I have this image in my head that won't go away. Picture this: Gate 6 at Sydney's Mascot airport, early on a Monday morning. Our travellers, still at least two espressos short of full operating temperature, grunt their greetings as they wait for their plane to board.
"Morning," says Neil Perry to Maurice Terzini just as Guillaume Brahimi walks in, indecently chirpy for the hour: "Bonjour, gentlemen," he chimes in.
"What are you so happy about?" jokes Robert Marchetti from his seat. "Share a cab at the other end?" Perry asks no one in particular before burying his head again in the paper. And so another working week begins for four of Sydney's best-known restaurant identities. In Melbourne. Cabbie, take us to Crown.
It's a little personal fantasy. It may never actually happen. But it's no stretch to say that, in the past few months, even someone mildly Crown-averse would have found themselves strutting the Yarra-side promenade on their way to a restaurant owned by one of the Sydney crew. And, it's no stretch to say that all four have been toiling away at their new and new-ish Melbourne outposts, simultaneously. I've seen 'em.
First there was Perry's Rockpool Bar & Grill, which made more than a fair fist of the Melbourne launch; then came Terzini and Marchetti's restaurant Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons - the relocation of a proven formula - and now there's Guillaume Brahimi's new venture.
Instead of merely trying to transpose the high-end, New-World French food of his haute Bennelong restaurant, Brahimi has taken a nostalgic stroll through the bistros of Paris and attempted to recreate the genre in a way that is relevant to Melbourne.
The riverside space, screened from the masses by broad, black timber Venetians, is elegant but whimsical, mixing and matching formal elements, such as white linen and parquet flooring, with tongue-in-cheek touches such as the terrace-table light shades, which have the printed fabric on the inside. A bit of fun. The overall effect is special, rather than formal - not as special as the equivalent in Bennelong but then this is a bistro; this is Brahimi prêt à porter.
Recognising the limitations of the one-man-two-restaurants-two-cities model, Brahimi has hired wisely, wanting to reduce his susceptibility to accusations of the restaurant being 'different when he's not there'. Fortunately, manager/maître d' Craig Hemmings, himself from the 'big' restaurant, exudes confidence and warmth, and has put together a team of breezy yet efficient waiters on the floor. Head chef Daniel Southern, who worked as right-hand man to the semi-legendary Donovan Cooke at est est est and Ondine, joins pastry chef, Philippa Sibley, who is widely respected by her peers, having just left Circa, the Prince. (As a partner of the aforementioned est est est, and Ondine, she was also once Southern's boss!)
It's little wonder the place has the feel of a restaurant that has been open for years rather than mere months. There is a sophistication about this bistro, a connection with values such as manners, etiquette, and respect that manifest themselves the moment you step inside. Things happen as they should.
What I like about this restaurant, however, more than the sum of the preceding virtues, is the uncomplicated, fastidiously executed food. And I think it's what a lot of Melburnians (and, inevitably, visitors) will respond to, too. You can have your foams, spheres and dirts; at the end of the day, very few diners have any interest in progressive gastronomy. What diners really want is delicious food, from a menu they can understand, served to them by someone who shows respect and an aptitude for the role of service. Bistro Guillaume is all of that.
You want a few oysters? The kitchen has some seriously impressive Pacifics from Moulting Bay, near St Helens on Tasmania's north-east coast, and they're placed on a bed of crushed ice in a smart, classic white dish. The kitchen throws in a lemon cheek and a dish of excellent red wine vinegar peppered with the finest dice of shallot; and it adds little 'soldiers' of buttered rye sourdough, sandwiched together. This is a wheel that needs no reinvention.
The soupe du jour, soupe a l'oignon, is an outstanding version of a timeless peasant classic; thick, dark, sweet yet pungently savoury, scattered with Gruyère-smothered croutons at the finish, so as not to go soggy, and, finally, scattered with chives.
