Written by Brandon (@brandothepig), Melbourne.
It was the year 2009. @brhinos and I were still discovering our foodie instincts, and managed to put together the little money we were earning into one night at one of Melbourne’s finest food pinnacles, Vue du Monde. It was five hours and nine courses of pure foodie heaven, an experience that still remains in my top 5 food experiences of all time.
We enjoyed the service of our Maitre’d who happened to be from Auckland. As I was soon to be travelling to Auckland, I asked for food recommendations. One of these recommendations was The French Cafe. And so it was in late 2009, when I visited Auckland for the first time, that my love affair began with The French Cafe.
The Executive Chef and owner of The French Cafe is Simon Wright, a chef who has worked in world class restaurants including fulfilling his dream of working in a 3 Michelin starred restaurant. During his term in London in the late 80s, he met a young Gordon Ramsay, where they struck up a friendship. Simon was so keen to learn from as many chefs as he could, that he would spend his days off working in other kitchens for free. Gordon told Simon that he could work at his legendary mentor Marco Pierre White’s restaurant, the now defunct two Michelin star Harveys, and the best way to do it was to just show up. Simon has a fantastic story, which is detailed in his book, The French Cafe Cookbook. In 1999, Simon and his wife/maitre’d/sommelier Creghan, took ownership of The French Cafe restaurant in Auckland, New Zealand, and transformed it into an award winning food destination.
My first dining experience at The French Cafe was exceptional, one of the best meals I’d eaten in 2009 (behind Vue du Monde). I loved it so much I kept some old photos of the experience and wrote down what I ate that night. I was 5 minutes late for my reservation, but my table wasn’t ready. Immediately I was looked after with a temporary seat at the bar, complete with a complimentary bowl of olives and a glass of the fine Laurent Perrier champagne ($26/glass). Once the table was ready, I had a three course meal, starting with an amuse bouche of salmon tartare with avocado puree, cream cheese, wasabi and roe, served in mini cone. I knew straight away, this was going to be the start of something amazing.
Entree: JAPANESE INSPIRED TUNA – dashi jelly, wasabi cream, avocado, sushi rice sorbet, seaweed cracker, tobiko ($25.00). This was on the specials list and was one of my favourite dishes of all time when I first tried it.
Main: CRISPY ROAST DUCKLING – sweet spices, steamed bok choy, mandarin puree, kumara mash, jus of oranges ($40.00). A signature dish of the restaurant, that remains on the menu today.
Dessert: RASPBERRY SOUFFLE TART – raspberry, strawberry and rhubarb salad, white chocolate sorbet, pistachio praline ($19.00). I wanted to pair this with a wine, to which the sommelier recommended the 2003 Chateau Belingard Monbazillac, which was spectacular.
I enjoyed the food and experience so much, that the first thing I did when I returned to Auckland the next month, was to drive straight from the airport to The French Cafe. Unfortunately it was still closed for the holiday season. Over the next couple of years living and working in Auckland however, The French Cafe would become my top restaurant choice in Auckland AND New Zealand.
Fast forward to 2016. After moving back home to Melbourne, I hadn’t crossed the Tasman sea for over three years. I knew eventually, the time would come to visit Auckland again. I couldn’t wait to revisit some of my favourite food hotspots. Last month we took the leap over the ditch, with The French Cafe number one on our food hitlist.
I kept an eye on the website booking availability, but managed to book a table on the day we wanted by calling the restaurant directly. My return to The French Cafe was going to be a surprise date night for my wife, and I was proud to say, The French Cafe lived up to all expectations. The food, wine, service and company were all spectacular that night, one of the best meals we had across our food hunting holiday in New Zealand.
The Food Journey
We made the decision not to go with the degustation as I knew I wanted the quail, the tuna and the beef, which weren’t on the tasting or set menu together. So we opted a la carte.
