Dripping candles. Bow-tied waiters. Au poivre and Piaf, Tatin and tartare. Hubert could so easily have been yet another cookie-cutter bistro, one of those Madame Tussauds eateries where the patter from the maître d' is just as waxy as the food. Instead it sparkles with wit and vigour. To stroll down the stairs, whoosh past the bar into a cool Martini and then glide onto a table for dinner à deux is as close as most of us can hope to get to living the Copacabana scene from Goodfellas in this lifetime.
The acres of carpet, wood panelling and framed French posters, the stage and the baby grand piano, all sepia-lit by orange lamps with fringed shades, are presented without an iota of ironic detachment. They're fun and comfortable because they're fun and comfortable, just as the grand aïoli and the steak frites are here simply because they taste good. Hubert isn't bound by the old-school details - it glories in them.
Sprawling over multiple rooms, served by not one but two bars and offering a dandy mix of seating options, the basement space is the first restaurant from Anton Forte and Jason Scott, the bar czars behind The Baxter Inn, Shady Pines Saloon and Frankie's. Their chief creative collaborator is Daniel Pepperell, the chef who made his name with playful, inventive takes on Italian cooking at Paddington's 10 William Street. It's on Bligh Street, but not perfectly away in terms of tone and clientele. It is, to put it mildly, very much its own beast.
At Hubert the couple in the next booth tapping their feet to Sinatra are as likely to be decked out in neck tatts and Ramblin' Rascal tees as they are diamond necklaces and Rykiel. Profiles of the staff scattered through the superb wine list reveal that Anton Forte's wife, Allie Webb (designer of the brilliant and eccentric graphics), calls him Nibbly Pig behind closed doors, and that co-owner Stefan Forte's first car was an unregistered Mercedes Benz 230SL. Unlike just about every other local restaurant plying the bentwood-chairs and cassoulet trade, these guys have understood the spirit of the bistro: it's fun.
At 10 William Street chef Pepperell quietly seasoned his ragù Bolognese with fish sauce, cross-bred Italy's beccafico with Japan's katsu-sando for the best-ever fried-sardine bar sandwich, and made a signature of a bottarga dip served with a big hot pretzel. At Hubert he takes a similarly cavalier approach, one hand on Larousse, the other one punching the air. He deploys dashi in the velouté to up the umami count in a plate of fat pipis served with chervil and chives (a dish worth ordering for its bread-dipping potential alone), complements smooth duck-liver parfait with a layer of maple syrup jelly, and reimagines oeufs en gelée as egg yolks set with ocean trout roe in a sparkling bonito jelly. Tarte Tatin and pepper sauce there may be, but the Tatin will be the complement to a toasty slice of beautifully built boudin noir, and it'll be a confit field mushroom served au poivre, not a steak.
The cassoulet is more like a plate of duck confit and white beans with the addition of some very good, porky Toulouse sausage. It's fine, but has none of the integration (or gratination) that really makes the dish. Anchovy toast, on the other hand, is greater than the sum of its parts: big, meaty fillets of salted anchovies from Nardin (a brand most true anchovy devotees will pick over Ortiz) on cultured butter and charred sourdough under shallot and a thatch of watercress.
Chicken fricassée with pommes Anna and roasted cabbage
On paper the tomato tart - onion jam, black olive and puff pastry - sounds like it's going to be a pissaladière-ish slip of a thing, but is instead an inch of thick, red, fruit-sweet tomato confit. The Malakoff, a sort of fried Gruyère croquette set on a dollop of Dijon, looks like a fondue fritter and tastes like a rarebit looking for toast. These dishes underscore the fact that as Pepperell has shifted from Italian as a base to French with the move from 10 William Street to Hubert, swapping oil for butter along the way, his food has become heavier. (Compare and contrast the menus at the Italian-ish Acme and its French-ish sibling Bar Brosé.) There is something to be said for ordering conservatively.
There again, nothing about the larger Hubert picture says "restraint". You don't have to dress up to be here, but you can. From Shady Pines to The Baxter Inn to Frankie's, Jason Scott and Anton Forte have proven themselves to be masters of finely tuned atmosphere, their venues all the while fostering an impression of effortlessness. More than any of their ventures, too, Hubert has that quality of having been around for a great many years, even though it only opened last month. That comfort and confidence only intensifies the urge to settle in, order up big and let the good times roll.
