"the things Melbourne and France value in dining: character, charm, classics executed well and an atmosphere-charged place to take it all in." Melissa Leong/delicious.
Last night was, at last, the night the young women of the Dearman clan took me out to dinner to celebrate my 80th. Poor Dionne had to rearrange twice - third time lucky. It has actually become a bit of a tradition - a posh meal out with them at this time of year. and it has become one of the highlights of my year. And last night's choice of venue - Smith St. Bistrot was perfect.
However, the evening's joy for me began before the actual dinner. A brief encounter with the gorgeous grandchildren and a chauffeured drive into the city - the chauffeur - or should I say chauffeuse being my daughter-in-law - chief organiser of the event. We arrived a little early and so she took us into a small bar, a few doors down for a pre-dinner drink. Left to my own devices I would never have been brave enough to venture into such a place - obviously frequented by the young and hip - I may have been their oldest customer ever - but Dionne was undaunted and we were greeted with such warmth that I wondered why I was not more adventurous. Because you miss out on so much. A glass of bubbly, a glance into the kitchen which I thought I had photographed but find I did not, and a view of artistic graffiti across the road. It was so very Fitzroy - home of Melbourne grunge. Loved it.
On to the restaurant where we found ourselves in one of the best spots - that round table you can just see in the window behind the open front door. Semi-private with a view of the entire restaurant. The photograph is not mine by the way - far too professional. As is the design of the entire restaurant which is an amazing mix of old and new - one critic described it as a pastiche and I suppose it is.
Here, with the lovely Nic in the foreground perusing the menu I think you can get some idea of the scene. There are more below. The tables are marble topped, there is a lot of wrought iron, an upstairs mezzanine section, the walls, I believe are patched with live moss, the plates I now know from having read various reviews are mismatched and various - and French. The kind of thing you find in those glorious brocantes (second-hand shops) in France. Sort of dimpled around the edges, and either plain white or with floral decorations. Then there were the red leather banquettes lining the walls, and the huge antique looking mirrors - you have to have banquettes and mirrors in a French bistro. I have to say that the decor was the thing that most of the reviews focussed on, but then you would, because it's so gloriously unsubtle - and yet subtle at the same time.
Did the food match the decor? Oh yes it did. We could of course have had the Caviar service classique at $250 to begin with, but fortunately less expensive options were to hand, although I do acknowledge that this is not a cheap night out. No - three of us decided on the Tarte tatin à oignon, which came with a large dob of tangy crème fraïche and Dionne had the terrine - which she allowed me to try and which was so very French. I really should make more terrines. They are so easy after all, although as Dionne pointed out - they don't get eaten. Well keep it for serving to a crowd, and anyway the leftovers keep for a while. And did I mention the warm rosemary and olive bread with little tubs of special butter. Silver napkin holders and silver cutlery too.
On to the mains - pumpkin gnocchi for my niece Annabelle; John dory fillet, beurre de café de Paris, anchovy, parsley for Nic; Humpty Doo baby barramundi, cucumber, crayfish beurre blanc, salmon roe (and cucumber) for Dionne; and a classic Steak au poivre for me. Just a gorgeous steak sitting in a gorgeous concentrated red wine jus and:
"a duxelle triangulating the umami-fied powers of seaweed, shiitake and truffle." Larissa Dubecki/Time Out
Which was superb, and now that I see what it was I understand why. I never cook steak at home so steak is often a choice for me. Interestingly I was given no choice as to how I like my steak done. It was served just how I like it as it happens - a tiny, tiny bit more cooked than really rare. Whether this was an oversight on the part of the waitress, or whether it was restaurant policy I don't know. And of course the frites - you have to have frites - and the beans from the top of the page.
Normally that may well have been it, but this was a special night and so we had two desserts, the Poire Belle Hélène and the Raspberry soufflé which came with some raspberry sorbet and was divine. It was more than divine it reminded me of the strawberry soufflé I had at long ago Fanny's - possibly Melbourne's top restaurant at the time - when David took me to lunch as I was about to go into hospital to have my first son induced. The last meal we ate as a couple without children. And now I have another soufflé to remember. Soufflé was on my list of never cooked dishes to have a go at this year - along with many others on the list. I have been most remiss with that resolution. So maybe I should invite them all round and have a go.
Did I mention my two glasses of wine? I noticed there was a bottle of Meursault at $550 but, of course, did not go for that. Besides we were all drinking different things. So I went with a much more modest glass of Chablis with the entrée and a Provençal rosé with the steak.
I apologise for the less than magnificent photographs I took of the evening. I am bad at these things. The food is so wonderful I almost forget, and then just point and click becauseI'm marginally embarrassed and I want to eat.
Thank you so much ladies for such a wonderful evening. I hope I didn't bore you with my tales of this and that. Another beautiful memory is laid down in my head, and partly on this page. The group photo was taken by our waitress. Apologies for the awful expression on my face. There were three photos to choose from. This was the best. I fear the two I took of the three of you are just too awful to show!