The guy at the seafood station is wearing an earpiece. One of those ones with the curly wires you see adorning bouncers and officers of the Secret Service. They seem apt for people ready to take a bullet, or at least a sucker punch, but for shucking oysters? Welcome to the Sydney bistro circa 2011. Here is a simulacrum that would have Baudrillard spilling his Ricard, where latter-day New York dining landmarks such as Pastis and Balthazar are bigger influences than the likes of L'Ami Louis and Aux Lyonnais, and where, inexplicably, the music is as likely to be Michael and Ridgely as it is Piaf and Montand. It was the initial intention of the Hemmes family (they of Ivy, Est, Lotus and Establishment) to call their new bistro Pastis, in fact, but sense won out, and now we have Felix.
Sitting across from Ash St Cellar at the foot of the Ivy complex, it's an oasis of relative maturity. Note that I don't say "calm" here. It's got bustle in spades, its bow-tied waiters rushing hither and yon, and the music pumping. The music is something of a mystery. It's not especially French, not especially restaurant-appropriate. There's no sense that the playlist of Beastie Boys instrumentals and Elton John hits has been programmed by someone present in the room, that someone is actually enjoying it, and both staff and diners alike seem intent on ignoring it until it goes away.
Lauren Murdoch might, in some respects, be a better chef than this gig demands. Where a really good grafter, someone who can bang out the dishes the way the bourgeoisie intended them to be, with the unthinking accuracy of a monk copying a manuscript, might have given it a more classical bistro feel, Murdoch can't help but bring in her own twists. She's a protégé of Janni Kyritsis, and having worked closely under this Yoda-like figure of the Australian food world, her twists tend to be intuitive, sometimes subtle and frequently quietly brilliant. So it is that the crumbed brains - textbook in terms of the crisp shell outside and the creaminess within - take a classical pairing of piquant sauce ravigote on the one hand and the entirely untraditional but completely appropriate steamed daikon on the other. The elegant, parfait-smooth chicken liver pâté, with its accompaniment of sweet currant relish and toasted torn bread, reminds me more of Sean's Panaroma than of anything I've seen in Paris - and laudably so. Paint-by-numbers it ain't.
The cooking at Felix is not as technically polished or nearly as consistent as that of, say, Ad Lib, its most recently opened rival. Or at least it isn't yet. The duck livers that add the twist to the frisée, poached egg and pancetta salad are cooked further than I'd have expected, for example, though the salad, with its snappy, nutty dressing, isn't brought undone by it. The rotisserie is still a work in progress; the forgettable spatchcock with veal jus, iceberg and lemon doesn't commend it, and yet the rotisserie potatoes are all but unmissable.
The wins outweigh the losses, however, and charm and wit on the part of both the kitchen and the restaurant's many French waiters carry the day. The ideas are good and for the most part the plating is admirably uncomplicated: lamb pie is a pithiviers of shoulder meat encased in a fine pâte brisée crust, served on thick slices of mushroom and a meaty tarragon-flavoured reduction. The lush heaven that is caramelised witlof brings new fun to the old skate/brown butter/capers routine.
Even playing a straight bat, the kitchen hits its sixes. Flavourful, clearly hand-cut cut steak elevates the tartare. It's brought to the table topped with an egg yolk and surrounded by toasts and little piles of chopped red onion, capers and cornichons and slices of baguette. There's Tabasco on every table (huzzah!) and a trio of mustard pots materialises without prompting. The Gruyère soufflé is one of the straightest versions in town. Unadorned and not relieved by walnuts, salad or any of that frippery, it's a bowl of cheese and eggs with aspirations, silky and creamy rather than complex. Oysters come as they should, on ice and not messed with. The gleaming scallops and piles of crab, lobster and gigantic scarlet prawns sitting with them at the seafood station suggest that the plateau de fruits de mer plus a couple of bottles of muscadet might be a worthy reason not to go back to the office after lunch.
And then there's the tripe. This is one of the few tripe dishes you'll encounter in Sydney that might turn the heads of dedicated offal-haters. This version of tripes à la Lyonnaise has darkness without being too sticky, and depth without veering into the wrong end of the stables. The honeycomb tripe, in slivers, reminds me of nothing so much as the flavour of a really good spag bol, and is god's gift to wine matching. Its lightness exemplifies the best Murdoch brings to the bistro brief.
Err on the simpler side with ordering your desserts and you'll be rewarded. The banana soufflé with passionfruit ice-cream and the attractively gutsy Tatin are more fun than the sugary vacherin or the vanilla yoghurt version of coeur à la crème.
Wine is a large and serious concern here. Not so serious that there isn't muscadet to go with your seafood platter, though, and not so large that it overshadows the food and bores your guests. "If I couldn't get this one right," quips Burgundy-born Franck Moreau (GT's current Sommelier of the Year), "I'd be in trouble." Judging from the choice of Champagnes alone - arranged by village - I think his job is safe. The list makes for a good read, but while there's plenty you can flash the cash with, this is clearly a document that's designed for drinking, not a museum catalogue. There's plenty worth pulling a cork on under $80, and if you're happy to go quality over quantity, Moreau has obliged with a handsome page of "vins prestige" whereby the likes of Montrachet, premier cru Bordeaux and Yquem are sold by the 450ml carafe and the 100ml and 150ml pour, supplementing the standard by-the-glass offerings.
The fact that Felix is unapologetically aligned as much to Manhattan as to Montmartre goes some of the way to explaining why a French bistro would have a Reuben sandwich on its menu. There are those who will consider this a gaffe from the continuity department, but the fact that it's the best of its genus in the city makes it bulletproof. The Reuben is of course native to North America, and in its Ivy iteration it's a hefty brick of a thing, packed with thick slices of very beefy corned beef, finely shredded cabbage, mustard butter and a little Gruyère. There's genius in it: chef Murdoch decided somewhere along the way that it would be a good idea to give the sliced poached Blackmore wagyu silverside a quick turn on the grill before slipping it into the sandwich. It's practical, and it gives this particular Reuben its uncommon savoury zing. To eat it at the bar at lunch with a glass of Henri Bonneau Vin de Table "Les Rouliers" is to know a moment of peace away from the evils of the world. Even if George Michael is singing in the distance.
Felix isn't about what's lost in translation so much as what's gained, more impressionism than the work of a photorealist. Michael McCann's design brings together all the pieces of the puzzle - the tiled floor, Thonet chairs, little lamps on the tables, large mirrored bar - without phoning it in, and in the same way, Lauren Murdoch has taken the familiar parts of the idea of the bistro and put them together for herself in a way that makes them bigger than their sum. One of the things that has marked Murdoch's cooking from the start is its generosity, and in the bistro it finds its most apt expression. Felix is a room that fosters buzz, with a wine list and a menu geared for fun. It might be more Hemingway liberating The Ritz than Balzac on the boulevard, but what's not to say that's where the good times are? Plus ça change.