It would've been simpler - and certainly viable - for Patrice Repellin to leave well enough alone. Since taking over an existing business called Koots in leafy, largely restaurant-bereft Kooyong in 1999, the French chef had built an enviably consistent trade much loved by locals and well regarded by critics. Quite obviously, Koots was doing just fine the way it was. But with the restaurant's 10th birthday approaching, Repellin and his Australian wife Catherine made the decision to instigate some not insignificant changes.
First came the name. Having stuck with the slightly clunky inherited moniker since taking over the joint (despite it having absolutely no connection to the smart modern French food being dished up), the Repellins decided to add Salle à Manger - French for dining room - as the first step towards dropping Koots altogether. To some this could seem like a hedging of bets, but for a restaurant that draws a major part of its business from the well-heeled, reputedly change-averse locals, the gradual renaming could also be read as both smart and respectful.
Changes to the dining room have been similarly careful and very successful. Some key features have remained - the grand chateau-style open fireplace, the polished and dark-stained concrete floor, the good-quality linen on closely spaced tables - but new blond wood chairs with wide, white upholstered seats, some new art, a dramatic metal chandelier and a larger lime-washed marble-topped bar have added a modern and more luxurious feel to the formerly dark-hued room. The revamped bar is now home to some of the best seats in the house, good for a pit-stop glass of wine and a snack from the new bar menu or, with bar stools comfortably upholstered on both seats and backs, for settling in for an entire meal. The excellent little timber-decked courtyard out the back, sheltered by a large canvas umbrella (and gas-heated when the temperature drops), is a similarly lovely place to eat and gives those bar stools a run for their money when the weather is kind.
The 10th birthday broom has also swept through the wine list, making sitting at the bar an even more attractive option. Sommelier/manager Denis Beaudry has kept the relatively compact list tightly focused mostly on Australian and French labels with a slight lean to the boutique, and has pulled together an interesting collection of apéritifs that includes the slightlysweet but wonderfully refreshing 2005 Coteaux du Layon Carte d'Or made by Florent Baumard in the Loire Valley. The wine knowledge of the mostly French-accented staff is very good, as is the service generally, which manages a precise/homely balance that is simpatico with Salle à Manger's overall approach.
You wouldn't mistake Repellin's food for anything other than French, though he eschews the familiar and reasonably safe French bistro path. There is a char-grilled porterhouse with Café de Paris butter and pommes frites and a classic crème brûlée, but most of the space on the menu is given over to modern French restaurant food with a correspondingly light touch when it comes to cream, butter and saucing. Some dishes have a Japanese influence, and pomegranate molasses gets a look in with a quinoa salad, but classic French technique remains the main event.
A Jerusalem artichoke velouté with its underlying flavours of potatoes, leeks and onions is like a luxury-edition smoothly textured Vichyssoise, managing to present itself as both robust and elegant. Semi-submerged in the mix are three quenelles of blue-eye that have been poached in fish stock before being lowered into the velouté. Adding textural and salt spark to the mix are fried lardons and wholemeal croûtons.
Sweet, tender farmed baby green-lip abalone is presented two ways: quickly steamed and served with a shallot dressing made with sherry vinegar or fried in a successfully brittle tempura batter and teamed with a wasabi mayonnaise, the peppery heat of which makes a subtle but noticeable background noise. Accompanying the abalone are a couple of plump, briny Kumamoto-style oystersfrom Coffin Bay sitting on a little salad of fresh wakame seaweed dressed with soy, mirin and ginger. It is a dish that is beautiful to look at and even more fun to eat.
There is also a shared entrée called "la terre, la mer, et le jardin" that usually takes a sample from the entrée list - some Marchetti prosciutto and salami, a shot glass of the velouté, a small pile of the quinoa and freekah salad - but which will also have a slice of classic pork and prune terrine or perhaps some fresh marinated sardines and beautifully fresh salmon tartare.
Nobody partial to pork should miss the superb suckling pig sourced from Victoria's Western District. Roasted whole after being rubbed down with salt, vinegar, fresh herbs and olive oil, the deboned pig is ideally juicy with skin that cracks satisfyingly when cut and shatters when chewed. Some very good pommes boulangère (here, Nicola potatoes layered with leeks and onion and cooked in chicken stock), confit shallot and a jus flavoured with apple and Calvados help things along but don't get much of a look-in beside the porky star. The classic rustic dish of slow-braised ox cheek - all sticky red wine, celery and leek goodness surrounded by calf's sweetbreads, crisp from being sautéed at a high temperature, and some super-sweet glazed Dutch carrots - is also impressive.
Line-caught Spanish mackerel fillet is coated in a mix of crushed star anise, pink and white peppercorns and cumin and coriander seeds before being pan-fried and served with a "fondue" of witlof and fennel. The carrot and orange sauce that accompanies it (drizzled sparingly on the plate rather than over the fish) works surprisingly well, the faint citrus flavours adding some acidic zing to the earthy spice crust.
The dessert list at Salle à Manger is the least inspiring part of the menu, sticking as it does with the usualsorbet/brûlée/soufflé suspects. The sorbets, made to order in a Pacojet and flavoured with seasonalfruits such as blood orange or pear, are more than fine, but those looking for something a little more adventurous might try the slow-baked Granny Smith apple with the pastry-like chestnut and almond crumble and ice-cream flavoured with lemon verbena that comes from the Repellins' garden.
The changes at Salle à Manger this year might stop short of revolutionary, but they do indicate a pleasing and admirable aversion to coasting along. The place certainly feels like it has new energy. Locals obviously approve of the change and continue to flock, but what they might not be as pleased about is finding tables trickier to come by. By ramping up its appeal, Salle à Manger has created any number of reasons for outsiders to brave the wilds of Kooyong.