Call your restaurant "French" in this country and expectations tend to run to steak frites and escargots. If that's the kind of French you're after (no judgement - some of my best friends are steak frites and escargots), Ôter's more expansive approach to the label might take a little getting used to.
Florent Gérardin, native to France's west coast and one-time head chef at Melbourne's Pei Modern, is chef and co-owner at Ôter (OH-tay). His partners in the basement space, formerly home to Japanese restaurant Yu-u, are Kate and Mykal Bartholomew (Coda, Tonka) and long-time Coda employee Tom Hunter. With that collection of backgrounds, you'd think that Ôter would have to walk a modern French path. At times it does.
The menu is free of French onion soup and magret de canard, and there's not a tricolour paint job or Piaf soundtrack to be seen or heard. Instead a moody, minimalist concrete-rich space is the backdrop for a menu that might list a rich combination of puffed beef tendon, fresh sea urchin and cashew-nut cream ready and willing to divide the crowd with overt displays of gaudy flavour. Or a coyly delicious dish of raw mushrooms with house-made fromage blanc. Or a quite brilliant layered combination of slippery slow-cooked egg, chicken livers and gizzards, and surprisingly robust mustard foam dusted with shaved truffle and served with spelt crackers. So far, so modern.
But then look to the central kitchen bar where a small and gorgeous collection of sweet tarts is theatrically displayed on a large breadboard. Precise and lustrous, meticulously arranged like a pâtisserie window display, the selection of jewel-like shapes and colours is pretty enough to bring a lump to the throat.
As with the rest of the Ôter menu, the tart selection changes from day to day. But there'll always be a chocolate tart, round and glossy, and a cinnamon one, too, the spice looking like ragged lace laid across bright yellow custard. Perhaps there'll be a rectangular shell containing caramelised white chocolate studded with straight lines of blueberries. Or a sunset-coloured orange curd sitting on a layer of lemon cake and encased in perfect ripple-sided pastry. There might also be a quince or apple number, shimmering under the overheads, rounding out the collection.
At a time when restaurant desserts tend towards the deconstructed-and-artfully-strewn-across-the-plate school, the precise, contained nature on display is almost startling. It also flags that Gérardin has classic French moves in his toolkit and he's not afraid to use them alongside his modern toys.
This is a good thing, especially when he turns his attention to the traditional regional dishes he cooked and ate as an apprentice chef in the French seaside city of La Rochelle.
Pig's head terrine with celeriac rémoulade.
Top of the list in this category is his soupe de poisson. It's made from fish trim (heads, bones, tails and fins) cooked in a big pot for a few hours with tomato, fennel and aromats. The soup arrives, terracotta of hue and redolent of the ocean in a small earthenware bowl, accompanied by a crisp piece of toast (a croûton, really) topped with rouille and grated Gruyère. The croûton is dumped into the soup where the bread softens, the rouille dissolves and the cheese melts, and all is right with the world.
Other good things are done with fish, too. Sardines are brined, then tossed briefly on the teppanyaki grill (a leftover from Yu-u) and served on a croûton with rouille and a sprinkle of lemon myrtle. A citrusy escabeche, most often using whiting, sometimes deviates from the classic by substituting yoghurt whey in place of the usual vinegar, softening the acidic bite. Juicy, glossy cobia wings marinated in a mustard and olive oil mixture are served under a thin sheet of shaved kohlrabi and sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds.
Back on land, there's la crêpe, based on a trad recipe from Brittany. Here kurobuta ham is combined with Cantal cheese, rolled in a little crêpe and then in brik pastry and grilled on the teppanyaki. The brik gives the finger-sized crêpes fantastic shatter and snap, while the warmed ham and melted cheese are equally convincing in propelling this dish towards cult bar-snack status.
There's certainly something bar-like about Ôter, just as there is with other new Melbourne arrivals such as Marion, Embla and Bar Liberty where food and booze get equal billing. Ultimately, though, Ôter's emphasis is the food.
The renovation has seen the room opened up, the formerly blacked-out footpath-level windows made clear, the private rooms banished. A small bar has been installed over to one side of the room, which helps emphasise that the central kitchen bar, which was also a feature of Yu-u, is the focal point in the room. Ôter's kitchen bar is a seriously good example of the species, built long and low to accommodate chairs rather than stools, with a bar top that's table-width and with uninterrupted views of the kitchen action. It deserves heritage listing on ergonomic grounds alone.
It also ensures Gérardin is the room's focus. He works the bar efficiently, deftly balancing cooking with tending to diners, always encouraging them to forgo the menu and just let him feed them.
No matter which way you go, take his enthusiasm for terrine as genuine and order it. Whether it's a classic, satisfyingly chunky pig's head number served with a celeriac rémoulade, or a similarly textured black-pudding version that includes a bit of brain and tongue in the mix, seared on one side on the teppanyaki and served with kipflers mashed with olive oil and chives, they're a cut above.
Bigger, more robust dishes - a Blackmore flank; a rabbit blanquette, all glazed onions, light-green tarragon sauce and chunky bacon; a Mediterraneaninspired braised lamb neck with almonds and capers - further enforce the idea of Ôter being more restaurant than wine bar. But the interesting, dynamic wine list from sommelier Jordan Marr and the number of snack-ready dishes on the menu will see as many people here to have something small to eat while drinking wine as coming for the full feed.
Ôter's cellar isn't solely about France, but there's an apt bias. Its non-French space is given over to Australian, mostly Victorian, wine. There's chardonnay from the likes of Bindi, Yarra Yering and Mount Mary, and syrah from Luke Lambert and Giaconda. It's not all big-name, big-buck drinking, though. The solid and decently priced by-the-glass list might include 2014 Domaine Comte Abbatucci Faustine from Corsica or 2012 Tavel rosé from Domaine de la Mordorée, and there's some good-value drinking from all over France (and parts of South Australia and Tasmania) to be had on the rest of the list, too.
Glassware, some of it from the Noma Sydney fire sale, is as carefully selected as the handmade tableware, and wine service is pitched at the right calm, clear and straightforward level needed when much of the list hangs out with smaller French producers.
Add a short list of apéritifs of the Lillet Blanc and pastis kind, and a collection of on-theme cocktails (the Ôter version of a White Lady adds Lillet to the usual gin, Cointreau, citrus and eggwhite recipe) and there are plenty of reasons to come here for a quick drink and a snack, especially when the snacks include thinly sliced Blackmore beef tongue flavoured with soy, star anise and bonito flakes, and served with a sauce charcutière.
The more you fossick through the layers at Ôter, the more influences appear. There's a wash of Japanese, some of it coming from the kitchen equipment inherited from the former tenant, some from ingredients such as soy and bonito that Gérardin likes to use for seasoning. Artist Bridget Bodenham's translucent abstract birds, like faded graffiti, soften the concrete walls and reference the restaurant's laneway location. There are rustic regional dishes, precise classic ones and elements of modern technique. There is thrillingly fine glassware, and chunky earthenware plates and bowls, and service that treads the line between friendly and formal.
It all comes together pretty seamlessly, but it resists easy categorisation. Best not to overthink it and just go eat there. Ôter speaks for itself.