LET them eat steak. While you might not quite hear the people sing (singing the songs of “hangry” men) there’s definitely something Gallic in the air, and it’s not a Gaulloise fug. There’s a French revolution afoot in our city.
Revered chef Philippe Mouchel is taking over city basement space that once housed Brooks, where he promises his famous rotisserie chook when he opens Philippe later this month.
Then there’s Florent Gerardin – last seen cooking to great effect at Pei Modern – who will head up the kitchen at modern French Oter when it opens in the old Yu-u Flinders Lane site (also scheduled for later this month).
And if it’s steak we must eat there’s no better place for one than French Saloon, the latest addition to the Con Christopoulos /Josh Brisbane/Ian Curley culinary cannon, who are now staking their claim to both ends of town.
Theirs are venues that eschew fame and shun fashion and are effortlessly timeless – yet thoroughly modern – and always busy as a result.
The European. City Wine Store. Kirk’s. These day-though-night places are the embodiment of what people speak of when they talk of Melbourne being a vibrant eat-drink city.
And unlike Rusty in Les Mis, French Saloon has struck a chord; open for just a couple of months, the space already feels loved and lived in, comfortable in its skin happily blessed by genetics.
It’s a simple, light-filled space: mismatched bentwood chairs around timber tables – some draped, some naked – on rustic whitewashed floorboards. Stark white walls are offset by a brilliant red feature roof, with the long, vintage zinc-topped bar a highlight for both its looks and what it dispenses.
A good line in classic cocktails keeps things on theme – a gin-soused French 75 is one of my favourite ways to take bubbles; there’s a calvados old fashioned for an apple-licked twist on the original, and it’s nice to see the return of the sidecar – likewise aperitifs that run Lillet Blanc through a dry and dry (vermouth and ginger ale).
The menu, designed by Curley along with head chef Todd Moses (ex Supernormal), is undeniably French in intent, though seen through Melbourne eyes: bistronomy with an upward inflection.
Classic flavours, excellent execution, it’s a tight, medium plate-heavy offering. What it lacks in revolution it makes up for with class.
An exquisite plate of Petuna ocean trout provides reason alone to visit. Cubes of the bright orange, vibrant, luscious fish are teamed with pickled and dried fennel that delicately cuts through the oily creaminess of the trout with aniseedy bite. A salty hit of oyster cream adds another element of luxury ($19.50).
A salad of mozzarella is lifted with the inspired addition of leeks, the two hidden under thin apple rounds that add crunch to soft, perfectly ripe peach quarters. Hazelnuts and basil finish a plate that sings of the season ($21).
Clam escabeche – deshelled, generously meaty, sharp bite – is served with a bright saffron aioli along with house potato crisps to scoop the lot through ($17.50). It’s perfectly enjoyable, especially with a crisp Provence rose ($13 a glass) from the French leaning by-the-glass list. The full list, sharing a cellar with Kirk’s downstairs, is equally Eurocentric, considered and filled with interest, but does err to the higher end. And there doesn’t seem to be the effortless enthusiasm for exploration and experimentation from the staff here as you’ll find at Kirks, but service is otherwise efficient.
While it’s not to everyone’s taste I loved the tongue, the thin ribbons with the most wonderful creamy texture had a deep smokiness that beetroot slivers provide textural form to, their earthiness the function. A dusting of fresh horseradish atop, a squiggle of soured cream underneath; it’s bold and unapologetic ($17.50).
Side dishes are equally accomplished and interesting, whether the green and yellow beans with lovage, crushed pickled pistachio and garlic ($11), or the large quarters of gem lettuce served with anchovy and manchego for creamy saltiness ($11).
And that steak is, to be expected, excellent. An ever-changing selection of meat, sourced from Victoria and Tasmania depending on beast and cut. The simple steak frites ($35) comes under the glorious mustard marrow crumb crust that you also find served downstairs and is as good as you’ll eat anywhere. Excellent hand-cut chips, a dollop of Dijon. Simply perfect.
It might be more evolution than revolution, but no one is going hungry in this saloon.
Lvl 1, 380 Little Bourke St, city (enter via Hardware Lane)
Ph: 9600 2142
Open: Mon-Fri, noon-midnight
Go-to dish: ocean trout, oyster cream, fennel