Restaurant News

Back to the bistro classics

With duck confit and steak frites thick on the ground these days, a good bistro meal isn’t hard to find. But what about a great one? We track down the country’s best, dish by dish.

We’ve seen Tatins of turnips and brûlées of Jerusalem artichokes, roti d’agneau with miso and sesame-oiled tartares. We’ve borne witness to all manner of unorthodox things done in the name of confit duck. And these are not necessarily all crimes against good taste, by any means. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and more of the time still, when you order a steak frites, you want simply a steak frites and the world of comfort it brings with it. Not every dish we list here is precisely as you’d find it at Le Grand Colbert, Paul Bert or Aux Lyonnais, of course, but in celebrating the bistro classics we’ve steered towards those Australian establishments that grasp the sense and meaning of these culinary standards, even if they don’t accent every “e” and dot every “aïoli”. You can play your own part by being the true bistro diner, certain of what you want but flexible in your humour. You would also do well to pack a serious appetite – not to mention a thirst.

Bistro Guillaume’s steak tartare If ever proof were needed that not all steak tartare was created equal, Guillaume Brahimi’s version of the classic raw beef dish would be Exhibit A. The secret is in the balance. Here, the potentially overwhelming flavours of capers, cornichons, eshallots, chives and parsley, combined with a sauce of Worcestershire, tomato sauce, mustard and brandy, are certainly present but so is the flavour of the 90gm of grain-fed beef. The real secret of the dish’s success, according to Brahimi, is that the beef is not only chopped by hand (as opposed to machine) but chopped and then mixed to order so that the meat never oxidises. Then there’s the free-range egg yolk that holds everything together, the delicate, salty pommes gaufrettes and the baby herb salad accompanying it. It looks beautiful too, making it a tartare of both style and substance. Riverside at Crown, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank, Vic, (03) 9693 3888.

Bistrode’s duck confit with savoy cabbage and duck gizzards There’s duck confit and then there’s duck confit. You can place Jeremy Strode’s version in the plate-cleaning, bone-polishing, Burgundy-demanding latter category. Why is it so damned good? Nearly 30 years’ practice is one thing. Strode reckons he learned how to do it properly, too, from the Roux brothers and Pierre Koffmann. “Koffmann especially,” says the classically trained British-born chef. “When I was working in the south-west of France, we got in whole ducks with the foie gras still intact, and we’d render all the fat down from the birds ourselves.” Today, at his tiny, shining gem of a Surry Hills bistro, he says one of his secrets is to include some of the fat left from the previous batch when he’s confiting a new lot of legs. This magical stuff is used, too, to confit the gizzards and to sweat down the onions, carrots, garlic, bacon and cabbage that accompany the legs. Now that’s duck confit. 478 Bourke St, Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 9380 7333.

Bistro Moncur’s Provençale fish soup Damien Pignolet and his team at Moncur have made the local benchmarks for so many bistro classics, it’s a challenge to pick just one. They’re responsible for weaning Sydneysiders off rump and chips and onto steak frites on the one hand, and have a miraculous way with eggs, whether it’s in the crab omelette or the soufflés, on the other. But it’s with fish soup that they truly leave the rest of the pack in the dust. When Pignolet cooked at Claude’s, the bouillabaisse was an event and an evening in itself. Here, the menu description, “Provençale fish soup with its rouille and croûtons”, seems to signal lesser ambition, but the first dip of the spoon reveals that this is mere modesty. “My own view,” says Tarquin Winot, John Lanchester’s homicidal epicure antihero in The Debt To Pleasure, “which I relate after the consumption of many gloomy so-called bouillabaisses in northern climes, is that the dish does not travel or translate, but that, when the basic principles are understood, it can be made to adapt.” And adapt Pignolet does, wringing complex yet emphatic flavour from the likes of local rock cod, flathead, leather-jacket, mullet, blue swimmer crab, whiting and the like. Just don’t get any on your tie. The Woollahra Hotel, 116 Queen St, Woollahra, NSW, (02) 9327 9713.

