The French Saloon, Melbourne: Restaurant Review (The Australian)

The veteran Melbourne chef, faux-gruff softie in a hard man’s shell, arrives to say hello and “comp” us a little starter of clam ceviche with aioli and potato crisps (quite delicious, thank you). Tucked into his regulation chef’s jacket are tweezers, an “in” joke of sorts, subtle commentary on the battle lines that have emerged between old-school, keep-it-real kind of chefs and the artful foragers. The kind who use tweezers.

And tweezers are about as Ian Curley as the acoustic guitar is Slayer; The French Saloon, Curley’s latest collaboration with long-time associate Con Christopoulos, is as far removed from a tweezer restaurant as Israel is from Iran.

In fine Melbourne CBD tradition, the Saloon is up a stairway with zero signage (above their lawyer-laden wine bar, Kirk’s). And in fine Christopoulos tradition — for the guy has created many, many food and wine businesses in Melbourne — it appears as if it has always been here.

The man takes old buildings and retools them brilliantly, blurring the line between what was there, what might have been there, and what clearly never was, but fits anyway. Which is how you get scuffed white timber floorboards in a new restaurant, old cast-iron heaters and a gorgeous zinc bar all the way from Paris that clearly wasn’t, but fits. Like the tomato-red paint they chose for the vaulted ceiling. It’s a lovely, light-filled space where linen and bentwoods seem very right. Plus, there’s a terrace for drinks en plein air.

So they’re not trying to reinvent the wheel; just polish the spokes a little. And the same can be said for food and staff; nothing revolutionary, just real, with commitment. We visit on the third night; like the comfortable-as-an-old-jumper decor, it feels as if the restaurant has been operating for 20 years without missing a beat. The crew are totally up to scratch, demonstrating once again the great advantage restaurant groups have in staffing new places: most, I’m told, have come from other Christopoulos businesses.

There’s an attention to detail that speaks of the proprietor’s many years in the game. The food, a relaxed Euro hybrid that is by no means slavishly “French”, is down to earth and full of fresh flavours; lightened-up classics pitched squarely at the mid-market.

Curley, the executive chef, has appointed a head chef, Todd Moses, alumnus of another influential empire (Andrew McConnell’s), who gives standards just the right degree of interest to take them somewhere new.

Things such as a salad of creamy burrata, chargrilled peach, shaved roasted hazelnut, spring onion oil and braised leek with a kind of onion powder to finish. Or another salad, of beans and lovage, pickled pistachio and a crunchy seasoning of French espelette pepper. All the right stuff is happening in terms of freshness, acid and mouth-feel.

Polarising (but why?) is grilled blood sausage made in-house with chunks of smoked bacon through it (pictured), with an apple/parsley/shallot salad, beet wafers and dehydrated beet powder the colour of … blood. Superb. As is another offal dish, sweet, slightly smoky fronds of poached beef tongue on a horseradish cream with pickled red onion shards. There’s a generosity of spirit and flavour about it all.

A proper chargrilled rib-eye to share comes with marrowbone and parsley salad, plus a dark, sticky red wine jus. A whole flounder gets a rich shellfish butter, dill and chives. The shaved bottarga is generous but, frankly, competes with the sauce. It’s my only peeve.

And all the desserts are good, particularly Paraparap-meets-Paris wattleseed crème brûlée served with chocky madeleines.

At the end of the day, taking it all into account (including the bill), you only want to know one thing, don’t you? Would I go back? The answer’s an easy “yes”.

Address: Level 1, 380-384 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne | Phone: (03) 9600 2142 | | Hours: Lunch, dinner Mon-Fri | Typical prices: Starters $20; mains $35; desserts $14.50 | Summary: Keeping it real | Like this? Try …Luxembourg, Melbourne; Pink Moon Saloon, Adelaide | Stars: 4 out of 5