It's a standard Monday night on South Yarra's Toorak Road. Once Melbourne's last word in chic retail, these days bored restaurateurs stare wistfully at their front doors, willing in passers-by for a meal, a drink… Anything.
But at number 11, it's a different story. It has been for more than 20 years, since a Corsican by the name of Jean-Paul Prunetti opened a little restaurant named after a popular French daily newspaper, France-Soir. Here, the bustle is more suggestive of an after-work Friday crowd or a post-races Saturday. France-Soir, which doesn't pretend to be anything more than a little French bistro with an A-list clientele and a AAA-list of French wines, is always busy at night, but on Mondays, a subset of Francophiles pour in for couscous night.
And so it is we find ourselves at a busy little table at the very back of the restaurant, a great vantage point for looking down the barrel of this long, narrow institution. It's a table at the crossroads: to one side, the robustly hinged double doors that lead to the kitchen. To the other, the doors to the bathrooms. Despite a small brass sign on an old wine barrel mounted above the kitchen doors paying 'staff only', it's amusing how many confused patrons wander into the kitchen in search of relief. In some restaurants, this table might be considered a bit low-rent; here, well, let's just say it suits the kind of person who enjoys the bustle of a busy restaurant.
The waiters - all French and some of them long-term inmates - move around purposefully and always in good humour.
The room has a simple, timeless appeal based on countless straightforward brasserie-style progenitors in the old country. A bit of brass, a predominantly white colour scheme, some French wine posters and those now-common - but once unusual - long wall mirrors where specials are scrawled in white crayon.
The tables are dressed simply but effectively; solid tumblers, decent stemware, paper over linen, unremarkable cutlery and crockery… Lots of baguettes and butter.
And as we march down the central alley of the restaurant, we take note of who's in: colourful business identity John Elliott and his wife, singer Glenn Shorrock and, at another table, regular Gaynor Wheatley, wife of music entrepreneur Glenn. There's PR lady Virginia Hellier and her friend Alexa McGauran, sister of federal parliamentarians Julian and Peter. It's not drawing too long a bow to suggest that couscous night at France-Soir has something of a club feel about it. A casual drop-in place for affluent locals who'd rather pull on a comfy jumper for a steak and wine than glam up, or stay home.
For those travelling here, France-Soir has always done pretty well with the celebs too, not that Prunetti in any way courts them. Go to the restaurant's website and you'll see a rather amusing photograph of the proprietor with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. It shrugs off tackiness; the Rolling Stones like their wines French and expensive.
Few restaurants anywhere boast a collection of French wines such as that offered by France-Soir. This is Prunetti's passion and I feel certain a large percentage of his diners come here to drink the wines they find in the leather-bound wine list first and foremost; much of the restaurant's success has come on the back of wine enthusiasts. The food - which, of course, is wine food - is almost incidental.
And few restaurants anywhere can boast such continuity. Prunetti, who started the place in 1986, can be found there most nights, many of the waiters have been there almost as long, and the restaurant is on only its second head chef - Geraud Fabre - who has been there for 12 years and run its kitchen the past seven. Clearly, they do something very right here.
The socio-political commentators might liken it to John Howard's success, that yearning for the familiar, for the values of earlier times. But France-Soir is not so much about nostalgia as the trustworthy; the dismissal of gimmickry. Hence, the unremarkable, yet thoroughly satisfying food on the France-Soir menu changes very little from year to year. Nightly specials supplement a list you can depend on.
Where else do you look for soupe à l'oignon gratinée? Andouillette Parisienne, tripes au riesling, filet de boeuf béarnaise, magret de canard with pommes sarladaise or boeuf Bourguignon? Yet, among the appropriately predictable dishes that make up the extensive France-Soir carte, you may notice the others that tilt toward modernity: a red tuna tartare, for example, or grilled scampi with lemongrass. And there are myriad bistro classics that have found new favour in the bistro explosion of Australia's eastern seaboard in recent years - steak tartare, omelette, terrines and rillettes, the beefsteak options, tarte Tatin and even profiteroles. They were always here.
France-Soir's food is solid, reasonably priced and completely at harmony with its context. Cervelles d'agneau aux câpres, for example, is an entrée of three lobes of lamb's brain, floured, pan-fried and served with a generous caper butter, a wedge of lemon and an assortment of large lettuce leaves. The presentation belongs to that almost forgotten school known as Matter of Fact. But if you like brains with capers, this is honest, generous and utterly consistent with expectations.
Similarly, the coquilles Saint Jacques probably won't win the attention of magazine stylists, but the four big scallops - served roe-free - swim in a creamy leek and basil sauce on the half shell. They are tasty and comforting, sharing the plate with more of the aforementioned lettuce, several wedges of lemon and a little dill. It embodies the house style - straightforward.
Wine, of course, is what France-Soir is about for many, and even among his Australian selection, Prunetti shows a lot of nous. If you find that Burgundy you covet out of your league, something like Francophile Yarra Valley winemaker William Downie's pinot noir should get you over the line in spirit.
For those of us who ate in Parisian-Moroccan restaurants in our backpacking days because they were cheap (and delicious), couscous night triggers a flood of memories. Couscous Royal comes to the table as a two-part kit. You get a bed of couscous studded with coriander, mint and sultanas, around it and on top is a chargrilled beef brochette, a long and rather excellent merguez sausage, several pan-fried golden chicken wings and a 'Frenched' lamb cutlet of quite exceptional quality and a pot of rich, impressive harissa. I'll try to ignore the mound of snow pea sprouts. The second player is a bowl of steaming, vegetable-laden broth for spooning over the couscous. It's earthy and full of honest flavour.
The demi-caneton rôti à l'orange is exactly what's promised, delivered on sensible crockery with no frills other than more of those wretched sprouts. The duck breast, served in thick slices, is perfectly rendered, the leg/thigh makes it a generous serve and the orange sauce (with whole orange segments), while thickened slightly with butter, is more about flavour than richness. With pommes frites, maybe some beans and baguette to soak up the sauce, it all makes a lot of sense. It's about nourishing the soul, not the intellect. France-Soir is the place where you let the food do its job but fall in line with different priorities, like catching up with friends. It is delicious, but it doesn't seek attention.
And the same must be said at dessert time, a trip down memory lane. Along with the ubiquitous crème brûlèe and tarte Tatin, there are also the kinds of desserts few have revived. Iles flottantes (floating islands), for example, in a crème Anglaise. And crêpes Suzette, served with a buttery sauce of Grand Marnier, orange juice and zest. Since the menu mentions 'flambéed', it would be nice to see a bit of pyro table-action, but maybe safety regs have put an end to the waiter as flame-thrower. It's a tame dish. And in truth, most at France-Soir are. Yet only the blindly food-centric pedant could leave this place without a warm smile and an inner glow. There is something about the formula that is so inexorably right. France-Soir is less about gastronomy than harmony, and that's not a bad thing, especially on a Monday night.