Susan Kurosawa samples a slice of backstreet Paris in Sydney’s inner-eastern suburbs
TOO many years ago to count, my favourite French restaurant in Sydney was a perfect Parisian transplant, from the checked tablecloths and garlicky snails to the waiter’s creamy voice and long white apron.
Edith Piaf records were played at just the right volume (they were probably LPs, so old and mouldy is this memory) and for a while the management was very taken with Splaydes, those fork-and-spoon combos that were such a hit in the 1970s.
The use of such utensils always made me want to recite The Owl and the Pussycat : ‘‘ They dined on mince and slices of quince, which they ate with a runcible spoon.’’ Jean-Yves, our favourite waiter, thought my poetic outbursts rather nutty, but his charming smile and accent never wavered.
In the main, small and authentic French restaurants are long gone in Sydney, and good-looking snails are rarely seen outside an episode of Gardening Australia . But we have been to see the Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose and nothing less than a soupcon of Paris will do.
Tabou opened in 1998 in Crown Street, Surry Hills, an inner-eastern suburb that is a mishmash of trendy cafes and bars, scruffy pubs and wholesale clothing outlets.
This is Sydney’s rag-trade district but also home to an array of good eating, from the nearby Red Lantern (arguably Sydney’s finest Vietnamese fare) to fashionable queue-up joints such as Bills and Bird, Cow, Fish.
It’s a modest dining space, a straight-off-the-street shopfront, long and quite narrow, with a room upstairs. There’s a leadlight frieze above the windows, strips of mirror running the length of the walls, a gleaming bar, bentwood chairs, dimmed halogens and wall sconces, and waiters in those classic ankle-skirting bistro aprons.
It’s not hard to imagine we are in Paris, but Tabou is more bouchon than bistro. Particular to Lyons, bouchon serve meat-heavy cuisine, with lots of duck, rabbit and pork, always pot au feu and boudin, and there is usually a hearty atmosphere, with the owner working the tables.
Tabou is more refined than a Lyonnaise bouchon, but the rich menu is not for the leaf-salad set. House classics are written on the mirrored walls and there is a printed list of seasonal suggestions.
The main menu is French to its core, from chevreuil to cassolette. We start with coquilles saint-jacques ($20): the perfectly seared scallops are served with slivers of roast pork cheek, fennel and green garlic. A half-dozen shucked oysters with Banyuls vinegar ($20) are Pacifics from Coffin Bay. They are deliciously briny, cleansing and pleasingly plump; the barrel-aged vinegar is a beautifully tart accompaniment.
Beyond the squab and venison, Tabou’s menu has a section for steak, including a choice of sauces such as bearnaise and champignons. In our Piaf-humming mood it seems appropriate to head straight there for mains.
Steak frites with salad ($28) is the most time-honoured of bistro or bouchon dishes. Tabou offers 250gm sirloin or scotch fillet, and I opt for the latter, which is cooked perfectly rare, as ordered, and not according to a chef’s airy approximation.
My partner goes for the cote de boeuf ($35), which is a heroic decision given that the menu states it is 450gm, and perhaps there should be a bracketed warning that only the starving should apply. Of course he can’t finish the Flintstones -worthy haunch of aged and grain-fed beef, but the flavour is fantastic, he says, the juice enlivened by capers and thickened with bone marrow. A side of chips ($6) and lightly dressed green salad ($6) are the only correct accompaniments and it has to be said the French do understand fries: crisp, slender, well salted and generous serves for the price.
For dessert we share a creme brulee ($13), which does not come in one of those mean little ramekins but a shallow oval dish: even with duelling spoons, it’s well sized for two.
Despite Tabou’s stylishness, I am transported back to those earlier checked-tablecloth days: the sliced baguette in a cane basket, the steak knives (Splaydes having gone the way of fondue sets), the subtle insistence on French wine by not serving the Australian or New Zealand labels on the list by the glass. Even the mineral water is French.
A bottle of 2005 Chateau du Cedre Heritage Cahors Malbec Merlot ($61) from southwest France is big enough in flavour to match our demolition of Tabou’s beef. It’s a midway choice on a list of reds that rockets up to $115 for a 2004 Domaine Pierre Usseglio Chateauneuf du Pape Grenache Shiraz from the Rhone Valley. There’s a reserve wine list, too, for the serious buffs, which stops just short of $200 for its top drop. The service does not falter, whether it’s perky young Australian waiter Scott or manager and maitre-d’ Christian, who greets regulars by name and deflects my question about no local wines by the glass with a practised response: ‘‘ We like to direct the diners towards France.’’
Well put. As we stroll home through Surry Hills on this mild Tuesday evening, we are singing Milord off key and feel we should light up a Gauloise or Gitane, even though neither of us has ever smoked. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
Tabou 527 Crown St, Surry Hills. (02) 9319 5682. Open: Lunch Monday to Friday; dinner seven days. Cost: About $160 for two, including wine by the glass. Reason to return: To wear a beret.
Parisian transplant: Diners tuck into a slice of France at Tabou in Sydney’s Surry Hills