Susan Kuro­sawa sam­ples a slice of back­street Paris in Syd­ney’s in­ner-east­ern sub­urbs

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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.

Pic­ture: Alan Pryke

Parisian trans­plant: Din­ers tuck into a slice of France at Tabou in Syd­ney’s Surry Hills

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