The couple to our left has ordered matching French Champagne, mineral water and steak dishes, while the trio of women on our right is enjoying rather large, prettily decorated desserts. There’s a group of after-work revellers out on the laneway terrace, too but, midweek on a balmy spring night, this cave-like 120-seater is eerily empty.
I suspect it’s the lull before the seasonal storm. The French Brasserie has weathered bigger tempests – it launched in March 2008 and survived the ensuing financial downturn. Three-and-a-half years and three chefs later, it’s a smooth operation. Christmas bookings should be flooding in about now, as this converted car park, with its vaulted ceilings and imposing windows that was once the home of The Italian, is a spectacular function space.
Co-owner Hadj Sadki began as a waiter at Café Di Stasio and lists the Dog’s Bar, The Melbourne Wine Room and The Birdcage on the rungs of his managerial climb. He and wife Lina bought The Grand Hotel in Richmond in 2006.
He’s recently installed Alex Galaitsis (ex-Sud and Church Street Enoteca) as manager, with a mission to reshape the wine list and increase its French, Australian and New Zealand leanings, at the expense of some Italian and German varietals, and to support the well-polished floor team and the chef of two years, Lionel Abello.
Abello spent time at The Metropolitan in North Melbourne, at La Grande Bouffe in Sydney and a year-and-a-half in Noosa. He hails from Languedoc in southern France, the son of a butcher, and says his cooking style is still strongly influenced by his homeland origins.
His menu carefully juggles classics such as beef tartare and French onion soup with more inventive dishes that showcase many elements of southern France and its north African influences. Once, we might have called his creations “nouvelle cuisine”; now I guess the label would be modern Australian.
The carpaccio de champignon entrée was first evidence of this creativity. We selected it for contrast with a classic French onion soup. The soup’s superior broth was filled with a tangle of noodle-fine onions and a hearty slice of baguette topped with the salty, savoury bite of perfectly grilled gruyère. The mushrooms – slivers of king brown – were fanned on a long, white plate and striped with drizzles of balsamic vinegar reduction. The fungi provided texture more than flavour and were the foil for a divine porcini mousse. Hazelnut oil, sprinkled around, and tiny jewels of beetroot and dried apricot added a little sweetness and were accompanied by a sprinkling of goat’s cheese, a few shaved almonds and a scattering of baby herbs. It was very busy, rather pretty, and the mousse was the hero.
Other traditional entrée choices include beef tartare with croutons, oysters with mignonette sauce and escargot with garlic butter, while creative alternatives such as a charcuterie platter, smoked ocean trout, octopus and poached rabbit loins will appeal to the adventurous.
The grill section of the menu proffers yearling minute steak with bordelaise sauce, aged grain-fed porterhouse with Montpellier butter and our choice, a yearling eye fillet with red-wine jus. No challenges and no criticisms of this dish: quality meat, cooked with precision, a bright and fresh watercress purée, a crisp potato darphin (or rosti) and a luscious jus.
The rabbit offering – a twice-cooked leg with liquorice sauce, a sesame seed-crusted confit shoulder, baby beet mousse and salad with broad beans – demonstrates that, often, if a dish sounds overly busy, it is. Other simpler-sounding choices included duck a l’orange, bouillabaisse, pork belly with apple purée and lamb rump with rosemary jus. The farmed rabbit meat was of excellent quality, the mousse and the creamy liquorice root sauce were another show of the chef’s finesse, but while the flavours and textures were elegant, some of the elements seemed unconnected.
Desserts, by comparison kept simple, featured classics such as crème brûlée and mouse au chocolat, a terrific rhubarb terrine and a generous strawberry tart. The earthy texture of the rhubarb, held together by a subtle strawberry jelly, was enhanced by a headily sweet white chocolate sorbet and the bite of a crisp sable Breton beneath it. The balsamic ice-cream and the delicate poached berries were the highlights of the crisp-shelled, custard-filled tart.
That TFB survived the GFC and beyond is not a bit surprising, and I’ll bet the phone rings hot for the next few weeks.
This impressive city venue is notable for its striking architecture, laneway location and assured French-accented service team. Artfully presented, proficiently executed dishes that show both contemporary and classical leanings, and an extensive, considered wine list, please its broad-but-discerning audience.
The French Brasserie
2 Malthouse Lane, city
Phone \ 9662 1632
Chef \ Lionel Abello
Prices \ Entrees $16-22; mains $29-42; desserts $16
Open \ Monday to Friday noon-3pm;
Monday to Saturday 6-10.30pm
Dramatic high ceilings with towering windows and a laneway location give The French Brasserie a rarified air of space, sophistication and spectacle. Dark walls, clothed tables, bistro chairs, polished timber floors and a seven-metre-long marble-topped bar are its more grounded elements. Filigree wall screens break up spaces and add interest, an impressive beverage collection lines the bar shelves while, upstairs in the striking function room, a wall is filled with empty Champagne bottles. French-accented waiters are swift, polite and alert. On a quiet night, diners are grouped closely together to create camaraderie in the cavernous space.