Review: The French Cafe
Ph 377-1911. thefrenchcafe.co.nz
Hours: Dinner Tues-Sat, lunch Friday.
Dinner bill: Entrées $20-$26; mains $45, desserts $20; tasting menu $140.
By Simon Wilson, March 2013.
All over town this summer, good restaurants were serving heirloom tomatoes with melon and maybe a few pieces of crustacean tail. Also: crab risotto, venison with cherries, scallops in a buttery sauce, lamb with goats’ cheese and other “rustic” flavours, the same market fish (snapper) with vegetables in a broth, a chocolate dessert, and strawberries and cream. And, of course, roast duck leg.
All of those dishes were on the menu at the French Café, because the menu there leans heavily on standards and the currently fashionable. Although, I should add, they did not offer beef steak, chicken, scallops with black sausage, a risotto main, crème brûlée or a pav. That means there is some churn, and also that they don’t feel obliged to satisfy every standard whim.
They have a few less-obvious dishes. Egg-yolk ravioli, for example, invites you to burst the yolk over a delicious mix of smoked potato, asparagus, peas, parmesan and iberico ham — all right, so it’s a glorified bacon and eggs with trimmings, but really, food doesn’t come much more glorified, in the word’s true heavenly sense, than that dish. Or many of the others.
And that’s the French Café. You don’t go to eat differently. You go to eat better.
Chef Simon Wright does definitive — famously the duck, and also crab risotto, skin-on snapper, boneless lamb rack and, my favourite, the tomato and melon starter. He uses modern methods for flavour enhancement, not quirkiness. Forgotten how good a tomato can taste? Or melon? Don’t miss this dish. It comes with scampi tail, which turns gorgeous into magnificent.
It’s not hard to guess why Wright’s menu is as it is. He has, I would say, more regulars than in most top restaurants, and quite a few of his more-casual diners would be out-of-towners and others looking for the renowned “top fine-dining” experience. Neither of those groups will want experimentation as much as would the diners at, say, Merediths, Sidart or Clooney.
But there’s something else about Wright: he clearly relishes applying classical methods to just a few ingredients, to discover how good true cooking can be. That’s his thing. He doesn’t do anything radically unexpected, but he does like to give you a bonus. Kingfish ceviche, for example, comes with a wonderful apple jelly and various salad ingredients, and would be superb if he stopped there. But it also has — you taste it and you want to laugh, it’s so inspired — caviar. So while I might like a couple more surprises on the menu, that’s a pretty small complaint, because I’d say yes in a heartbeat to anything Simon Wright cooked.
The place has been redecorated and the surroundings are beautiful, the lighting soft, the tables well spaced and the wine list brilliant. As for the service — Creghan Molloy-Wright and her floor staff operate like the rhythm section in a piece of music, subtly, seductively marking the beat while the food provides its soaring, transformative melodies. I know, that sounds overblown. But it is that good. Out the back Xanthe White has redone the courtyard and they’ve opened the French Kitchen, a Katie Lockhart-styled pavilion for groups up to 30. It’s so charming.
You could fall in love at the French Café, and I imagine people do. You can certainly celebrate love there — it’s popular for anniversaries. But I would say, watching diners on three recent visits, that the people who like it most tend to be old friends. The whole experience provides the perfect backdrop for an evening of treasured companionship. With fine dining, it’s easy to feel awkward. How wonderfully well the French Café has overcome that.