TA­BLES French lessons

Stephen Lunn sam­ples a soup­con of Gal­lic tra­di­tion amid the bon­homie of a Melbourne in­sti­tu­tion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - INDULGENCE -

IT’S black turtle­necks at 10 paces at France-Soir in Toorak on a freez­ing Tues­day night. And most of the skivvy-wear­ers at this cosy restau­rant are en­joy­ing a fine glass of French red. Syd­ney or Bris­bane film­mak­ers scout­ing for lo­ca­tions to take the mickey out of Melbourne would feel as if they’d struck gold here, but this bistro’s pa­trons, many clearly reg­u­lars, are too com­fort­able in their own skins for any such non­sense.

With so much ac­tion on the Melbourne din­ing scene this year, big restau­rants open­ing with mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar fit-outs and hype to match, it’s com­fort­ing to walk into a venue that has main­tained its rep­u­ta­tion as one of the city’s best French eateries for more than 20 years.

There’s no grand en­trance to France-Soir, no ar­chi­tect-de­signed folly, just a glass-fronted Parisianstyle bistro with a red, white and blue neon sign over a shopfront door­way. Step inside, though, and there is an un­de­ni­able warmth that ex­tends be­yond the heat­ing. The ta­bles are jammed into the small din­ing space like crooked teeth, and are pre­dom­i­nantly full and al­ready buzzing with con­ver­sa­tion, even though Fi and I ar­rive be­fore 7pm.

Pa­trons turn­ing up af­ter us greet the staff, the fa­mil­iar­ity and bon­homie so pal­pa­ble we feel a lit­tle as if we are in­trud­ers. We check out the clien­tele as we take our seats and are handed a menu along with a wine list re­sem­bling the Old Tes­ta­ment. With one wall a mir­ror dou­bling as a specials board, peo­ple-watch­ing is made all the sim­pler as we de­vour a plate­ful of baguette.

France-Soir doesn’t feel like a place where deals are sealed. It feels like a place where writ­ers work­shop their latest film scripts with pro­duc­ers, where af­fairs start, blos­som and are tear­fully snuffed out, where fe­male friends make dra­matic pacts to fi­nally leave their hus­bands af­ter years of weekly lunches where they’ve drunk wine and threat­ened to. And then don’t.

We turn our at­ten­tion from the crowd to the task at hand. Owner Jean Paul Prunetti’s trade­mark wine list, an ex­tra­or­di­nary tome, is home to more than 1200 French and Aus­tralian va­ri­eties. It is renowned as one of the coun­try’s best restau­rant wine lists, so we can al­most see the at­ten­tive French waiter’s crest fall when we ask him to rec­om­mend one of the wines of­fered by the glass. He sug­gests the Bour­gogne Pinot Noir ($12).

Prunetti has taken an ‘‘ if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’’ at­ti­tude at France-Soir. This restau­rant doesn’t prom­ise the latest thing, it prom­ises the old things done well. And on this night it mostly de­liv­ers.

From the range of hot or cold en­trees, in­clud­ing oys­ters ($16.50 for six), grilled sar­dines ($16.50) and a de­li­cious-sound­ing red tuna tartare ($18.50), I opt for a clas­sic lamb’s brains with ca­per sauce ($17). Three lightly bat­tered brains gar­nished with the small variety of ca­pers and set amid but­ter let­tuce, they are creamy with­out be­ing soggy, the vine­gary flavour of the ca­pers set­ting off the dish nicely.

Fi tries the grilled scampi with lemon­grass ($25), the meat from the three pieces of shell­fish suc­cu­lent and full of flavour, though the brains out­class them in the bat­tle of the starters.

As we wait for our mains, we won­der whether be­ing de­scribed as an in­sti­tu­tion, as France-Soir of­ten is in Melbourne, is a draw­card or a de­ter­rent in th­ese days of so much choice.

The term, how­ever flat­ter­ing, sug­gests there is scope for com­pla­cency. Just as in any busi­ness, the only thing harder than get­ting to the top is stay­ing there.

There is no ev­i­dence of any rest­ing on lau­rels in our mains. We both re­luc­tantly over­look a choice of five steaks in­clud­ing 250g pep­per scotch fil­let ($33) and one of the evening’s specials, a rab­bit casse­role ($33), and take up the op­tions of lamb and duck.

Fi’s lamb cut­lets with thyme sauce on a bed of green beans ($34.50) come just as they should, thick and pink, the juices ooz­ing on to the plate. It is ex­actly what she has or­dered, well ex­e­cuted and flavour­some.

The half-roasted duck with an orange sauce ($34) is just a de­gree off be­ing great. The meat is tasty and the sauce a tangy con­trast, but I am left feel­ing the meat away from the bone could have been a touch more ten­der.

As the older pa­trons start to drift out about 9pm and the 30-some­thing busi­ness types be­gin tak­ing over the in-de­mand ta­bles af­ter a hard day watch­ing the mar­ket tank, we feel al­most duty-bound to try some of the desserts on of­fer.

Our waiter is happy we’ve agreed to try his rec­om­men­da­tion of an ex­cel­lent La Tertre sauternes ($13.50 a glass) with our desserts. My crepes suzette ($13.50) is pure com­fort food on a plate, but the stand­out of the night is Fi’s creme brulee ($13.50) served in a wide shal­low dish with a pa­per-thin crisp caramel shell. The cus­tard inside is so mar­vel­lously creamy that we won­der about other dishes we’ve eaten that have been passed off as a creme brulee.

It’s great to re­mind our­selves of the fine restau­rants on of­fer in Melbourne’s sub­urbs. France-Soir has long had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing among the best and de­servedly so. Tonight has been buzzing, with plenty of beau­ti­ful peo­ple to check out, and we’ve en­joyed warm­ing old-fash­ioned French fare on a chilly evening. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for.

Check­list

France-Soir 11 Toorak Rd, Toorak. (03) 9866 8569; www.france-soir.com.au. Open: Seven days for lunch and din­ner. Cost: About $155 for two with­out wine. Drink: Ex­tra­or­di­nary range of French and Aus­tralian wines; one of the coun­try’s best restau­rant cel­lars. Rea­son to re­turn: To sam­ple the rab­bit casse­role.

Pic­ture: David Crosling

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