It's not every night you hear "Je t'aime" in a restaurant. Fun fact: when the song was first released, in 1969, Jane Birkin's delirious moans and gurgles and Serge Gainsbourg's organ-stroking were deemed too risqué for radio all over Europe; even France banned it from airplay before 11 in the evening. Autres temps, autres mœurs.
There's more than a few Birkins in the room at Guillaume tonight, mostly of the Hermès variety, and no small amount of sighing and cooing going on over the menu. Plenty of the noises of delight are simply prompted by the return of Guillaume Brahimi to the Sydney dining scene after he closed the doors on the fêted Guillaume at Bennelong in December last year following a successful 12 years at the Opera House. Brahimi has other restaurants in Australia, of course, and his Bistro Guillaume outlets at Crowns in Perth and Melbourne are going strong, but it's been more than half a year since the city's plutocrats and classically inclined diners have been able to stand a fork in the signature Paris mash, and some of them have been pining for the old turban of caviar and scampi, the dish that first broke the $70 pain barrier for entrées in this city.
Planting the flag in the eastern suburbs seemed like a no-brainer. All the more so with the news that Brahimi was going to take over Darcy's, a restaurant pedigreed in the city's social pages, but with a culinary reputation that was ripe for reinvention. The great and the good of Paddington and Woollahra made up a significant fraction of Brahimi's clientele when he was at Bennelong, many of them having followed him (and his basil-infused tuna) there from Bilson's, and even Pond and the Nikko before that. Now, in these confusing times when Damien Pignolet is no longer at the tiller of Bistro Moncur, when Claude's is no more, and what was once Pruniers sells popcorn shrimp and sliders, Brahimi's arrival on Hargrave Street must seem all the more like manna from heaven. Manna, that is, with a little beurre noisette.
Gone are Darcy's wallpaper, oils and things wrapped in prosciutto; in comes wide-weave sisal flooring, vast mirrors and doodles by Matisse framed in gold. The outside world is roped away behind curtains coloured a deeper shade of mushroom than the walls, and the stout timber chairs have been grandly reupholstered in peacock-blue. Is that a planter of lavender by the door?
The customers might be exactly the same people as before the reno. They're a very particular slice of eastern suburbs life so far. They're not as arriviste as the members of the banker-heavy throng at Four in Hand, not quite as arty as the Lucio's crowd. There aren't so many examples of the braver embraces of plastic surgery in the room as one might encounter over lunch at Chiswick. And though hair-helmets there may be, they're not here in the numbers commonly seen midweek at the Centennial. This isn't the Paddington-Woollahra axis of The Wine Library, Pinbone and 10 William Street either; these birds are more silver of tail, a clubby lot never happier than in the company of their own.
The rooms may be less soaring in their grandeur than Utzon's work (most things are), but Brahimi has in no way lowered his sights following the move. Any notion that he was moving to the backstreets of Paddington to embrace bistronomy or otherwise get funky evaporates with the appearance of the menu. It's a nice, stiff piece of cardboard that oddly offers the choice of one, two or four courses (what's wrong with three?), or the eight-course dég, and its style, if not its substance, will be familiar to anyone who has dined at Bennelong in recent years.
Not for Brahimi the pineapple and green capsicum soups of Gagnaire, the vegetable focus of Passard. You don't look to Guillaume for the mackerel-and-lychee exotica of Le Chateaubriand; the kitchen here likes to colour inside the lines. There's foie gras with the duck, caviar with the fish, and ham with the endive. Still, this is Sydney circa 2014, so those dishes share the carte with a slow-cooked egg with WA truffle and celeriac, and marron with pork cheek and sea vegetables, and the amuse-bouche of spanner crab and avocado is brightened by finger lime.
There are a few dishes I probably wouldn't order again. I remember our resident seafood expert, John Susman, telling me years ago that John Dory is a fish that really needs to be cooked on the bone, and the fillet here speaks to that grain of wisdom, arriving at the table a bit on the cottony side. It's also double-sauced, with both a ginger-bright slick of carrot and a butter-based number. There's a lot of sweetness on the plate, and it's garnished with a nest of fried potato strands, which contributes little more than crunch. A dessert comprising chestnut goo in a crisp chocolate tube flanked by dots of cassis and pear goo, meanwhile, seems more an exercise in technique than deliciousness.
