BREATH OF FRENCH FLAIR

David Bent­ley finds the riches of France in a Bris­bane sub­urb

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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.

Check­list

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.

Pic­ture: David Sproule

Hot prop­erty: Renowned chef Bruno Lou­bet de­liv­ers earthy yet so­phis­ti­cated fare at Bris­bane’s Baguette

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