The French Cafe, City

By Peter Calder

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Herald on Sunday rating: * * * * *
Where: 210b Symonds St
Ph:(09) 377 1911
Open: Dinner Tuesday to Saturday; Lunch Friday
Vegetarian: One entree, one main.
Wine list: Deep and wide. Two dozen by the glass.
Watch out for:The French cafe across the road.
Bottom line: Not so much a meal as a choir of angels.

Across the road from the French Cafe is a French cafe. The lugubrious patron sits outside, smoking. We parked in front. When I asked whether his chef was French he looked at me as if I had insulted his mother: "Tout le monde est francais," he replied; "We're all French here."

Perhaps it was a sideswipe at the place over the road. Later in the evening I learned that this French cafe is sometimes mistaken for The French Cafe, which must be... interesting.

You can tell the real one easily: it is not a cafe and the food is not noticeably French. It is also remarkable in that - almost uniquely in my New Zealand dining experience - the waiting staff don't ask whether "everything is all right with your meals". That is taken for granted. It's not conceit - I am sure that if I had had cause for complaint, the staff would have sensed it before I had. They're just quietly confident about what they are doing - and with good reason, since they do it very well indeed.

This was, in short, an evening with which it is impossible to find significant fault. A couple of younger waitresses swooped to clear dishes only a few seconds after they had been finished, which lent a slightly hurried feel, but it is almost churlish to mention it since they are plainly in training to become as good as the rest of the folk on the floor: witty, well-informed, watchful, affable and striking the perfect note, half-way between aloof and familiar.

The French Cafe has been around since the late 70s but under the present ownership of Simon Wright and Creghan Molloy-Wright for about the past decade. It's had a refit since we were last here, four or five years ago: it's expanded into neighbouring premises and the bar and reception have been shifted to the front of house. This has widened the formerly corridor-like room and a larger space with a lovely courtyard terrace - and, bizarrely, views into a neighbour's living room - is out the back.

Fully booked as it was on this Tuesday (you reserve weeks in advance here and they phone, like the dentist, to remind you how lucky you are), it must have had more than 50 diners but, thanks to Molloy-Wright's careful management, which staggers seating times, the atmosphere was relaxed and uncrowded.

Of the food it is hard to speak too highly. We decided on the chef's tasting menu - the more expansive of two degustations on offer - and over the next three hours 10 sublime dishes arrived in magnificent procession. From a morsel of cured salmon, topped with a crayfish jelly and nut-hard eggs of salty caviar through to a chocolate espresso - for eating, not drinking - it was an experience that verged on the religious. To single out dishes seems unfair but the pairing of a (giant) seared scallop with a cube of pork belly and a salad of tiny apple dice stood out, as did a large slab of seared duck breast which sat in a pool of whipped-cream-smooth kumara mash laced with a mandarin puree.

It is no surprise that this is regularly named the best restaurant in town. Others may come close, but none can better it.

$300 for two
- Chef's tasting menu (2) $240
- Wine (four glasses) $60

- Herald on Sunday

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