With Philippe Mouchel back on the scene it feels as if balance has been restored. Since he arrived in Melbourne almost 20 years ago to head the kitchen at Paul Bocuse, Mouchel has become an important, even comforting, presence on Melbourne's dining scene: admired by fellow chefs and diners alike for his exacting technique, and relied upon to keep authentic French cooking a part of the landscape. And although he has been absent from the city before - a couple of years in Japan, a stint in Sydney - the closure of his Crown restaurant, The Brasserie by Philippe Mouchel, brought the uneasy feeling that he might be lost to the local scene forever.
That scenario has been averted with the arrival of the cavalry in the form of George Calombaris and co's The Press Club Group, which has gathered M. Mouchel into its ever-growing stable (The Press Club, Maha, Hellenic Republic, the soon-to-open St Katherine's) and given the CBD a user-friendly French bistro that mixes smart modern looks with a mostly traditional approach. It's a good blend, binding the group's reputation for creating quality crowd-pleasers with the appeal and skill of the frontman.
PM24 has taken over the space long occupied by Japanese restaurant Murasaki, a thorough renovation having completely covered its predecessor's tracks. The new look taps into the Melbourne obsession with industrialesque spaces and is all about whitewashed distressed walls, black metal-framed windows, soaring ceilings and lights dangling from cords. There is a splash of colour in the dining room courtesy of some red leather banquette seating, but the mostly monochrome colour scheme - timber floors, round marble-look tables, white-shirted staff - directs all eyes to the centrepiece of the restaurant's open kitchen and the source of the menu's best moments, the shiny, bright-red enamelled rotisserie.
For many, the slow roasted organic chicken (usually from Milawa) will be reason enough for immediately planning a return visit. Simply flavoured with rosemary, preserved lemon, salt and pepper, the PM24 chook is an ideal-world poster child, crisp skinned, succulent fleshed, bursting with nostalgic old-school flavour that the seasoning reinforces but never overwhelms. Add some vegetables (potatoes, pumpkin, turnips etc) - that are also cooked in the rotisserie, below the meat so that they, too, are basted in the juices of slowly spinning protein - and you have a simply brilliantly executed dish that will quickly find its way onto many top 10 comfort-food lists.
Nudging the chicken for new-favourite status is the rack of lamb, also given the rotisserie treatment (before being finished in the salamander), that arrives pale pink and oozing juices, crusted with a mix of breadcrumbs, butter, rosemary mustard and honey. It also comes with a big flavoured vegetable tian and a wonderfully light and restrained jus, its pale brown colour and subtle, gentle nature the antithesis of many (most) of the black, thick, overwhelming members of the species that are too frequently dished up across town.
If you can drag your eyes away from the red rotisserie and its output, there are other sources of enjoyment at PM24, among them being an excellent wine list that has one of the most interesting by-the-glass ensembles around. An Enomatic wine system means that there are some pretty exciting all-French choices to be had (a 2002 Domaine des Varoilles Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru La Romanée, for example), but the non-Enomatic list also delivers plenty of "don't make me choose" moments. The rest of the 20-plus-page list is no slouch either, favouring France but harvesting great labels from across the New and Old Worlds. The accompanying service is accurate and enthusiastic and willing to chat a little or a lot about your choices, depending on your level of interest.
Service generally is pretty good, though there can be a level of stiffness at times that seems at odds with the kind of relaxed, sophisticated bistro feel that PM24 is obviously striving for (not to mention that being constantly asked how your meal is when you're in the middle of it just gets boring). It can all feel a bit overproduced, but the almost constant sight of Mouchel manning the pass does much to dissipate the occasional whiff of conveyer belt-chain restaurant that comes into the equation. There's the service issue, but the piles of Mr Calombaris's latest book (with co-star Mr Mehigan) for sale in a restaurant that's presumably supposed to be all about PM also strike a discordant note.
Focus on the food, however, and it's all about PM, 24/7. The happiest moments come with the more traditional dishes, though there is joy to be had when there is a slight veer from the classics.
Proudly old-school Burgundy-style snails come sitting on a deep-flavoured Roma tomato and shallot fondue and are topped with a mix of butter, garlic, parsley, pancetta and a little almond meal. It's how you want snails to be: only slightly chewy, a willing conduit for all the seasoning and with the tendency to scorch your tongue if your restraint fails and you try to eat them too soon after they've hit the table.
A blue swimmer crab cake takes a less trad path, the crabmeat mixed with a generous amount of seasoned mayo, yuzu pulp and Tabasco before being crumbed, fried and served with a salad of raw and cooked heirloom tomatoes and dressed with a vinaigrette flavoured with diced white anchovies. It's a pretty, multi-coloured dish, the richness of the mayo being nicely counterbalanced with the sweet and acidic red, green and yellow tomatoes.
There are some stumbles along the path, like the scallop carpaccio where the salt-cured scallops are swamped by a yuzu-flavoured mayonnaise, or an odd beetroot salad combo that also incorporates slow roasted octopus, goat's cheese and eggplant caviar and can't seem to decide if there's a hero flavour in the mix. But these go into the exception rather than rule basket.
There are big, rich flavours to be had with salmon that's pan fried on its skin and served with excellent potato gnocchi, sautéed mushrooms and given a real boost with a chardonnay-based jus flavoured with chicken and fennel seeds.
The big flavours continue with a short list of beef cuts, much of it grass-fed, sourced from Gippsland and aged at the restaurant. Not surprisingly, the cooking is exemplary and the sides traditional (variously, béarnaise, frites, potatoes boulangère). Wagyu lovers, too, might want to check out the assiette that includes a winning mix of cheek, short rib and oyster blade cuts.
Traditionalists will love the dessert menu that ranges from crêpes through to glacé fruits. Mouchel's version of the classic Paris-Brest sees a lighter, more aerated praline-flavoured cream filling a choux pastry that has an attractive amount of slightly moist chewiness that sits perfectly with the caramel flavours of the praline. Those who like a little retro in their presentation, or are searching around for ways to restart the conversation, should order the Tahitian vanilla crème brûlée, an ode to the version that Mouchel would send out at Paul Bocuse, the textbook cream, milk, vanilla and caramel brûlée being finished with alcohol and flamed at the table.
PM24 is a restaurant that plays to all the strengths that have endeared Philippe Mouchel to Melburnians since his arrival two decades ago. There's no jumping through hoops or unnecessary flourishes, just a respect for great ingredients and skilled, careful cooking. It's great to have him back.