PICTURES \ DARRIAN TRAYNOR
There’s a lot to be said for suburban gems. In fact, for this week’s review I plan to say 850 words about one in particular. In the novelty-obsessed world of restaurant reviewing it’s nice, once in a while, to salute the stayers of the industry – dining rooms where you can always be guaranteed a good meal for your money.
That’s why this week we’ve ended up at the cosy Kooyong French diner known as Koots Salle à Manger, where owners Patrice and Catherine Repellin have been putting the "oui" into cuisine since 1999. Their chic shopfront restaurant shines in summer, when its jasmine-draped rear courtyard is the setting for long, lazy lunches. But it’s even more enticing in winter, when the sandstone hearth crackles to life, the tiered chandelier twinkles onto the street and diners huddle in convivial groups around smartly clothed tables.
Heirloom dutch carrot salad
Koots gets full marks for midwinter cosiness with its carpeted floors, deep-seated leather dining chairs, vintage wall mirrors that exaggerate the space and pretty miniature roses adorning each table. There’s a distiunct French accent here, from the smiling “bonsoir” greeting on arrival to the flair of the Gallic floor staff (those accents!) that might have you imagining you’re in Paris. Or at least the Paris end of Hawthorn.
Despite Koots Salle à Manger’s obvious attributes, there’s no escaping that name – a sort of hybrid Aussie-French title that possibly confuses both nationalities. Australians might understand “koots” to refer to either (a) a local waterbird or, more uncharitably, (b) the average age of the diners. But they might be less confident in declaring that salle à manger is the way French people say dining room. Personally, I think “Salle à Manger” on its own would be nicer and easy to Australianise – perhaps Cellar Monjay – but this is not my restaurant so I’ll defer to the superior neighbourhood nous of Les Repellins, who clearly don’t need any advice from an upstart blow-in like moi.
The crowd, incidentally, is not particularly antique at all but a well-to-do cross-section of this blue-ribbon belt who, like me, have been lured inside by the promise of a crackling fire and cracking-good French fare.
From a previous visit in February, I remember a punchy gazpacho, a zinging salmon tartare and a winning tarte tatin of tomato. All fine summer fare, but this time around we start with evergreen oysters – plump, firm, briny Coffin Bay specimens – and discs of slow-cooked octopus and al dente kipfler potatoes that are draped with pickled cucumber slices, flecked with chervil and dressed with golden aïoli and a classic tapenade. Throw an excellent dry martini into the mix – shaken, not stirred – and the winter chill dissolves entirely.
Butter-glazed heirloom carrots in paintbox colours of purple, orange and yellow brighten up a quinoa-based, walnut-dressed salad rounded out with creamy goat’s curd, smoky baba ghanoush “caviar” and an irresistible golden fritter of puréed salt cod (brandade).
The wine list, a French-Australasian collaboration, seems really quite reasonable. There’s a heap of decent drops under $50 and a Puligny Montrachet premier cru for the not-outrageous sum of $155. In other good news for diners, there’s a prix-fixe two-course lunch for $30 and, between Tuesday and Thursday, they can BYO one bottle per reservation at $15 corkage. Between the wines and the cocktails, there’s plenty of good drinking to be had here.
Our meal just gets better with the arrival of the cheese soufflé, a puffy pudding baked until appealingly dark at the fringes and sitting in a Vesuvius of tomme and gruyere béchamel. We destroy that soufflé in record time.
The bistro staple of steak frites materialises here as a char-grilled scotch fillet from the top Australian producers 1824. It is very pink but bloodless and, while I’d normally prefer it more “done”, the flavours and tenderness convince me otherwise. A rustic relish of shallots, seeded mustard and cornichons makes every mouthful interesting, and the frites are worthwhile.
Chef Repellin’s fresh take on traditional French recipes is obvious in the thin apple tart we have for dessert. It’s a slimmed-down tarte tatin with a wafer base of puff pastry topped with impeccable apple slices, beurre noisette or hazelnut butter ice-cream, and dusted cinnamon. The tried-and-true flavours play nicely together but the advertised caramel was sparse. But this is a minor quibble, a mere bagatelle.
Koots is now very firmly on my eating circuit, despite being miles from home. If I can get there at least twice a year for the simple pleasures of a polished three-course meal, a crackling fire and seamless service, I’ll be happy.
Koots Salle à Manger
479 Glenferrie Road, Kooyong
Cuisine \ Modern French
Chef \ Patrice Repellin
Hip pocket \ Three courses for about $70 a head
Open \ Tues-Fri, noon-2.30pm; Tues-Sat 6-10.30pm
Highlights \ Food, wine, service, fire
Lowlights \ The clunky name
Bookings \ Oui
Phone \ 9822 3809
We rate 7.5 out of 10