Let's eat: French accents

By Peter Calder

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Confit duck legs is a bistro classic.
Confit duck legs is a bistro classic.

All things considered, it's probably no accident that Bastille Day is in the middle of the French summer. You can just imagine the January conversation in the bistro: "Alors, Alphonse. Are you coming to ze protest down at ze prison? We are going to show zis Louis a chose or deux."

"Zut alors, Guillaume, you must be fou! Eet ees snowing. Prends another glass of vin and we'll leave it until July. I ear ze cassoulet is excellent here."

The phrase "a French restaurant" was once the last word in luxury. Before the term "ethnic food" entered the dining-out vocabulary, this country drew much of its identity from Britain. Most of the cooking was English, too, which is to say it was bloody awful.

Little wonder that when restaurant dining took off in the post-war era, French names topped the bill: Le Gourmet in 1954, La Boheme in 1956. The names tipped a hat to the fact that French food was classy.

The French may not have invented eating out, but the language of England's cross-channel neighbour has furnished our language with the lexicon: cuisine, a la carte, omelette, au gratin, the aforementioned gourmet.

French is a language in which you can use the word "gastronomie" without sounding like a tosser. And the food's quite good, too.

The dour Anglo-Saxon, who called toast and tea an evening meal, adjusted to this cultural colonisation by ridiculing it with all those jokes about frog's legs and snails and garlic. But anyone who is serious about eating out can't ignore the French. And why would they want to on the eve of Bastille Day?

In the past few years, Auckland diners have been well served by French eateries -- as opposed to places that just scatter French words over their menus. In 2007, I wrote that there were only two French places worth the name in the city: Bouchon in Kingsland and St Tropez in Parnell. Since then St Tropez has gone middlebrow Italian, but Bouchon has spawned various offspring.

Alex Roux, who founded the Kingsland place, moved on to open (and sell) Torchon in Elliott Stables, which specialises in crepes and buckwheat galettes; the old-school brasserie Pastis (gone but not forgotten); and La Cantine du Torchon in Ponsonby's Three Lamps (which is now called Frenchie).

Florent Gibert, who worked for Roux before striking out on his own, opened Le Garde-Manger in the old terraces at the top of Queen St, and with a nice circularity now has a second branch at what was Bouchon. (In the process, he rescued it from the brink of disaster to which it had been led by a non-French owner who stuck a lurid LED "Open" sign in the window that, to me at least, screamed "stay away").

I've not visited Winehot in Morningside or Ile de France in Newmarket for some time, but both delivered an authentic experience when I did. All of the above unabashedly buy into the stereotype with gusto: gingham tablecloths, faux antique clocks, decent French wine lists and classic bistro dishes.

The Professor and I dropped into Frenchie one night last week, where I checked with Alex that he knew what "frenchie" meant when we were at school (he does). He's ditched the galettes in favour of a menu of bistro classics, and I think the place is better for it.

We enjoyed a couple of confit duck legs -- the Prof's atop a rich yet sprightly cassoulet of beans and pork, which achieved the requisite balance of crisp skin and moist flesh -- and were reminded that only the French can do a great creme brulee.

The next night we were across town at the Kingsland branch of Le Garde-Manger (it's the French word for pantry, more or less) where Gibert himself was presiding. Interestingly, he told me that business is tight in the precinct, where parking can be hard and there's little foot traffic.

That's a shame because there's some great eating there, not least at the French place. They do a fantastic coq au vin, a heart-warming feed on these winter nights, and the full complement of Breton-style galettes.

There's no excuse, then, not to mark Bastille Day with a rousing "Salut!" Special menus and excellent music (French Toast in Kingsland, Club Manouche in Ponsonby) are guaranteed. Bon appetit.

legardemanger.co.nz;
frenchie.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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