Note: Missy French has closed permanently
It's almost certainly unfair. And definitely ageist. But when you make a booking at a restaurant called Missy French knowing that it belongs to a 21-year-old first-time restaurateur, you can't help but expect a certain lightness of touch. A raffish, flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants quality that has you reaching for those fun, flighty words the French are so good at. What you'll find instead is a restaurant that's not so much little-black-dress Chanel but more the beige bouclé jacket end of the register. Rampling rather than Tautou. Chic, yes, but with a certain seriousness.
She has chosen to embrace the business with gusto and in no way shies from the family connection. Missy French's designer was Grant Cheyne, who did the look for Rockpool, three Rockpool Bar & Grills, and two Spice Temples. Its wine list was written by Bar & Grill sommelier Richard Healy, and its chef, Chris Benedet, came here from Rockpool on Bridge Street. After a couple of Sancerres, the monochrome portraits by Noah Taylor (yep, the actor) that constitute all but the entirety of the room's decoration even start to look like Perry père et fille.
All kudos to young Perry for not hitting the French-cliché playbook in the design. There's nary a stick of bentwood nor a scrap of cursive chalkboard writing to be seen. But the room's froideur might throw you for a loop. Neighbourhood restaurants need time to wear in, and Missy French might need more time than most. Maybe that explains the success of the pre-worn look common to Keith McNally's Balthazar projects and beyond. Right now this place feels about as worn in and relaxed as a box-fresh tutu. Pretty, but not entirely comfortable.
Nothing about the expensively low-key, carefully lit undesign of the design, and the large number of staff on the floor says this is a restaurant opened with only pennies in the pocket and a heart full of dreams. The tablecloths are crisp, the bread is Iggy's, the butter whipped Lescure. The chairs backed in woven cane, a French pal tells me, are the Frenchest things in the room. It doesn't seem like it was put together on a budget of carefully saved tips and pocket money.
So not for Missy French the spontaneity of Le Chateaubriand, the insouciance of Bones, the élan of Le Servan, or the rakishness of Paris's other hot neo-bistros. The menu doesn't read impulsive. Mussels are marinière, barramundi gets the Grenobloise treatment with capers, brown butter and lemon, sirloin gets sauce Bordelaise, snapper gets white-wine velouté and leeks and vegetarians get goat's curd and pickled yellow beetroot salad.
There again, it's not all done by the book. Some of the more interesting moments come when the kitchen goes slightly off-piste. Gnocchi Parisienne - the little dumplings made with pâté à choux, the stuff you use to make profiteroles and éclairs, instead of potato - are mixed with roasted pumpkin and shiitake mushrooms to great savoury effect, a fine grating of walnuts on top giving the whole thing a clever lift. Pairing shelled garlic prawns (three of them make up a $24 entrée) with the spiky crunch of their lightly battered and fried heads takes them firmly out of the comfort-food zone, even as the soupçon of garlicky prawn reduction has you reaching happily for the bread.
A word on bread: the deplorable custom of clearing the bread with the entrée plates has taken root here, of all places. If you fear you'll want something to swipe through the fine sauces that accompany six of the eight main courses, careful rationing may be in order. Speaking of rationing, if nouvelle cuisine-scale plating is likely to upset you, be advised that this is very much the sort of restaurant where the full three courses and sides routine is de rigeur, unless you're planning to pull a jambon-beurre from your handbag on the way home.
It's a pleasure to see a kitchen have the confidence to offer a classic chicken consommé almost unadorned. There's not very much soup, true, but it's limpid, well-flavoured and clean, garnished on top with chervil and underneath with a fine brunoise of carrots. The three little croquettes of leek and potato served beside it make no sense to me whatsoever - why fried croquettes with soup? Who wants a wet croquette? Maybe they're better when they're not tepid.
The game terrine is a shimmering, wonderful thing. A single stained-glass pane of venison, duck and quail set in game jelly, studded with pistachio nuts and barded with leek, it's bright and fresh where the more usual forcemeat-style terrine is fatty and heavy. Slivers of Iggy's baguette, pickled cucumber and a dollop of floral quince purée make for sweet harmony.
It takes just three players on the plate to certify the Pithiviers a hit: the golden pork-filled round of puffy-pastry pie, some crushed petits pois, and a pool of dark veal and chicken jus. It's still winter as I write this, so the baby peas are not perhaps a perfectly seasonal choice, but that's not to say the whole thing doesn't still come together happily like the city's most handsome pie floater. At $29 it's also one of the more approachably priced main courses.
Like all the main plates, too, it seems designed to spur on a good romp through the wine list. The cellar is two-thirds French, the remainder Australian. There's quaffable Pommier Burgundy and weighty Rhônes and Barossa blends alongside Nicolas Joly's Savennières, Sutton Grange rosé, Foillard Morgon Côte du Py, mondeuse and poulsard from Trosset and Jacques Puffeney, and other fashionable offerings. Most of the options by the glass are $15 and up.
You'll need something of substance to get through the slow-cooked wagyu shin. From a technical point of view it's nicely executed: seasoned correctly, well browned, thoroughly tender. It's paired with a very smooth Jerusalem artichoke purée. Even with a round of bone marrow and a pair of artfully placed baby carrots as a garnish, though, it seems all a bit, well, brown. It's at this point at the French table you might find yourself reaching for toast, mustard, horseradish, cornichons or possibly all of the above. Some light and shade with the meaty things might be nice. I recall seeing a pot-au-feu on an early Missy French menu, but it seems to have ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Say yes to sides. They're worthy players in themselves. So much so that the lovely Niçoise, made with duck eggs, Ortiz anchovies, green olives, red peppers and cos seems like something that would be much more apt served as a first course. (The presence of cherry tomatoes in this dish, which seem about as seasonally appropriate as the baby peas with the pork pie, made me wonder if papa Perry, a known stickler for quality produce, was going to kick in the kitchen door during dinner, ponytail swinging, and conduct a citizen's arrest. Or at least tell someone they were grounded. Sadly it was not to be.)
The kitchen's loyalty to France wavers as dessert rolls around. Eton mess, a dish invented on what the French regard as the wrong side of the channel, is all artful shards of meringue arranged like a teepee around mandarin and blueberry goo. Crème brûlée, as any pastry nerd will tell you, is a French reworking of the Cambridge burnt cream; does pairing it in a wide, shallow dish with caramelised popcorn and a quenelle of milky popcorn ice-cream make it any Frencher? Does it matter when it tastes this good?
Those of us eyeing the gap in the Sydney dining market for something French with a bit of Jean-Luc Godard verve and Luc Besson flair can keep dreaming for now. But it'd be wrong to suggest that Missy French is more of a piece with The Assassin and the Richard Gere version of Breathless than La Femme Nikita and À Bout de Souffle. It's a restaurant with some spirit, and when it embraces a bit more je ne sais quoi, joie de vivre and a few other helpful freewheeling French expressions, it stands every chance of growing into the neighbourhood favourite it would like to be. C'est le ton qui fait la musique.
Note: Missy French has closed permanently