For Shannon Bennett, the Melbourne chef with the Midas touch, it's back to the future. Just when you may have thought the recent French restaurant renaissance had reached its zenith, Bennett has extended the Vue de Monde franchise once again to open a shamelessly old-world faux Parisian bistro at the back of the CBD site he so firmly commands. This now gives Bennett his first-class fine-diner, his economy-class Café Vue and, finally, the one that promises to turn some of the fame into useable fortune, the business-class Bistro Vue.
What a study in contrasts. Vue de Monde is the essence of simple, modern architectural design with plenty of tactile materials making the most of an old building's generous dimensions: a central stage for the chef as entertainer, and nowhere is the chef more naked than at Vue. The café has a bright buzz of its own and is a fine place for good coffee and pastry chef Darren Purchese's excellent patisserie.
Walk down the side of the restaurant, however, past the sculptural herb garden 'screen' (by ubiquitous florist to the culinary stars Joost Bakker) to the rear of the building and it is to take a Tardis-like voyage to another place and time: a wholly contrived post-war, back-streets Paris. Sometimes, you can - quite literally - hear the accordion. The 'Kronenbourg 1664' sign outside the front door is just the start of a nostalgic little trip into the recesses of French time. A place where baguettes are still carried in baskets on bicycles, Piaf warbles in the background, Citroën 2CVs clatter down cobbled streets and men puff on Gauloises over café au lait or pastis. Witness the fake raw timber beams (they're made of polystyrene); the cast iron lights and lamps; the moulded timber wall panelling that apparently came straight out of a café in Argentina (ditto the zinc bar); the mosaic tiling details here and there with deliberately rough 'aged' grouting; the red velvet and brocade upholstery and the mottled paint finishes. It's no real surprise that the styling was done not by architects but Prahran purveyor of French objets d'art Andrew Gourlay, who runs a business called French Style. And many will almost certainly make a link with the late, lamented Gourlay's, the little High Street restaurant of some years back, which overflowed with the proprietor's character (and clutter).
In ambience at least, Vue shares a little of the old Gourlay's experience. Some will find it all just a little too contrived; where else, for example, are new air conditioning ducts treated with a mustard-coloured mottled finish to recreate the patina of nicotine? Some will ask where the tongue-in-cheek ends and the cliché begins.
As a chef, Bennett is fond of detail and he applies the same kind of rigour to his role as restaurateur. The composite veneer timber dining tables; Velance Limonade-stoppered bottles used as water jugs; various old bone and horn-handled knives; nickel-plated cutlery; the old-fashioned floral-patterned crockery; the use of Badoit mineral water (seldom seen this side of the equator); the superb house-made mini baguettes served in hessian sacks with rounds of French butter; the petite Chasseur enamel pots for some dishes and individual copper saucepans for others; the menu's typeface and presentation. And on it goes, with faultless consistency (although as much as I like Piaf, they can and should do much better - a minor point). But if the devil is in the detail, Bistro Vue is a satanic inferno.
Naturally, the menu template for Bennett's bistro is a traditional one, with Old Word classifications such as 'plats du jour' (fricassée de lapin on Thursdays) and 'plats pour deux' (côte de boeuf or poulet rôti), however being a chef with a big reputation, simply recreating good versions of classics was never going to be enough. While the menu may say 'Crystal Bay prawn cocktail' under the inevitable headline 'fruits de mer', Bennett's slightly deconstructed version of the retro classic should grab and keep your attention. At Bistro Vue, you get a big, timber presentation board (an idea he started next door that has subsequently been imitated around town, most notably at The Press Club) with the elements of the cocktail lined up for a symmetrical role call. French onion soup arrives in a cast iron pot, the liquid rich, dark and sweet, speaking of excellent stock. But before you can get that far, you must make your way through a magnificent convex semi-puff pastry latticework lid with a golden egg glaze: it's Bennett's twist and an impressive one - visually - although somewhere in your heart you've already fixated on the idea of a Gruyère crouton and miss it just a bit when this interpretation arrives. Oysters are served with a Forum Cabernet Vinegar and shallot dressing and lemon in muslin, a classic presentation in an aluminium tray with rock salt. Sadly, these have not been opened to order and each oyster is floating around loose in its shell, with not a lot of the natural briny juices intact. As such a talisman of the bistro culture, I would have expected a bigger effort with the huîtres.
The mains list comes with a vocabulary dripping with our parents' dinner party anxieties: trout 'à la meunière', snapper Bourguignon, steaks with a pepper sauce, lobster thermidor. This is the culinary equivalent of Jet and Wolfmother plundering their mums' and dads' 70s vinyl.
The pot au feu - an idea that has never completely gone away among smart chefs (thank goodness) - is one of the plats du jour, which means its price of $32 includes a respectable glass of wine (an entry-level French gamay) and a pleasant little green salad with a few croutons and baby tomatoes, all dressed with a classic red wine vinaigrette. But being Shannon Bennett, this is pot au feu avec un twist: on the timber presentation board comes a baby enamelled pot of rich, dark and very satisfying broth, speckled with chopped parsley. In it is a chicken wing, a whole dwarfed carrot and similarly proportioned turnip. Beside the pot, on the board, is a piece of rare beef fillet, a cornichon and a dollop of Dijon mustard. True to the spirit of the dish, this is a meal - soup, veg and meat - in itself, and although Bennett's version may raise the collective eyebrow of traditionalists, it's an intelligent, flavour-packed interpretation. The half 'crayfish' (please, Shannon, it's a southern rock lobster, even if crayfish is how a generation grew up labelling them) can be had in a number of ways: thermidor, garlic, curry sauce. For me, it's difficult to go past a decent lobster boiled, chilled, split and served with a truffled mayonnaise and kipfler potato salad stuffed into the carapace where the inedible bits used to be. Particularly when it comes on a lovely, old-looking platter with a drizzle of crustacean oil, a few leaves and cresses and another muslin-wrapped lemon. At $8, the conical becomes a little comical: a paper cone of admittedly excellent hand-cut chips cannot cost that much. While they're called pommes frites, they are not what most of us would recognise as such and mar what is, on the whole, a well-priced menu.
Where there can be no hedging is on the quality and value of desserts. English pastry chef Purchese has really added to the business since his arrival last year. A faultless chocolate soufflé rams home the detail thing: presentation board; soufflé in a baby copper saucepan; sublime chocolate sauce in an antique silver pouring jug. Just as good - rich, buttery, fruity - is a cherry clafoutis served with vanilla ice-cream. A classic, done very well.
Shannon Bennett - with, I suspect, some behind-the-scenes advice and even financial backing - has proven once again to be a shrewd judge of public tastes, and that the lessons in micro-detail management he has learned at Vue de Monde are applicable at all levels of the dining experience.
'The more things change, the more they stay the same,' or more fittingly, 'plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose'.