A PORTION OF PARIS
David Bentley savours a taste of the City of Light at a new Brisbane brasserie
RESTAURATEURS Tony Harper and Tim Kelly have transported a corner of Paris to Fortitude Valley with their new bistro La Belle Epoque, and what a wonderful transplant it is. La Belle Epoque is francophilia on a grand scale: chefs, waiters, menu and wines are French; there are french fries and French just about anything else you could imagine. To step inside this cavernous 200-seater is the next best thing to time travel: suspend disbelief and you could be in Montparnasse in the 1930s.
A long, sumptuous bar invites leisurely conversation, and slow-moving fans are suspended from a pressed metal ceiling, which is artfully darkened to create the impression of decades of accumulated cigar smoke.
In busy times, the room hums with a convivial hubbub: drinkers lining the bar, diners snug in their red leather booths.
La Belle Epoque owes part of its inspiration to Paris’s historic Left Bank brasserie La Coupole, first known for its bohemian clientele (Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali lingered there), more famous now for its arrogant waiters. French-speaking waiters outnumber locals two to one at La Belle Epoque and they are charm itself.
The multimillion-dollar fit-out also closely reflects the successful New York brasserie Balthazar, which opened in 1997 and took its cue from La Coupole’s time-honoured formula. The concept appears to be working well in Brisbane. Attempting to book a table for Saturday evening, I had to settle for lunch the following Tuesday.
Our waiter, splendid in his long white apron, turns out to be a polite, unassuming young Australian who magically appears when needed, disappearing when not.
The menu includes the salads, cold entrees and seafood dishes appropriate to Brisbane’s subtropical climate as well as traditional French meals such as onion and madeira soup ($13.50), casserole de moules mariniere ($26.50) and canard a l’orange ($31).
It’s a bistro rather than a temple to haute cuisine, but the dishes nonetheless respect the essentials of classic French cooking.
They are deceptively simple, elevated by technique, sauces and dressings. Servings, in the main, are substantial. A side plate of frites fraiches ($8) amounts to almost a meal.
We choose a modest beaujolais, 2005 Louis Jadot Combe aux Jacques ($42), from the allFrench wine list chosen by Harper, a dedicated wine man whose previous ventures include the award-winning Grape wine bar in Fortitude Valley and Anise in New Farm.
For entree, Mrs B orders fricassee of lamb brains with mushrooms ($16.50). The dish arrives in a tiny copper saucepan complete with lid, inviting investigation of the flavours within. Mushrooms tend not be a common accompaniment for lamb brains but in this case it works a treat. Creamy mascarpone wine sauce lends piquancy to the softly textured offal and the residual juices taste delicious when mopped up with a piece of baguette. I opt for ocean trout rillettes ($15), a cold paste of shredded trout topped with marinated crab meat and served with croutons. The flavours are rich without being overly complex. It makes a fine beginning to the meal.
Between courses we savour a salade Belle Epoque ($22), a symphony in green, in which butter lettuce, witlof, green beans, toasted walnuts, walnut vinaigrette and the mild, lightly veined cow’s milk cheese Fourme d’Ambert all play a part. This salad tastes as good as it looks. The secret is in the walnuts, marinated in citrus juice with a little zest added, then roasted. The cheese contributes sharpness. The vinaigrette blends the flavours.
Mrs B has ordered the fish of the day and when our mains arrive and she heaps praise on the freshness of the pan-fried snapper served on a bed of sweet potato and garnished with a lively salsa verde ($29), I regret not
La Belle Epoque 1000 Ann St, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane; (07) 3852 1500; www.labelleepoque.com.au. Open: Seven days for breakfast, lunch and dinner; bar, noon-1am. Cost: About $50-$100 each for three courses; children’s menu, two courses, $12. Drink: Extensive all-French wine list, from $30 to $2200 a bottle, with a good selection from $40 to $140; wine by the glass $7-$12. Fifty aperitifs include pastis and absinthe ($8-$45); local and imported beers from $6 to $12. Cocktails $14.50. Reason to return: Classic bistro fare, backed by an informed wine list and attentive service.
Breath of French air: La Belle Epoque, with a brasserie-style seafood counter, is causing a stir in Brisbane