Flinders Inn has closed.
Two bistros, both alike in dignity, open in fair Paddington, where we lay our scene. L'Etoile isn't so much new as a reboot with a new, bigger-name chef at the helm, while Flinders Inn, though cut from fresh cloth, channels the now-defunct Bistro Lulu. While the menus aren't in lock-step, they're certainly marching in the same direction, with concise cartes offering a mousseline, parfait and pommes frites-scattered selection of plats around the $30-a-main-course mark. Yes folks, it's the battle of the bistros, the clash of the cornichons, the war of the rosés. It's a toques-off, bare-knuckle struggle for soufflé supremacy, a bid for the stomachs and wallets of the inner-east, fought against the backdrop of the neighbourhood responsible for teaching most of today's crop of Sydney diners the difference between their tartes citron and Tatin. And the good news is that they're both pretty good.
Let's start with L'Etoile. You probably know that it's French for "the star" and that it's pronounced something like "Lett-WAAL-uh". (Wondering at the wisdom of opening a restaurant with a name few Sydneysiders can pronounce? Me too. Now compare and contrast: "FLIN-ders INN".) It occupies the spot at Five Ways that was once The Local (which I don't miss) and before that the excellent Booker's (which I do). When it opened under fresh management as L'Etoile in 2007, it became the sort of place where you'd feel as comfortable ordering a Kir from the chap with the French accent as you would a Martini, and so it remains today. The service I've enjoyed there runs the gamut from the full Gallic schmooze with all the trimmings to one fellow on the floor whom I wouldn't entirely trust to correctly identify the business end of a fork. Putting aside the nagging thought that perhaps the framed photos of famous French people are a bit obvious, it's an attractive room, and while the bistro brief isn't interpreted too literally, the vibe is on the money. Consider sitting outside if your idea of the perfect bistro experience involves being able to hear yourself drink.
Though Manu Feildel's largely classic bistro menu has elements in common with that of his predecessor, Frederic Booms, it has a renewed focus which is attractive. Feildel is French-born, though his CV suggests he made his bones in London rather than the restaurants of France. His reputation locally rests on the injection of vitality he brought to Bilson's during the past five years. The L'Etoile website devotes nearly equal space to these facts as it does to detailing Feildel's TV commitments - one of the very things that saw him part ways with Bilson's in the first place. Hmm.
Happily the food, for the most part, delivers on the promises made by the restaurant's charm. There's a boudin of scallops splashed with bisque and a salade Landaise rich with shreds of smoked and confit duck and slivers of duck foie. The onion soup is totally straight down the line, and no worse for it, a Gruyère-topped croûton there to slide into the melting sweetness of the broth. It just isn't a bistro meal without an appearance of some offal of some kind, so allow me to recommend the cassolette of sweetbreads. I'm guessing more than a few Pernod-addled diners will read that as cassoulet on the menu, so to be clear, we're talking about a cassolette, named for the small pot it's cooked and served in, and not cassoulet, the famed kitchen-sink bean dish known to induce myocardial infarcts with its mere scent. The sweetbreads in this case are lamb; they're coarser than the more commonly seen veal sweetbreads, but here they're handled with enough finesse, teamed with morel mushrooms under a puff pastry lid, that the effect is attractively earthy rather than, well, gross.
Somehow the bouillabaisse is dull, its flavour murky rather than complex. I'd not order it again. But the "butcher's steak", a meaty, chewy, gutsy bavette sauced glossily with red wine and bone marrow, more than makes amends, and the petits pois à la Française makes sunshine out of peas, bacon, lettuce and spring onion. The pear tarte Tatin, to close, combines beautifully textured fruit with well-handled pastry. And cream, lots of cream.
About a click away on the other side of Oxford Street, they're arriving at similar conclusions via a different route at Flinders Inn. Morgan McGlone is a New Zealand-born, Shire-bred chef who came up working for Luke Mangan in the heyday of Darlinghurst's Salt. He has teamed up with his brother Rick to open a corner bistro on the old Thai Wildrice site over on the SCG-end of the neighbourhood. Between working for Mangan and returning to cooking here, McGlone has, curiously enough, been living in New York, São Paulo and Paris, working variously as a photographer's assistant and a model wrangler, which may account for the wealth of fashion types already to be found on the restaurant's premises.
Front-of-house dynamos Darran Smith and Rob Young, both veterans of many a well-regarded Sydney restaurant, bring a palpable lift in quality to the Flinders experience. They work in tandem as maître d' and sommelier in a manner that sometimes verges on the clairvoyant. Mangan's operations are part of their background too, and it's tempting to try and draw parallels with Bistro Lulu, the French-styled spin-off to Salt that Mangan ran on Oxford Street before he set up Glass at the Hilton. But where Lulu was the capital-B bistro writ large, all dark wood panels and bentwood chairs, Flinders Inn is a more functional space. It's stripped back to the necessities, but there's buzz enough to stave off any hint of chilliness, and Young still writes the specials on the mirrors in red lipstick.
The frosted window separating you from Flinders Street is inscribed with Brillat-Savarin's aphorism about being able to divine who you are from what you eat. If, for instance, you're a person who takes a punt on the scallops special, you're probably a person who is intrigued enough by the inclusion of pickled Jerusalem artichoke to overcome any aversion to the fundamental dullness of scallop entrées. And you'd be an odd fish not to find the play of flavours in the dish appealing, what with a little watercress and a splodge of roast tomato sauce in there and the chunky scallops themselves nicely seared without and rare within. The duck confit is well rendered in every sense of the word; this iteration, served on a bed of petits pois à la Française, makes much more sense in the mouth and under the belt than the usual mash-and-jus-muddled monstrosities. And where ordering a salad of beetroot, walnuts and goat's cheese normally means "cop out", here it means you've placed your faith in the kitchen's acuity where the dressing is concerned, and you're being well rewarded.
There's nothing wrong with keeping a menu tidy and straight, but desserts at the Flinders might be just that bit too buttoned-down. A sweet little honey ice-cream gives the moëlleux au chocolat (aka chocolate fondant) interest, and the presentation of a slice of lemon tart with nothing more than crème fraîche is commendable; still, a little more excitement, a little more variety, a little more something is needed in the desserts department. The Flinders dish that really lingers in the memory is the skirt steak. Presented as pink slices framed with char, it fairly swims in butter, the anchovy butter it's daubed with mingling with the sauté of mixed mushrooms sharing the plate. It's bistro at first bite, and demands salad, chips and much red wine - all of which are mercifully close to hand. The setting and pricing here bring in a winning cross-section of the dining public (and yes, the fashion connection sees more than a fair share of hotties of each gender gracing the place), making for a lively scene pretty much every day of the week. And, zut alors, isn't that what the bistro is all about?
These establishments aren't here to challenge the hard-core technique and attention to detail of the likes of Bistrode or Bistro Moncur. They're not here to shake up your ideas of French food or to charge you the kind of money that gives you a bistro experience at restaurant prices, either. They don't go to town with brass railings, Ricard carafes and all the rest of the bistro-by-numbers set-dressing in the manner of, say, La Brasserie or Tabou. What they offer is a kind of easygoing, everyday vivacity that's very welcome in our times, along with some good, solid eating that's a cut above your average. To paraphrase that great French institution The Simpsons, they're a party in your mouth and everyone's invited.