TABLES French lessons
Stephen Lunn samples a soupcon of Gallic tradition amid the bonhomie of a Melbourne institution
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.
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.