Herald on Sunday Rating: 3/5
Address: 265 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby
Ph: (09) 376 2516
I might never have made it to this unassuming French place if I had not decided to audition French Toast - the Parisian-chic trio of Linn Lorkin (the Piaf of Ponsonby), Herschel Herscher (accordion) and Peter Scott (bass).
I was thinking about hiring them for a party. I'm no longer thinking about it. They're hired. Check them out and you'll see why. They play at La Cantine du Torchon often, in a corner near the door (Herschel manages to raise his hat to anyone who comes in without stopping playing, which is one of the coolest things I've ever seen) and they make you feel like you're in Montmartre or the Marais.
In fact, the place had already impressed me with its French style before I got anywhere near it. For a start, the website doesn't work and hasn't worked for weeks, though they may have fixed it by now.
Second, whenever I rang to make a booking, there was either no one there or they couldn't be arsed answering the phone. I twice left a message and no one called back. When I finally rang mid-evening and got a human being, he told me in a very thick French accent that of course he had called me to confirm, but I hadn't answered. I could almost hear him shrug.
Anyone who has ever tried to make an arrangement with a French person - in particular a member of the civil service of la Republique - will recognise this as being classically Gallic. How they managed to get that Eiffel Tower up I simply cannot imagine.
It was just as well we booked, though, because the place was heaving. Many people had turned up just to hear the band and enjoy a drink at the bar. Those of us who had decided to eat were wedged elbow-to-elbow in very Parisian proximity. This meant you never ran out of conversation partners, but you had to be careful that when you raised a forkful of food to your mouth, your neighbour didn't eat it by mistake. Making sure you don't order the same thing as the person sitting next to you is possibly a useful tactic.
Now my French is barely better than schoolboy-level, but I wonder about using the word "torchon" in a restaurant name. It means "tea towel", which doesn't seem an ideal association to raise in a diner's mind ("Let's go to the Dishcloth for dinner").
But presumably something has been lost in translation, because there's a Torchon creperie in Elliott Stables, and Le Coup de Torchon - "a wipe with the tea towel" - is a popular restaurant name in France.
As the word "cantine" suggests, this place is more bonne cuisine than Guide Michelin. The menu is dominated by galettes, the savoury buckwheat pancakes that are indelibly linked with Brittany, where they originated, but have been enthusiastically adopted by other French regional cuisines.
The so-called "Complete" is the equivalent of your ham-and-cheese toasted sandwich in that wet and wind-lashed part of France, but the Professor was very taken with the Latine, which foregrounded basil pesto with a rich ratatouille. At $12.50 to $17.50, these make for a filling budget meal. The buckwheat flour batter makes a heartier pancake than the classic crepe, but it was still light and delicious.
The rest of the menu is short and sweet: entrees of terrines and charcuterie (cold meats); soups (including French onion, naturellement); and a couple of salads. Three or four main dishes (plats principaux) usually include boeuf bourguignon (beef stew), a steak and a fish dish.
I was attracted by the snails, which come already shelled and are really just a way of adding texture to pure garlic butter, which you dip your bread into and hope your GP is not walking past at the time you eat it. The duck salad was routine but honest and hearty - the slices of duck were big and moist - and a dish of baked hapuku only slightly overcooked. As crepes suzette, lit at the tableside, flared all around, we exulted in a rhubarb creme brulee and tapped toes in time to the music.
With a wine list that overwhelmingly favours the quaffable French and deals in handy 500ml carafes, this is a tasty, unpretentious slice of la belle France. Just set aside a week or so to get your booking organised.
Very French, which can be a good or bad thing.