Address: 210 Symonds St, Newton
Ph: (09) 377 1911
Here's how to feel like a VIP for the night. Trust me, there's no need to hire a helicopter to transport you to a luxury lodge. And don't even think of enlisting a PR company to organise your own "exclusive" party, complete with a guest list of 300 strangers. It's much simpler than that. Phone The French Cafe and book in for dinner. And even if, as in our case, there's only the early sitting (5.30pm) on offer, say yes, because time becomes irrelevant once you are cocooned inside this most beautifully organised restaurant. You will be greeted with the utmost warmth, then ushered to your table in one of the two dining rooms (it matters not which one in my view, they both have their advantages) and after that, you will be treated to an evening, where brilliant service never misses a beat and dramatically exquisite food just keeps on coming. Whether you leave feeling important or not will be up to you, but I can guarantee that you will feel special because owners chef Simon Wright and Creghan Molloy-Wright (pictured above) have geared the experience of dining at their restaurant to making each of their guests feel incredibly cared for.
I seriously considered focusing this entire review solely on the little extras that you receive during a dinner service here. I swear if we'd had only those, I could still have given the rating above. The warm rolls, baked in-house and served with herb infused butters, were chewy and fantastic; the amuse bouche did exactly what it is supposed to do in providing a few thrilling mouthfuls of flavour and texture to charge our palates with anticipation for what was to come; the simple orange and persimmon granita, a gift from the kitchen served to diners just before dessert, ensured that savoury tones were gently cleared away to make way for the sweet things that followed.
On Wright's menus you'll find a visionary mix of local and regional ingredients, like nasturtium, wild mushrooms and native seaweeds, combined with the world's best offerings of iberico ham, fresh white truffles and caviar.
When the first of our dishes arrived we stared at them in stunned silence. A fig and beetroot tart, so perfectly round it seemed unbelievable, on which sat a warm baked French goat's cheese so soft-looking that I was overcome with the urge to squeeze the snowy, white plumpness. My own dish was equally as glorious; three handmade dumplings settled in an onion miso broth. The tender dough casing gave way to a smooth filling of potato and cheese and it was one of the sweetest mouthfuls you could ever imagine.
Aged beef fillet followed, with boned out short rib, rendered soft (and an incy wincy bit dry) and served with a smoked potato puree. I'm not sure why they serve a special knife with this dish as it was so deliciously tender that a spoon would have been sufficient.
My dinner date ordered one of Wright's signature dishes, the duck, and was bowled over with how good it was. I needed no convincing as I'd had that dish the last time I dined there.
A small copper pot contained our only side dish - cauliflower cheese - and brought a whole new meaning to this favourite staple. Tiny florets, perfectly cooked were bound in a rich creamy bechamel, punctuated with the gentle sharpness of cheese. Every spoonful whispered "comfort".
The desserts were the only slight disappointment in an otherwise impeccable line-up and strangely it was because I found them overworked. Where other dishes may have involved as many processes, they nonetheless managed to appear simple and harmonious whereas the two desserts we selected were works of art, but Jackson Pollock-like in the number of components appearing on one plate. The rhubarb was less than perfectly tender in one and the blueberries seemed unseasonal and out of place on the other. But these were tiny qualms relative to the magic that we had witnessed.
There are exciting plans afoot for The French Cafe. By spring time they hope to have a full and flourishing garden in the courtyard, off which there will be a new dining space, complete with its own kitchen, where small groups can gather. Aah, the unbridled joy when you know that something so right is about to get even better.
From the menu: Roasted French goat's cheese $26, potato cheese dumplings $26, crispy roast duckling $45, aged beef $45, buttermilk rhubarb $20, lemon meringue $20
Drinks: Extensive wine list