Address: 177 Sandringham Rd, SandringhamL
Ph: (09) 815 6992
French restaurants in Auckland are a bit like buses. You wait ages for one to show up and then a whole bunch come at once. Remember when Alex Roux opened Bouchon in Kingsland? Gingham tablecloths; escargots; a waiter who was all "mais oui" this and "bien sur" that and said things such as: "May I recommond un differont vin wiz ze brains?"
Since, French places have opened with dizzying speed - Le Garde-Manger, Winehot, Ile de France, La Cantine du Torchon. Others, among them Roux's classic brasserie Pastis, have had time to open and close as well. But by comparison with 10 years ago, Aucklanders are still spoiled for choix.
My mate Andrew lives around the corner from the Kingsland strip, so he has plenty of options for economical eating out but he was keen to have me try Le Petit Bocal.
A bocal is a jar, in case you're interested (I'll leave you to handle the "petit") so the name conjures up warm and fuzzy homely images of the preserves - everything from fruit jams to confit duck - that the French do so well.
It's a fitting moniker for a place that keeps it simple and devoid of pretension.
The restaurant, in a small block of local shops just past Eden Park, is a plain, white space which has been minimally tarted up with some nice touches: a huge old window frame reincarnated as a wine shelf is set into a tiled back wall behind the bar; the tables, including a large communal one in the centre, are made of rough-sawn timber; and the spare adornments include a pleasing cluster of Henri Cartier-Bresson photos on one wall. The impression from the street is perhaps slightly cold (although that will matter less as the weather warms up) but undeniably chic.
Le Petit Bocal is the work of Paris-born Matt Gosset and partner Jess Brewer who started the La Boulange bakeries, and it's the epitome of the simple bistro. It operates all day, and the breakfasts have a French accent (sardines with your boiled egg; cream with the mushrooms). Lunch is soup or savoury tartes or baguette sandwiches, and their croque monsieur (the French version of a ham and cheese toastie) is celebrated.
The Professor and I were in for dinner, though, and I was keen to have her try the board of pates and terrines that Andrew had introduced me to. That first night it had been titled "Pigs and Pickles", which would not have endeared me to the Professor, who has a great fondness for pigs (rather than pork, if you see what I mean).
Fortunately there was an alternative called "Duck, Duck, Goose", proof positive, if proof were needed, that brevity is the soul of wit. This turned out to be a terrine made from confit duck, the coarser and chunkier rillettes and a rich goose-liver pate (in a jar, of course) sealed with a plug of butter so substantial that I swear I could hear cheering in the Fonterra boardroom. I presume the bread it came with was from La Boulange and it was damn fine (although I still reckon La Voie Francaise in Dominion Rd makes the best baguette in Auckland) and we dawdled over it and a couple of glasses of the excellent Heron's Flight Matakana sangiovese.
They don't have a mains menu at this place, but rather two or three "plats du jour", which is a great French habit. They'd run out of the chicken supreme, the French classic that was one of Julia Child's signature dishes. What remained was something involving pork belly and a veal blanquette (a creamy stew), which was what I chose.
It was not a happy choice. Having made the dish a few times myself, I know what it's meant to be like, and theirs was quite nice. But it contained five (count 'em) small cubes of veal and a slice of carrot next to a pile of rice, which seemed a bit tight-fisted for $28.
The Professor thought the grilled goat-cheese atop her pear and walnut salad was also perfectly nice but the walnuts were not fresh. There was however, no faulting the desserts - this is a French joint, after all.
I have enjoyed an excellent soup and steak frites here, and I think the lapses were one-offs. I'll certainly be back.
Vive le bocal.
Verdict: Simple and satisfying