Forte is in his element on the floor, slapping backs and bussing plates, and Scott seems perfectly assured greeting guests as they pour endlessly down the stairs. It's also no surprise that Hubert is an excellent place to drink. Across their bars, Scott and Forte have a pretty deep bench of talent to draw on, and their top guys here, James Irvine and Brendan Keown, are as quick with the chat as they are with the seven (mostly) classic cocktails on the list. The care in the details of the drinks is as impressive as across every other aspect of the business. Order a Martini and it'll come out in an etched glass bottle with a little waxed-paper cup of garnishes on the side: olive, twist, pickle, pickled onion.
Eating in the bar brings its own pleasures. The shorter menu doesn't carry the big dishes to share, but it is bolstered by the addition of olives (Sicilian, marinated) and good almonds (Valencian, roasted). The bar burger is well made, the bread soft, the beef beefy, the proportions just so, garnished with a pickle on the side. The question of whether you'll truly love it, though, will hang on your feelings about Gruyère and hunks of raw onion. Likewise, the chips are the very fine straws called pommes pailles. They're a win on style points. Me, I like a bit more potato. These guys just taste like fried. They're at their best mixed through the tartare of wagyu topside (a piquant, flavoursome thing presented with all the usual accessories already folded into it) to add textural interest.
Speaking of texture, back in the dining room there's plenty of it to be had in the chicken. Pepperell gives it a fricassée treatment, brining a whole handsome Holmbrae bird, deep-frying it, chopping it up and then plating it, feet and all, with a mixture of shiitake, chestnut and button mushrooms and a deeply flavoured sauce of white wine, cream and tarragon. The fried feet, still on the long legs, are very fine things to wave and gnaw, it must be said. The chicken is the pick of the really big dishes, which include in their number a whole roasted Murray cod done Grenobloise-style with brown butter and capers, and a kilo of rib-eye grilled on the bone with sauce choron, the variant on Béarnaise made with the addition of tomato. Good reasons all to bring friends and make it a party.
The sides have all been given twists, most of them worthwhile - black rice in the pilaf, the leaf salad served as an intact but dressed butter lettuce. In the case of the pommes Anna, the cleverness is not a twist but a turn, taking what is usually thin slices of potato cooked in a flat cake and cutting that cake into fingers and roasting them on their ends, giving them more surface area for browning and resulting in extra flavour and crunch.
The wine list is also a thing of beauty, both in design and content. The range by the glass is impressive, the offer by the bottle is deep. There's lots of good Burgundy both red and white, and if you've been distressed by the recent trend away from red wine in pairings with tasting menus in Sydney, the wealth of shiraz and grenache here, complemented by healthy offerings in the gamay, Loire rouge and Languedoc-Roussillon departments, will do much to soothe your troubled brow. Sommelier Andy Tyson, an alumnus of Monopole, leads the wine team with aplomb, pointing out the list's succulent bargains (Pichot Vouvray for the duck-liver parfait), curiosities (a whole section just for Aligoté) and things that are simply dangerously drinkable. There are weird wines for those who want them, but also plenty of perfectly straight-down-the-line stuff. Best of all might be those hybrids such as the Béatrice et Pascal Lambert "Les Terrasses" Chinon, a cabernet franc made from organically grown grapes and bottled without sulphur. Natural, and very drinkable rather than wilfully kooky.
And then there's dessert. Were the crème caramel billed on the menu as a Spanish-style flan, perhaps its density would be more welcome; as it is, the bitterness of the caramel is a plus, but anyone expecting the walloping great round of a thing to melt under the spoon is going to be disappointed. Far better to order the walloping great melon en surprise. It's half a melon filled with young coconut sorbet and - spoiler alert - balls of melon, sorrel jelly and finger lime. It's every bit as enjoyable to eat as it sounds.
"In reading, one should notice and fondle details," wrote Nabokov. In Hubert, the attentive fondler will find layers of quality and richness, and not a few intriguing contradictions. A French restaurant with barely a French person on the staff. A place that's brand new but carefully styled to look like it's been here forever. It offers food and drink that evoke a lost era just as readily as they delight and satisfy contemporary palates. It is a restaurant built from the ground up to be the classic restaurant experience, and yet is ultimately unlike any other restaurant in the nation. The thing that suggests Hubert will be here for a good time and a long time is that from the food to the service to the wine list, it's fun but it also really delivers on its promises. Welcome to your new favourite night out.