The steak tartare comes with a tumbleweed of soft herbs and shoots, crisp-fried lattice potato wafers and noisette bread, but the hero is the chopped eye fillet mixed with Cognac, capers, gherkins, Worcestershire, herbs and, undoubtedly, a few more things besides. It is as magnificent, glossy, fruity and texturally seductive a version of this bistro staple as you're likely to find, built with first-class produce but to a 'no bells, no whistles' specification. This is not magic food; simply cooking done from the ground up with great produce, taking the time. Time-in equals satisfaction-out. Nothing new about that.
Brahimi is young enough to be savvy about lighter, fresher non-traditional traditional French dishes. Cream and butter, for example, are used very sparingly and you can feel the difference. It also puts a sharper focus on the ingredients themselves.
His plate of crudités defies the Aussie 'celery stick and Philly' stereotype. Soft-boiled leeks are smothered in a vibrant, finely chopped crumble of herbs, egg and vinegar with his sauce gribiche; beetroot segments are rumbled in oil and vinegar with a soft fresh goat's curd; finely shredded celeriac in a creamy rémoulade comes on a toast round; and slices of tomato and avocado with chopped chives and a balsamic reduction. Add mozzarella with confit red pepper, pistou and toasted sourdough and you'll be more than satisfied.
Depending on the day of your visit, there will be a plat du jour; it may mean you must visit at least seven times. On Mondays, the plat du jour is tripes à l'ancienne; one of those things that defy food costs to be worth so much more than the sum of its ingredients: a rich, yet light wet braise of chicken stock and lots of onion, finished with a sweet carrot purée, chopped herbs and halved boiled kipflers.
How they manage to achieve such flavour depth without the ribbons of honeycomb tripe turning flaccid is anyone's guess. But this rustic, un-embellished, taupe-coloured dish keeps both the texture and flavour of this wonderful offal intact.
Among the steak frites and Provençal pork cutlets with potato croquettes (accompanied by sauce charcutière) are several dishes destined to never leave the carte. One is a boned, fried whole whiting, presented on something like a mounted boomerang, with fat chips (Pont Neuf potatoes) and maître d'hôtel butter. This is Brahimi's fish and chips. The other noteworthy dish is his confit duck. Duck preserved, then re-cooked this way can, of course, be awful. It is sometime sublime. This version falls in the latter camp, a reminder of why this traditional southern French staple has wandered the world, winning friends wherever it has been done correctly.
What you get from Guillaume's is a leg/thigh - the bone Frenched - on a stew of Brussels sprouts and speck in a seed mustard sauce. Around the rim is a light, glossy duck-based jus; just enough to keep things in balance. The meat is tight, fragrant and slippery with no trace of residual salt, and the veg… what's not to love about Brussels sprouts and smoked pig? We ordered another as a side dish.
The dessert selection has surely taken Philippa Sibley back to her own days cooking in France; employing classic pâtisserie skills for tartes and mille-feuilles, whipping eggwhites for soufflés, and lighting up the blowtorch for honey and Cognac cassonade. They are a pleasure I have yet to experience.
But, taking advantage of the season, the poires Belle-Hélène - one of many 19th-century Parisian dishes that took its name from an Offenbach operetta, apparently - is true to its heritage. You'll be presented with a perfectly syrup-poached whole pear served with a simply perfect vanilla ice-cream and a spectacular chocolate sauce, poured warm at the table. It's a timeless thing of beauty.
Yes, I like this place a lot but cannot let the issue of wine pass. Although Brahimi has employed a professional sommelier, and invested heavily in his collection, he will find the downside to the Melbourne audience (and he loves the upside of our cookery knowledge and our inquisitive nature when it comes to produce and technique) is a reluctance to absorb huge wine mark-ups on the menu.
Melburnians will know which sausage is right for the cassoulet and they will know what a particular Burgundy retails for. Once you've done the math, you might be left with a sour taste.
Time and refinement at the restaurant may see the high road and low road intersecting at Bistro Guillaume. Until then, we have yet another delightful new restaurant. A reminder of the enduring allure of well-made French bistro food. Made in Melbourne. By a Sydneysider.
As we all say of each other's cities: 'It's a great place to visit…'.