Left to Right: Top row: Roasted Goat's Cheese Tart ; Seared Duck, mandarin, kumara ; Lower row: Ballantine of Quail, truffled butter, croissant puree ; Top Chef Simon Wright with UPN.
French Cafe : Restaurant Review (I)
4 stars out of 5 (Excellent : the first top-class fine-dining meal I had in New Zealand)
Visited in August 2012
Auckland , New Zealand
Consummating a wait of close to two years to experience this institution of Auckland fine-dining ,I finally stepped into it with a truckload of expectations tempered by a wry sense of sobriety. Wooden lattices covering the restaurant's street-facing walls and doors gave an almost Japanese aesthetic and minimalism. The neighbouring bar and cocktail-lounge's facade was more ceremonious. Once settled at my table, I hoped for excellence if nothing else and let the show begin. A complimentary amuse bouche had the concentrated vegetal flavour of pumpkin soup topped off by the woody essence of hazelnut foam. Beside it, Goat's Cheese balls had a rich creamy body ripening inside a crisp shell. The discipline in their cooking held out hope for anticipated higher pleasures in the offing.
On being asked to recommend a satiny white wine with low acidity, my hostess selected a Marc Brediff Vouray 2010 which I accepted- 'twas a decent example of the expected elixir. Stewart Island Oyster,presented with a host of refulgent associates,was consumed in one rainbow mouthful that created splashing waves of fresh,succulent and crisp bites.In its aftermath,the marine undertug of the oyster left a lingering mark. Next- On a black plate, a classy rendition of tuna sashimi was lightly seasoned,thereby conferring a welcome zest to its silken flesh. This was complemeted with thin slices of calamari,crunchy vegetal cuts,,creamy side-'licks' and the rich sharpness of a sushi-rice sorbet -it was a cousin of the composition eaten just before - an elegant, swirling waltz of surf and refreshing turf.
French Cafe's ambience is only par for the course. This place is not interested in blowing you away with opulence. Comfy black chairs without arm-rests ,standard-issue table-top decor, and black carpets afford basic elegance. A large abstract painting -akin to the the pattern of red wine voluptuously swirling into a clear viscous medium adorns a wall of the inner dining area where I was seated. This location has a sleekly compact view of the chefs in action. Freebies like bread shells provided bang for hidden buck only after being anointed with smoked salted butter. Crayfish Canelloni further enriched with bechamel sauce was good but not outrageously so, and its leek-based accoutrement did not sing. Tenors then shifted to a higher better level with Langoustine risotto that was boldly al dente,and given softer persuasions by pairing it with a shell-fish foam finely redolent of its intended essence. The troika on the plate was completed by mustard ice-cream- a restrained but keen creation that brought compatible sharpness when mixed into the other two. It was a refined example of how to make dessert slip back into the savoury courses.
Service, though polite and accomodative, was a mixed bag. Sure,they'll explain all the dish's components to you before each course, new cutlery is placed on a petite block of wood each time a new course starts, and every member of the staff I spoke to, including the maitre'd, had commendable knowledge of the dish's constituents. But empty plates took time to be cleared off, feedback is rarely,if ever,asked and my glass of diminishing water initially took one hour to be re-filled.
Anyway,'twas inspiring to see the French-looking head chef at the kitchen's forefront busily constructing and composing for almost the entire length of my 210 minute meal, while purposely avoiding any confluence of gaze with his customers. His snappy supervision revealed its class in the eating. A balantine of quail was exquisitely docile,wrapped as it was in a smoky coat of bacon and crowned by truffled butter.Parked beside it was a gear-smoothening innovation of "Croissant puree" which was lushly creamy and lightly infused with oven-baked aromas.Seared duck was superbly cooked with a crisp exterior. The gentlest parts of it were sashimi-like in their satiny softness.When simultaneously sampled with bok choy, luxuriously buttery kumara puree and sweet mandarin sauce, it continued to synthesize harmonious symphonies.
A 9 course meal here stretches across 3 and a 1/2 hours- apart from lavishing every facet of your attention on how the restaurant around you functions, you also have time to contemplate life's fullness. One can also note finer details of service, like the hostess changing a tablecloth by slipping in the new one against the receding one in such a way that the table's bare surface is never exposed.However,this long span also accentuates the odd moment of disappointment. Roasted goats cheese tart, served over beetroot onion fig and a pastry disc enclosed by circles of red-wine-balsalmic was the only dish that did not deliver cohesive pleasure. Champagne granita avec frills stood in as my requested replacement for a buttermilk dessert- 'twas a decked-up palate-cleanser rather than a handsome dessert.I was disappointed by the kitchen's reluctance to go-for-broke on that replacement.
The end of this NZ$145 Chef's 9 course tasting menu worth its tariff was signalled by Textures of Chocolate - a pond of choco mousse amply studded with crunchy chocs'n'nuts and a couple of orange slices that overall packed invigorating vibrancy while the eponymous ice-cream's chilled clouds provided bracing contrast. As the night drew to a close (there will be several future visits), Chef Simon Wright agreed to my request for a quick meeting and was very kind as I congratulated and praised the man profusely. After all, it is not daily that I get to taste the cuisine of a meticulous craftsman,an expert artist.
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