has been obliged to curb his sense of culinary adventure. A little, anyway. From the beginning, however, Baguette’s owners Francis and Marilyn Domenech have made it their policy to employ well-known chefs, so regulars are used to innovation.
Five years on, Loubet continues to deliver earthy yet sophisticated fare, based on the rustic dishes of the French countryside but with the accomplishment of classical cooking techniques. The juxtaposition of unexpected flavours remains his trademark, albeit with dissonant notes muted. Loubet has probably never been interested in simply being different for its own sake. I suspect that at heart he is a conservative, too.
And Baguette is humming this chilly Friday evening as the regulars roll in, an older generation rubbing shoulders with a younger crowd, along with sundry couples drawn by the prospect of excellent food cooked by an acknowledged master.
Merely to remain in business for so long amounts to an achievement. To do so in Ascot, home to an affluent urban tribe nevertheless not known for profligate spending, elevates the Domenechs’ achievement to the brink of the miraculous.
Some indication of Baguette’s popularity is illustrated by a peevish sandwich board outside a rival establishment: Vehicles belonging to Baguette customers will be removed, it warns, despite many vacant car spaces.
Risking the tow truck, we press on to Baguette, where we weave through a crush of 30-somethings disporting themselves at the bar, to the restaurant’s reception area. Waiters dodge and sway through a bottleneck of intending diners. Presumably this is how it is when every available square centimetre of space is utilised: waiters crab sideways in and out of the kitchen, balancing hot dishes and imploring: ‘‘ Can I just sneak past?’’
The place is airy and stylish. It reminds me of restaurants I have visited in rural France, a clean, well-lit room that relies on understatement and elegance to set the tone.
Soon we are ushered to our table where we order a bottle of 2004 Gilligan Shiraz Grenache Mourvedre from McLaren Vale ($46.50), which the waiter pours mostly into the glass, partly on to the table; later she manages to deposit a few drops on my hand. I’m seated against the wall, which does make pouring problematic.
We order organic bread with olive tapenade and butter ($6) to stave off the hunger pangs while pondering the menu. Baguette is not given to lavishing complimentary treats on its clientele, but prices here are reasonable.
Certainly the beetroot ravioli on black pudding, horseradish froth and balsamic syrup ($19.80) is worth every cent, delivering dark, earthy flavours that go perfectly with cold, blustery nights. Beetroot ravioli is one of Loubet’s long-term favourites (I recall sampling a different version when he first came to Brisbane) and this is one Frenchman who knows how to make the humblest of vegetables taste beguiling.
The horseradish froth lends whimsy to the blood of the black pudding, and the balsamic syrup provides a touch of zest. It’s a dish that I enjoy very much.
Mrs B is slightly less enthusiastic. To her mind, the horseradish froth is not enough to offset the brooding combination of black pudding and beetroot, which she feels is altogether too heavy for an entree.
She much prefers her own dish of seared scallops, cauliflower puree and fritters with pomegranate curry oil dressing ($23.50). The scallops are juicy and the puree creamy, with the fritters adding snap and texture. After a pause of about half an hour, the mains finally arrive and Mrs B gazes longingly at my potroasted rabbit with braised wild mushrooms and macadamia nuts ($34.80).
In the late 1970s, macadamia nuts accompanied everything and then slipped off the radar. Perhaps it’s time for a comeback. In this dish, the macadamias’ nutty flavour sits harmoniously with that of the earthy mushrooms and creamy rabbit to make for a comforting combination.
Mrs B’s tagine of baby squid, stuffed with fennel and prawns ($34.50), seems a tad under-spiced, possibly to appease local palates, but it’s palatable enough, with fennel to temper the richness of the seafood flavours.
For dessert, I order iced lavender honey nougat with raspberry sorbet and pineapple salad ($14). It’s hard to envisage pineapple blending with the other ingredients. Mainly, I’m curious to discover if Loubet can pull it off. And it’s OK. In fact, it’s better than OK. Perhaps the use of pineapple is Loubet’s way of paying homage to Queensland’s subtropical produce, nonetheless, I think the dish would have been improved with a different fruit, say, custard apple.
Carping criticisms aside, Baguette is fortunate to have Loubet, and possibly vice versa. Brisbane is far from London’s Inn on the Park, where Loubet had carte blanche to do as he liked as long as he garnered a Michelin star (which he did in his first year). Loubet’s skills continue undiminished and Baguette provides him with a suitable showcase. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
Baguette Restaurant 150 Racecourse Rd, Ascot. (07) 3268 6168; www.baguette.com.au. Open: For lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner Monday to Saturday. Cost: Entrees $14-$23.50; mains $31-$38; desserts $14. Two-course set menu $26.50. Drinks: Licensed, with bar and extensive wine list. BYO wine, Monday to Thursday only. Reasons to return: Excellent food, attentive service and a reassuring sense of permanence.
Hot property: Renowned chef Bruno Loubet delivers earthy yet sophisticated fare at Brisbane’s Baguette