But then there are the dishes that leave you in no doubt that Guillaume Brahimi, capital-C Chef and one-time right-hand man for Joël Robuchon, is in the kitchen, working hard and sweating the small stuff. The royale of artichoke (pictured below) is a real spoon-licker. Brahimi makes a finely textured custard from the artichokes, chills it down in a bowl and serves it covered with his "barigoule vinaigrette", taking the carrots, shallot, leek and celery that would accompany artichokes in a classic barigoule, cutting them into a fine brunoise, cooking it in a white-wine reduction and layering it over the top. He then garnishes this lot with a tumble of mud crab meat and shaves black truffle over the top. The acid balance is high-definition, the texture sublime. Does it taste of artichoke? Mostly it tastes of delicious.
The veal sweetbreads has been a standout of Brahimi's recent menus, but it's never been better than now. Maybe it's because it doesn't have to be walked 100 metres from the kitchen to the table any more, maybe these lovely Mud Australia plates hold the heat better than regular china, but the combination of precisely cooked veal sweetbreads leaning on a square cut of braised tongue under a dollop of gingerbread sauce borders on the magnificent. Here micro-herbs actually contribute something to the taste of the dish, joining the supporting cast of small raisins and toasty chopped almonds. Texture? Tick. Flavour? Tick. Savour? Hell yes. And kudos to the young somm for his recommendation of a Cullen sém-sav blanc - an inspired and inspiring pairing.
If you want to drink delicious wine, Guillaume is here to help. Sort of. The cellar is impressive, but the wine list is cluttered with a lot of unnecessary stuff - pointless preambles, discursive rambles, and a healthy sprinkling of spelling mistakes, with even some of the producers' names copied unfaithfully from the bottles. Breaking up the larger list into chapters under inscrutable headings such as "Sacred", "Legends" and "Legacy" might make sense in a wine bar, or with a smaller cellar, but here it just gets in the way of quickly finding a wine you want to drink. On the plus side, though, there's a vast offering by the glass - 48 at last count - as well as a handsome half-bottle range.
In buying Darcy's, Brahimi picked up a cellar richly stocked with aged Australian wines, so the selection of open bottles on a given night might include a 2005 St Henri or a 1998 Houghtons Jack Mann (at $41 and $35 a glass), and if you have a serious interest in Hunter sémillon or the larger Henschke, Wynns or Hardys portfolios, you'll be in paradise, as will anyone who prizes shiraz and cab-sav over pinot. There's a lot of serious chardonnay here, and the red Burgundy list is not insubstantial.
By the same token, Jamsheed roussanne is on by the glass, as is Foillard gamay. There are some decently priced wines here, but they're not the norm. Opting for the $45 tasting of four 75ml pours gives the excellent wine team a chance to best work their magic.
There's many a grace note here. The bread is from Iggy's, the superb butter is made by the Ingleton family at Myrtleford, and a cheese trolley (or rather a cheese block) does the rounds. Main courses arrive with a side of mash, as at Bennelong, and before the plates are cleared comes the offer of a salad of very thoroughly dressed leaves. Some of the world may be moving away from the trimmings, but Guillaume makes a strong case for both the bells and the whistles.
I have no doubt many would-be diners will consider Guillaume intimidating in its old-school finery, and others still will find it too stiff for regular outings. If your taste runs more to Bordeaux than Burgundy, though, and you prefer your Rive more Droite than Gauche, it's time to get on the phone and hope for a booking. Whichever side of the Seine you're standing on, the guys on the floor might need a bit more time to limber up, and the wine list needs a bit of work, but things in the kitchen are already running hot, and tables aren't easy to come by.
If you hanker for the days when a great night out at a restaurant didn't involve joining queues, mucking around with its website, eat at the bar, sharing tables, dishes that come with instructions or paying restaurant prices for truck-stop classics, the new Guillaume is ready for you and it's going to make you very happy indeed. And that's something to sing about.