France-Soir’s deep-fried lambs’ brains
France-Soir’s classic French bistro-schtick has kept it full and buzzing for more than two decades with generations of Francophiles tucking into justly famous Emmental omelettes and steak frites. But chef Géraud Fabre’s deep-fried lambs’ brains – beautifully textured little clouds of delicate flavour – have their own cult following. Fabre isn’t one to mess with the classics. The brains are soaked in water for a day, patted dry, rolled in flour and deep-fried in cottonseed oil (“the cleanest oil you can get”, in Fabre’s book) for a couple of minutes until the outside is golden brown with a slight crunch and the insides are warm and soft. A sauce of brown butter, lemon juice and capers is poured over the brains and some mesclun leaves accompany them on the plate. It sounds simple but it’s easy to overcook brains, sending them to leathery-nugget hell. That never happens here, a testament to both brains and tradition being given full respect. 11 Toorak Rd, South Yarra, (03) 9866 8569.

The Brasserie by Philippe Mouchel’s chicken liver and foie gras terrine
Philippe Mouchel’s terrine is a powerful but elegant beauty combining chicken livers, pickled pork belly, pork neck and foie gras. Though the chunky handmade look is appealing, there is nothing slapdash about it. The secret of its success – even more than glamour ingredient foie gras – is the quality of the livers, according to Mouchel. He uses corn-fed Barossa chicken livers and dices them before blending them with the other meat plus spices, port, Madeira and brandy. The terrine is cooked very slowly to keep it moist and prevent the chicken livers from becoming rubbery. It’s then pressed (in Le Creuset, naturally) for 24 hours before being served with a sweet/vinegary onion jam and sourdough toast that only add to its rustic yet refined appeal. Riverside at Crown, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank, Vic, (03) 9292 7808.

Anise’s charcuterie
Thin slices of saucisson sec, a sweet tranche of Bayonne ham, a little slab of wild-shot hare terrine – what more could you want? Baguette, house-made celeriac rémoulade and perhaps a creamy mouthful of duck liver parfait and a scatter of cornichons? Welcome to the charcuterie platter for two at Brisbane’s bistro standard-bearer, Anise. It, like the traditional pissaladière, with its crisp butter-puff pastry base, sweet caramelised onion, anchovies and salty black olives, has been gracing the small but perfectly formed amuse-bouche menu since the Brunswick Street wine bar first began popping corks. The platter changes according to chef Jonathan Bryant’s whim, but on it you might also find the likes of Cantimpalo chorizo, lonza (cured pork loin), a ham hock and leek terrine or perhaps a hunk of Redgate Farm partridge rillettes, not to mention house-made pickled onions. Just the thing to gird your loins in anticipation of the delights of Anise’s formidable selection of eaux de vie, apéritifs and wines from France and further afield. 697 Brunswick St, New Farm, Qld, (07) 3358 1558.

Must Winebar’s jambon persillé The reigning star of the Must Winebar charcuterie plate is head chef Andre Mahe’s jambon persillé. Mahe poaches his pickled pork hock with onions, celery and aromatics until the meat begins to flake from the bone. To make the savoury, parsley-flecked jelly that encompasses the pork flesh, he reduces the cooking liquid and, when it’s cooled a little, adds rather a lot of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, garlic and shallots and a splash of white wine vinegar. This meat and jelly mixture is then set in a terrine weighted with about 40kg to create, as co-owner/chef Russell Blaikie puts it, “a dense, compact terrine with just enough parsley in it to give you a break from the richness of all that meat”. Blaikie made a point of eating jambon persillé in Burgundy and says Mahe’s version, served with a helping of a rich, eggy ravigote-style mayonnaise on the side, is right up there. 519 Beaufort St, Highgate, WA, (08) 9328 8255; 107 Bussell Hwy, Margaret River, WA, (08) 9758 8877.

Libertine’s escargots de Bourgogne Nick Creswick, owner/chef at North Melbourne’s Libertine, doesn’t believe in holding back with his version of the classic snails with garlic butter (or, as the French would have it, escargots de Bourgogne). The dish follows the classic Burgundian snail trail – fat, just-chewy snails swimming in butter, garlic and parsley. The snails are imported in cans from Burgundy (Creswick says “the quality is not there yet” with the locally grown critters). The butter is unsalted and Australian and is mixed with a paste of organic garlic, sea salt, shallots and parsley. The snails arrive at the table “sizzling and absolutely drenched in the herbed butter” and extra bread is automatically offered when the snails arrive to soak up the excess. It’s no time to be thinking Heart Foundation ticks but that’s all part of the buttery attraction. 500 Victoria St, North Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9329 5228.

