Sun-drenched loft: Inside French Saloon.Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
It’s not as French as you might expect, this stunning new wine-flavoured bistro by the European Group. But Con Christopoulos, Josh Brisbane and Ian Curley’s sun-drenched loft – which you’ll find above Kirk’s Wine Bar casually looking like the New York loft apartment of your 20s boho dreams, effortlessly serving steaks, curious wines and Eurocentric snacks – is probably better than you hoped.
It’s tempting to play “who wore it better”, given almost everything you’re going to love, including the steak offering that narrows your options to a butcher’s cut and a dry-aged show-stopper; the acid-forward snacks that cut, slash and refresh the bistro classics; and the wine list that navigates with confidence through the Old world and the New comes at a time when all of those things are “A Thing”.
But in spite of the multiple new joints such as Marion and Embla that champion the brave new world of wine dining; or the incumbent progressive-French we’re likely to see when chef Flo Gerardin opens Oter next month; or even the themed pomp of Entrecote, where it’s more about throwing bottles of fizz around than analysing your steak-frites; the ace in the hole here is the same as it has always been with the European Group’s stable: French Saloon fits no fad.
Oysters are served on elegant porcelain plates.Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
This venue lives in that zone where comfort food doesn’t mean a lack of innovation and white linen doesn’t mean you have to sit up straight. It already feels equal parts old and eternal. Familiar. And really good.
You can already see how easily it will fit in your life with the seasons. Right now it’s all about warm nights on the terrace with an impressive aperitif list that goes beyond pastis and Lillet Blanc to pimento ginger beer spiked with gin, a vaguely nutty Bridge Road pilsner or something more experimental from sommelier Russell Keightley’s list that unites big-name and grower champagnes with the wild berry funk of Fairbank Ancestral Sparkling rosé.
To match it all there are oysters showered with horseradish and bottarga for added heat and funk, and tomato-rubbed croutons draped with anchovies and crisped lardo, which, like a lot of the dishes, read more broadly European than French.
Whole dry-aged rib-eye with a trio of onion rings.Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
On the location: take a moment to pity the tenants who until recently called this high-ceilinged loft, with its distressed white walls and floorboards and big windows that look out to Hardware Lane, their home. The jungle-red ceiling, and French-imported zinc-coated bar are new, but someone used to take a bath where the mismatched antique tables are now strewn, some of them dressed in linens and roses, the others bareback. Poor them. Lucky everybody else.
Back to the plate: executive chef Ian Curley is exhibiting his typical agility when it comes to interpreting Euro classics. You’d sometimes worry about how many flavours are at play if he, or Todd Moses, the ex-Circa, Golden Fields and Supernormal recruit charged with bringing them all together, were lesser chefs.
It might be as broad as a charred octopus tentacle with sweet roasted tomatoes, fennel fronds and basil with, wait, sweet gherkin? It’s a wild mix that somehow works.
Wattle seed creme brulee topped with a chocolate madeleine.Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
See also the cool rags of mozzarella jumbled in with buttery baby leeks, more basil, toasted hazelnuts and a double play of peach – both roasted and shaved fresh rounds, which envelope the dish.
Pickled clams translate like escabeche: a mix of bivalves and vegetables in a sweet pickle liquor, contrasted with a saffron-forward aioli and the base-note crunch of cellophane-thin potato crisps.
The soft waves of lightly smoky ox tongue countered by pickled red onion and a sorrel emulsion, and the thick wedge of black pudding dressed with a bright clutch of apple, herbs and bright sails of par-cooked beetroot are offal anyone could love.
The flavours have wings, but the technique has roots. Whole, dry-aged rib-eyes have seen the grill from the start, and come sliced off the bone with both a pan of Vegemite-y red wine reduction and a herb-blitz you might call chimichurri.
Gently smoked and slightly chewy duck breast is fanned over a sticky, bitter-sweet and Christmas-spiced mix of cherries, radicchio and the shredded confit duck leg.
One dessert unites a perfect chocolate madeleine and a cumin-y wattle seed creme brulee with toffee that shatters like an iPhone screen.
It’s all in the balance. Right down to the broad, but sharply curated wine list embracing both the Jura and the Yarra, the crunchy Arfion chardonnay and keenly priced bordeaux. It’s more a fresh bistro than a French one, but that’s good news for everyone.
Pro tip: Private dining room with a secret entrance? Book it.
Go-to dish: Mozzarella with a double hit of peach, herbs and baby leek sums up the style ($21).
Like this? Go back to where it started and pull an all-day stint at the European and Siglo, 161 Spring Street, Melbourne.