Onion soup with gruyere croutons
A French bistro without cassoulet is like Dominique Strauss-Kahn with his pants on. Both defy the laws of nature. So imagine my disappointment on combing the menu at the reloaded Bistro Guillaume and coming up cassoulet-less.
This happens a few weeks after the restaurant’s reopening and it turns out we have simply caught chef Guillaume Brahimi on the hop. He says he is still working on a suitable concoction of porky, ducky, sausagey bits with beans to make its debut on the menu at the soonest.
True to his word, on the next visit there is cassoulet on the carte. The good news is that it is now Thursday’s plat du jour, or daily special. The bad news is we are there on a Tuesday. Ouf. Looks like another visit is in order.
In the meantime, there is much to admire about the décor and the dishes at this latest Guillaume incarnation. The original bistro (its space since usurped by Spice Temple) proved too fancy for casino patrons’ tastes, so take two is a dressed-down, pared-back version with cheaper prices and a charming riverfront position complete with terrace.
Afternoon sunlight bathes its timber-floored, white-walled interiors and illuminates the signature green accents that channel the French countryside in spring. Good-looking staff in Lacoste polos and pumps work the floor with Gallic charm.
Golden-brown: Roasted chicken drizzled with chicken jus.
Failing cassoulet, there are plenty of other dishes to wave the flag. Chief among them is Brahimi’s onion soup, a voluptuous, velvety sludge dense with caramelised onions and crowned with three sturdy croutons coated in baked gruyere. It’s a strong contender for Melbourne’s best winter warmer.
The charcuterie line-up features a selection of salamis, including a saucisson sec and chorizo that is perhaps the least-interesting addition to the plate.
Better is the salty scoop of pork rillette pasted with fat; best is the small pot of chicken-liver pate, made in the kitchen to an almost creamy consistency and with an appealing hint of sweetness.
To follow, half a roasted chicken comes golden brown and tarragon-scented, drizzled with a full-bodied chicken jus and matched with Brahimi’s heart-stopping Paris mash, the one where the quantities of milk and butter almost outweigh the potatoes.
There is more mash lurking at the base of the Tuesday special of beef bourguignon, delivered to the table in a gleaming, stainless steel mini casserole. (Patrons will appreciate the fact that the stew is served in the pot but not cooked in it, so the dish’s enjoyment isn’t marred by second-degree burns.) Stir the mash through and the stew becomes a rib-sticking potage riddled with carrots, champignons, leek and red wine.
A classic: Crème brûlée has a base of rhubarb beneath vanilla-bean custard.
I wouldn’t normally add Tabasco to the mix but there are bottles on every table alongside a pot of mustard – Brahimi assures us it’s a popular seasoning despite its echoes of the TGIF franchise – so I succumb to temptation, and the dish is definitely better for the extra bite.
Weight watchers might prefer a slab of seared barramundi with its rewarding crisp skin and pillowy flesh, the textures and flavours rounded out with creamy oyster mushrooms, spinach and a lemony butter sauce.
Wines are listed on the left side of the place-mat menu. There are just 25 on offer, a mix of Victorian and French and, while they’re not cheap, they’re not hideously expensive either.
Whites top out at $90 for the sexy ’09 Gerard Boulay Sancerre, while a Mayer pinot noir from the Yarra Valley leads the reds at $95. Every bottle is also available by the glass. A separate cellar list caters to those with more expansive and/or expensive tastes.
Desserts are a line-up of precise classics, with or without a Brahimi twist. The crème brûlée, for example, conceals a base of ruby-coloured rhubarb beneath its vanilla-bean custard and burnt-sugar crust. A sable biscuit dusted with icing sugar makes an indulgent dipstick.
The weak-willed should steer clear of the tarte tatin. It is the pastry equivalent of mother’s ruin, baked beyond all resistance until its flaky layers are darkly alluring and the sliced apple has collapsed into a jammy caramel. A subtle cinnamon ice-cream accompanies. Too many serves of this and we’ll all become a bit DSK, unable to keep our trousers up.
Crown Casino, 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank
Cuisine \ French
Chefs \ Guillaume Brahimi and Graeme McLaughlin
Hip pocket \ About $100 a head for three courses and a bottle of something smart
Open \ Daily, noon-late
Highlights \ Chic décor, riverside position and dependable French fare
Lowlights \ Once-a-week cassoulet rations
Bookings \ Recommended
Phone \ 9292 7451
We rate it 7/10