The night started with an amuse bouche of goats cheese wrapped in cucumber croquette. While I’m not the biggest fan of goats cheese, the cheese mash was really well balanced, flavourful and not overly “goaty”. A very solid start. 9/10
To our surprise, the next dish was also compliments of the chef, consisting of smoked salmon powder, salmon roe, goats cheese, asparagus, edamame and crumb. It was a pretty dish with a savoury, intense crumb, paired nicely with an equally intense salmon powder that was chilled. It was lovely mix of texture, temperature, flavour and balance that wasn’t over powering. 8/10
An interesting smoked and cultured butter (both hand churned) came next, served with warm bread. I could have eaten a whole bowl of that smoked butter…
Up next was the Tuna. I jumped at the chance to re-live the first dish I ate at The French Cafe, the Japanese inspired tuna, and ordered the sashimi tuna starter, with soy milk, oranges, pickled ginger, puffed rice and sesame. While it was a different dish and it wasn’t quite the same (is it ever?!), the orange notes, ginger notes, even pineapple like flavours jumped out, all the while not taking away from the fish. This was done by an experienced professional. Fresh, well balanced and nicely seasoned. 8.5/10
Next came our “second course” of king fish ceviche, prawns, coconut, avocado, chilli, lime leaf and mint. The dish was fresh and full of complementary flavours. The kingfish had texture, flavour and a freshness that only quality produce has. The prawn had body to lift the dish to the next level. There was the right amount of zing with the chilli, and the dish just seemed to all dissolve beautifully in my mouth. 10/10
Then came the Dish of the Night. The Roasted Quail wrapped in bacon, served with wild mushrooms, chestnut, croissant and black truffle. I could smell the flavours leaping out at me when the waiter put the dish on the table. The dish was intense! It had depth, flavour, body and complexity. The quail was beautifully cooked, but it was the quail sauce and Simon’s twist on a classic bread sauce – the croissant puree – that made this dish lick-the-plate-exceptional! The croissant crumb and chestnuts were a good finishing touch. This plate was THAT good, I consider eating this dish as “my last meal” (common question to chefs). I bought Simon’s second cookbook, Saison – A Year at The French Café, so I could make this recipe. AMAZING. 10/10
For those without access to the cookbook, I remember taking a chef masterclass by Simon Wright as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine show in 2012, where he demonstrated an earlier version of this dish. To my delight, the recipe is still online! You can find it here.
Then came the mains. We ordered the Market Fish which was snapper, served with buttermilk puree, crab, sweetcorn, sprouting broccoli and basil. The fish was tender and juicy, and masterfully paired with the greens, herbs and juicy corn that popped in your mouth. 9/10
One of The French Cafe’s signature dishes is the Crispy Roast Duck, with sweet spices, Asian greens, mandarin and kumara. I’ve had this dish on numerous occasions, and it is a good dish, although I must say I do prefer other items on the menu. Tonight the duck was slightly overcooked but there’s a reason why this dish has stayed on the menu for so long, with the combination of the orange, five spice, kumura and a mandarin zing creating a winning taste profile. 8/10
I was so tied between what to order for mains, I made the executive decision to order three mains between the two of us. “We’re on holiday and it’s date night at The French Cafe!”, was my justification. The third main we ordered was a similar style to the quail dish, which in any case, was a good thing. The Aged Beef was served with miso, burnt onions, eggplant, shiitake, buckwheat and wasabi butter. As expected, the dish was packed with flavour, with the roasted onions and mini chopped chives creating an effect that amplified the intensity. Beautiful dish and tasty despite a very full stomach. 9/10
The sheer volume of food we’d consumed meant that now, even our dessert stomachs were full. A risk and sacrifice we were willing to take in order to conquer the savoury menu. We’d let our waiter know we were moments away from our stomachs exploding, but he convinced us to try the granita palate cleanser of lychee, banana, freeze-dried blueberry and vanilla yoghurt.
Our waiter was right. The granita and fruit medley was refreshingly delicious and well crafted, so much so it unexpectedly became the second best dish of the night. Even though my stomach was about to split my shirt and belt open, I could have eaten a full bowl of it. I hope to see it on the menu next time. 10/10
We were left with a lasting impression that The French Cafe is alive and well, potentially the best it’s ever been. Can’t wait to our next trip to New Zealand! Highly recommended.
Until next time, happy eating!
Written by Brandon (@brandothepig), Melbourne.