French Cafe, Auckland CBD

By Nici Wickes

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Rating: 10/10
Address: 210 Symonds Street
Phone: (09) 377 1911

Seared Venison Carppacio at The French Cafe. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Seared Venison Carppacio at The French Cafe. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Would you believe that I first visited the French Cafe more than 25 years ago? My mother had discovered this "new place" in Symonds St. Behind the unassuming shopfront lay a world of food and fashionable people we didn't know existed. Goodness knows where we found the money, but eating there became a bit of a habit for a year or two.

The restaurant survived the heady days of the eighties, and the crash, and the late nineties saw new owners Simon Wright and Creghan Molloy-Wright take it on. Ten years on, and numerous awards for "Best Restaurant" later and you've got to know it takes more than luck to create and sustain an outstanding reputation.

I was off to find out what all the accolades were about ... and maybe to recapture a teenager's memory of being introduced to the fabulous world of food.

You are greeted warmly by maitre'd and owner Creghan and from then on you feel cocooned by a team of caring staff who tread a fine balance between casualness, familiarity and formality.

Chef/owner Wright has designed the menu with an a la carte option or the choice of a 10- or six-course degustation menu. We ordered off the menu and here's what we had: I had my own wild food festival - scallops, venison carpaccio, then duck. The scallops were cooked to perfection. Caramelised on top but barely cooked in the centre, they sat in their shells in a pool of sweet cauliflower puree and truffle butter with a concise square of porcini jelly on the side. The venison carpaccio arrived, a rectangle of colour. The meat had been seared lightly and accompanying the tender layers were baby beets, plum jelly, celeriac and horseradish cream. The beets lent an earthy flavour to the venison and the micro herbs scattered on top added a grassy freshness to the dish.

My third course, the duck, is one of the French Cafe's signature dishes. Cleverly constructed, this confit duck, with a hint of five spice and orange, accompanied by a mandarin puree, was divine in its balance of flavours and presentation. I confess I was given the French Cafe cookbook a year ago but have yet to cook from it. There's a recipe for this duck dish in it but I don't have the patience for the exhaustive preparation it requires. At $42 it's a steal and I'm happy for Wright to keep cooking mine, thanks very much.

The dinner date was on a different taste tangent with a seafood trifecta of new season's Bluff oysters, ravioli of langoustine, basil and truffle and finally the market fish, snapper. I nabbed forkfuls when I could and all were exceptional, especially the snapper. We'd been told its preparation involved an elaborate poaching method involving a bag to preserve the full flavour of the fish.

The accompanying cauliflower cream and peppery nasturtiums were more evidence of the chef's skill in putting ingredients together to craft extraordinary, yet honest food.

Desserts were sublime - mine, creme brulee, turned out on to a froth of butterscotch on a fresh apple consomme.

The thing with the dining at the French Cafe is this: you can't quite figure out how everything ends up so perfect, because it all looks and feels effortless. And therein lies the secret - the team has done the hard work to create food that is glorious, and there is a casual yet special feel to the space and service that shines, so we, the diners, can relax and concentrate on "going out for dinner".

All I've been thinking about is how I can make it my local.

Cuisine: Contemporary European cuisine
From the menu: Seared scallops $14, Bluff oysters $4 each, langoustine ravioli $26, venison carpaccio $26, crispy roast duckling $42, market fish - snapper $42, apple creme brulee $19, Valrhona chocolate delice $19.
Drinks: Glasses of Chateau La Ragotiere Muscadet 2007 $13, Foxes Island Pinot Noir 2005 $18

1-4: not good enough. 5-6: ok but needs work. 7: recommended. 8: excellent. 9-10: outstanding, book immediately.

- NZ Herald

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