It's the béarnaise that does it. Before it lands, accompanying an expertly cooked Mayura Station wagyu rump cap, everything has been on song - admirable in technique, presentation and flavour. But the béarnaise - light, silky, exquisitely balanced with a dreamy waft of tarragon - is a jolt to the memory.
This béarnaise is the reminder of why we miss Philippe Mouchel when he's not at the pass. It illustrates why his Bocuse-tinted, timeless, precision-French classicism has become somehow essential to the Melbourne mosaic.
Mouchel may lapse into a modern flourish or two, some more welcome than others, but his general approach is so measured, so old school, that it sometimes gets lost in the noise and churn of the contemporary restaurant scene. His béarnaise arrives as a clip-around-the-ear reminder of just how accomplished a chef he is. It can leave you feeling baffled, wondering how you ever took him for granted.
Mouchel hasn't always made it easy, though. His last restaurant, a pop-up of sorts in the old Café Vue site on St Kilda Road, was the appallingly named Déjà Vue.
And while he's been mostly Melbourne-based (and embraced) since arriving in Australia in 1991 under the Paul Bocuse banner, he's headed a number of kitchens and always gone to ground between gigs as if contemplating alternative futures. Then, suddenly, he re-emerges to the collective, slightly teary, releasing of breath from his legion of fans.
He's done it again with Philippe. But this time there's a distinct and reassuring clarity of purpose. The famed rôtisserie chicken is there, for one thing, but the whole menu plays it straight. Oysters. Beef tartare. Steak. Frites. Charcuterie. Escargots. Chocolate fondant. It lives in the CBD basement address formerly home to Brooks, which has a retro, three-Martini-lunch vibe that's a perfect fit for this food. It's almost like the dream of a Philippe Mouchel restaurant.
The food can be dreamy, too. Mouchel has French chef Aurélien Gransagne (formerly of Burgundy two-star l'Espérance) heading his kitchen and the combined firepower results in an often remarkable level of finesse and attention to detail.
It's there in the pâté en croûte, a masterful version of the classic, the chunky veal and pork foundation studded with foie gras and pistachio, the pastry case like a picture frame around the meat. The arrangement is completed with carefully placed dots of balsamic reduction and a small, colourful, turmeric-flavoured scrum of pickled baby onions, cauliflower and carrots.
It's there too with gorgeously textured beetrootcured salmon, accompanied by a salad of shaved fennel, cooked and raw beetroot and Brussels sprout leaves dressed with walnut mayonnaise and lemon gel. And it's there with the Marc Meneau-inspired oyster set in a jelly made from oyster liquor that's teamed with a watercress cream and topped with a spinach leaf.
Freshly shucked oysters, usually three different varieties flown in from all points of Australia, are also available. The shucking happens at the raw section down one end of the newly installed zinc-topped bar at the bottom of the entrance stairs.
The bar, replacing the larger marble-topped original at Brooks, is the most apparent sign of the new regime in the look of the place. It's a more compact beast than its predecessor and with brighter lighting (a feature of the dining room that could similarly benefit from a dimmer switch). An illuminated faux-marble backdrop and a vertical garden on one wall make the space appear larger, more bustling and more stereotypically French bistro. It's already perch popular with oyster lovers.
Rockling, soupe de poisson and seafood risotto.
The changes to the split-level dining room are more subtle, mostly about light fittings, room dividers and paper and cloth on the tables. The banquettes and elegant timber chairs have remained, but layers of décor detail have been stripped back, drawing more attention to the room's whitewashed vaulted ceiling.
The stage-like open kitchen has somehow become more pronounced, too. Perhaps it's Mouchel's presence at the pass that attracts the gaze, but it's equally likely to be because the kitchen crew are almost completely free of tattoos and beards. The white uniforms, uninked arms and the men's freshly shaven faces seem almost radical in 2016.
Nothing radical is happening on the floor. Tim Sawyer (formerly of the Yarra Valley's Bella Vedere) keeps everything in low-key, unrushed, pitch-perfect order, and there's a noticeable number of French accents among the waitstaff, keeping the authenticity at an almost comic level.
The wine list has an expected French contingent mixed with Australian labels collected from across the country. It's a comfortable rather than thrilling list, the names familiar (Marc Brédif vouvray, Domaine Rougeot Burgundy, Krug and Pommery Champagne, Stefano Lubiana chardonnay) and the prices reasonable, particularly given the Collins Street address. The approach sits comfortably with the food, though - conservative in a way, but interesting with a real grasp on the space and place.
Mouchel's calling-card chicken also nails the brief.
The well-raised bird has a farce of mushrooms and herbs tucked under its skin, its legs removed before it faces the rôtisserie. The legs are deboned and cooked on the grill and share a plate with baby potatoes, lemon gel, capsicum purée and a beautifully balanced chicken jus that hits just the right salty note. It's just what you expect, perhaps demand, from a Philippe Mouchel chicken.
That lemon gel is one of Mouchel's nods to modernity. There's also the slightly puzzling "borsch pot-au-feu" that's served with the beef tartare. The tartare is a pretty thing that includes some traditional elements - capers, shallots, gherkins - but omits others such as mustard and raw egg. It's topped with slivers of baby beets and herbs and dressed just with salt, pepper and olive oil and so comes across as a lighter, fresher version of the classic.
Pâté en croûte.
The beetroot broth is pretty good, too. It's finished with a dollop of horseradish cream that melts and disperses in the soup, but the connection isn't obvious. It feels as though you're eating two separate dishes rather than something that should never be kept apart. It's in no way a bad combination, just not essential.
A superb rockling dish, on the other hand, doesn't miss a trick. Everything has its place. The fillets are cured in a mix of salt, sugar and citrus zest before being gently steamed and then laid on top of an excitingly good, al dente risotto flavoured with celery, mussels, clamsand a bouillabaisse-like soupe de poisson. There's a tuile of parmesan on top that finishes the dish with just the right extra elements of salt, richness and texture, making it one of the menu's real stars.
The steaks, three in all, are also good, respectfully handled and classically accompanied by fondant potatoes or a cassis and red wine jus. Only the wagyu rump cap gets that brilliant béarnaise, so request some on the side if you order the porterhouse or the fillet. That's an order. There's more satisfying beef action with the beef cheek carbonnade that's braised in dark beer mixed with a slightly gingerbread-tasting combination involving cloves and cinnamon.
It arrives beautifully tender and almost black from the beer, topped with a clear, toffee-like disc flavoured with more cinnamon and clove that adds a subtle and very successful sweet note to the big-flavoured beef.
Floating island with hazelnut praline and créme Anglais.
Desserts at Philippe hit the right notes, too, with some thoughtful twists on superbly rendered classics. The soft-poached meringue-and-crème- Anglaise moves of floating islands are turbo-boosted with the addition of a hazelnut praline blended with whipped cream that's hidden inside the meringue. And with a textbook chocolate fondant, the nevergets- old delight of that warm, softly oozing centre becomes even more delightful by way of the morello cherries mixed through the chocolate. A pale-brown chocolate sorbet and an intense morello cherry gel are other welcome additions.
Philippe feels familiar. Not because it's a carboncopy of restaurants Philippe Mouchel has put his name to before. It isn't. But, using the advantages of a long career, he's been able to pick and choose the best of what he does, likes to do and knows will work for a crowd that's been flocking to him for more than two decades. But because he's a stickler for great ingredients and precise technique, the familiarity is never dull. It's reassuring, sure, and often comforting. But it's also, as the béarnaise so forcefully reminds us, a particular kind of thrilling, too.