There may be a more stereotypical French restaurant than Le Garde Manger somewhere - possibly in France - but it's hard to imagine. There are the old Paris Match covers, the checked tablecloths, hard-backed wooden chairs, the carafes, the Gallic charm and heavy accents, the dreadful French songs (although thankfully Edith Piaf was off the playlist) and a menu that sticks with dogged devotion to the expected.
There is boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, navarin d'agneau, cassoulet, a wide range of galettes and, need you ask, onion soup and escargots. For some of us it will bring back embarrassing memories of pretentiously and unconvincingly posing around in a roll-neck sweater with Cahiers du Cinema and La Nausee sticking out of our pockets. But for the younger crowd it probably means an alternative to the tide of Thai and tapas and having a plateful of decent food at a reasonable price in cheerful surroundings. And, cliched as its approach may be, Le Garde Manger does remind you of the those virtues of the humbler French tradition.
On a cheerless Auckland night, we felt our mood improve as soon as we walked through the door and the familiarity of the menu was comforting rather than disappointing.
It would seem almost perverse to go against the snails for one of our first courses and I really enjoyed them, gleefully mopping up the garlic butter which is the main, perhaps the only, point of these beasts. Our other starter was more of a challenge, the onion soup being a strong contender but the chicken liver pate turned out to be a solid choice, full of flavour and with a pleasant texture.
There can be few people with the slightest interest in food who have not had a bash, under the influence of Julia Child or some other gastronomic guru, at cooking coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon, so there is always a domestic comparison on hand. This presents a challenge to the restaurant offering such dishes but the boeuf bourguignon here was just about up to the test, the meat tender enough and with a rich taste, although it might have benefited from a bit more generosity with the wine and it would probably have been wise to have accepted the offered potato side dish.
The pork fillet medallions from the day's blackboard menu looked a bit different but unfortunately they had run out. My cassoulet, also one of the day's specials, was sound without being sensational, good melting duck but slightly boring sausage and, unusually, I felt obliged to resort to the salt cellar. But there were plenty of beans and it made a very filling meal.
The tarte tatin had also run out so I opted for the cheese plate, three varieties including a blue from the Auvergne and one from Lyons. Much as I respect our own cheeses, it's always refreshing to have something different. These were good although the limp salad did nothing.
Our other choice was a crepe calva, flambeed in calvados with caramelised apple and vanilla icecream, a suitably traditional note on which to end the meal.
A restaurant meal is of course not wholly about the food, and we had an experience that left a good-tempered memory.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $144.00 for two first courses, two mains, one dessert and cheese. One glass and one carafe of wine.
Our wine: From a good list we had a glass of Henri Bourgeois Pouilly Fume '09 and a Chateau du Bourg Beaujolais 2010, which made an interesting change.
Verdict: Good value for an evening that delivered exactly what we expected. The galette menu looked good for a lunch, too.