Bistro Dom’s crème brûlée
Crème brûlée is a dish that has been monstered by most chefs and respected by few. The secret is in the toffee crunch, which should be brittle and fragile though firm enough to crack under the weight of a tap from your spoon. The custard contained beneath should be perfectly smooth, with a gentle suggestion of vanilla. Andrew Davies, who has been consistently making this dish since he worked in Jacques Reymond’s kitchen in Melbourne in 1989 and at the fledgling Pied à Terre in London from 1993 to 1994, gets the combination absolutely right at Bistro Dom. Respectful enough not to fiddle with classic recipes, Davies is also smart enough to trust that the perfection of bistro dishes done accurately will always wow customers. 24 Waymouth St, Adelaide, SA, (08) 8231 7000.

Montrachet’s boudin blanc Chef/owner Thierry Galichet’s version of boudin blanc is a beautifully plump but lightly textured mix of chicken mousseline and foie gras, sliced into chubby rounds. Presented on a slim bed of wilted spinach, it comes surrounded by a piquant sweet-tart pear cream sauce. The boudin blanc at this slick Lyonnaise-style bistro in Brisbane’s urban Paddington offers surprising depth of flavour – the creamy umami of the foie gras bolstering the chicken, the whole offset by the creamy sauce with its subtle lick of pear eau de vie and the mineral earthiness of the spinach. While you’re visiting, check out Galichet’s legendary crab and Gruyère soufflé, his steak frites salade (replete with double-cooked, hand-cut frites), or any other number of bistro classics all delivered by waistcoated staff to your cloth-topped table. As the restaurant’s name suggests, too, the wine list is no mere afterthought. 224 Given Tce, Paddington, Qld, (07) 3367 0030.

Bistro Vue’s tarte Tatin aux poires
There are so many insipid versions of tarte Tatin drifting around that it can be difficult to remember how this dish achieved classic status. Shannon Bennett’s version at Bistro Vue makes you wonder how you could ever have doubted its worth. Peeled and halved Packham pears are added to a pan with butter, sugar, spices and a whole vanilla bean before a blanket of puff pastry is folded around the lot. As the sugar caramelises, it’s spooned over the pastry before the pan is popped into the oven. From it emerges a gorgeously rich, slightly chewy triumph, the edges of the pastry brittle and flaky, the pears retaining enough acidity to keep everything from surrendering to complete sugar overload. Teamed with a side of vanilla Anglaise, this is a Tatin by which all others could be judged. 430 Little Collins St, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9691 3838.

Belle Epoque’s cassoulet Arriving in its own black Staub cocotte, Belle Epoque’s cassoulet Toulousain is a rib-sticking festival of slow-cooked savoury goodness. With beans. In keeping with French restaurant tradition (rather than the more pragmatic home-cooked approach), this cassoulet is assembled in the kitchen by Grenoble-born chef Sebastien Labbe just before serving. The lamb is the only meat that’s actually cooked with the beans in a rich tomato, onion and veal stock but when this winter-warmer arrives at table, it’s studded with pan-fried Toulouse sausage from the Gold Coast’s Chriberg and confit organic duck from Bendele Farm. Labbe also includes smoked pork belly to add a bit of extra oomph. Make sure you bring an appetite. 1000 Ann St, Fortitude Valley, Qld, (07) 3852 1500.

Margot’s lemon tart You know before it hits the table that Margot’s lemon tart is going to be just right. The pastry is mercifully thin, lightly crisp and just edged with golden brown, the expertly cut sides of the wedge wobble and bulge just enough to reassure you that they’ve nailed the texture, and a top layer of very fine brûlée positively glistens. It meets all expectations and tastes very definitely of lemon. And the delicious house-made vanilla bean ice-cream is an ideal foil – rich and sweet. 15 Pendrigh Pl, St Helens, Tas, (03) 6376 2594.

This article appeared in the July 2009 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.