March 24, 2016 / 1 Comment
One of Auckland’s most iconic restaurants, The French Cafe has been stamping it’s mark on the Auckland fine dining for over ten years. Hidden away in a corner of the Auckland outer CBD where one would not expect to find such a high end establishment, the blacked out windows give little indication of what lies inside.
Winner of Best Fine Dining, Best Chef and Best Service in the 2015 Metro Top 50 Restaurants awards and holder of three hats as awarded by Cuisine Magazine, there really is no excuse to pass over The French Cafe when you are looking for a special dining experience in Auckland. Much to the surprise of those that know me, I had somehow managed to leave this restaurant off my dining list for sometime. Let’s just say I’m very glad I rectified that on this trip.
Stepping through the blacked out Symonds Street entrance, it’s clear as soon as you enter that The French Cafe is an elegant affair. Muted tones, dimmed lights, statement art and a pared back refinement lay a clean canvas for Chef Simon Wright and his team to stamp their signature cuisine on. A passion for nature and seasonal produce is evident from the naming of their latest cookbook, Saison, to the flowers and plants showcased in the art, and in the outdoor garden. On a warm Summer’s night you might get the opportunity to dine in the outdoors looking upon the fireplace, herb and vegetable garden, and the restaurant’s own beehives. The love for seasonal produce and flavours is reflected in menus that change with the seasons – just a couple of days prior to our arrival this was updated to herald the arrival of Autumn.
While we evaluated both the tasting menu and A la Carte option, we delicately munched on a small bite brought to the table, a sweet corn zucchini roll that was a lovely warm up for the tastebuds. In the end we were so enticed by the variety of tempting dishes on the A la Carte menu that we decided to choose our own four course menu. Before we embarked on our dining journey, a larger amuse bouche arrived that was certainly more impressive than your usual. It would more than pass for a first course of a tasting menu. The pumpkin theme of the amuse bouche was certainly fitting with the new Autumn menu, and presented pumpkin three ways – as a puree, agnolotti and broth. Poured at the table, the broth had outstanding flavour and was the first indication of the night that broths are certainly a French Cafe specialty. The puree was silky smooth and gave a satisfying textural contrast to the slightly sweet and crunchy oats and hazelnuts.
eggyolk, celeriac, toasted rye, autumn leaves – $25
juniper, blackcurrant, walnut, wood sorrel, beetroot – $25
The venison arrived diced and more tartare-style than I had anticipated, and together with the juniper berries, beetroot and walnut made for a very forest floor-like combination. Pleasant, but this dish was totally blown out of the water by the Mushroom Broth. Again we were reminded of The French Cafe’s mastery when it comes to broths – the umami, mushroom flavour coming through in the liquid was unreal. So many elements came together in this dish to create an earthy symphony of flavours, not least the fresh tasting celeriac puree and the rich, oozing egg yolk. The rye and leaves added crunch and rounded the dish off perfectly. One of the dishes of the night and the best vegetarian dish I’ve tasted in recent travels. Kind of a big brother to the amuse bouche we had enjoyed earlier and wanted more of – so was very well received!
mushrooms, bacon, chestnut, croissant, black truffle – $32
carrot, langoustine, gingerbread – $32
The pork belly was a special of the day and could be ordered in second or third course sizes, we chose second. The pork belly meat was tender but unusually had a soft skin instead of crackling – the crackling wasn’t one hundred percent necessary to complete the dish but let’s face it – everyone loves crackling! The langoustine was sweet and perfectly cooked. A great dish, but I’m going to give this round to the Roasted Quail. What an amazing, unique dish – I’d go back tomorrow just to order this dish. I had expected a tiny portion of quail on the bone, and instead was surprised to find comparatively large ballotines of bacon wrapped quail on the plate. It may not have made for the most beautiful photo, but again Chef Wright showed that again he leaves no texture excluded on the plate. I love the balance in the execution of each dish – plenty of thought has gone into creating harmonious combinations. The truffle, chestnut, mushroom – all amazing, but the flavour that really sent my tastebuds into overdrive on this dish was the croissant. What a crazy stroke of genius. The sweet, buttery croissant crumble really elevated the subtle smooth flavours to something I’d never tasted before. Loved it.
CRISPY ROAST DUCK
sweet spices, Asian greens, mandarin, kumara – $46
miso, burnt onions, eggplant, shiitake, buckwheat, wasabi butter – $46
Our third course and the ‘main’ of the night made for an interesting round. We were told the Crispy Roast Duck has been on the menu for ten years and simply can’t be removed – they have regulars who come monthly just to eat this dish. Sets the bar pretty high doesn’t it! I rarely meet a duck dish I don’t like, but this one I found a little difficult. A very interesting preparation of the duck cut itself – it appears like a plump round ball of meat with a leg sticking out of it – apparently this is from some of the breast remaining attached and being wrapped around the base of the leg to create this alternative presentation. The meat was mostly very tender, and the kumara gave a gentle sweetness. What totally dominated the dish however, was the mandarin. I’m not a massive fan of duck l’orange so when I discovered this dish was mandarin overload it was a little disappointing for me. I also could have used more sauce as it ran dry before I had finished the large amount of meat on the plate, making the finish hard going. Similarly, the Aged Beef had a flavour that took over proceedings and not in a good way – the buckwheat. Extremely bitter, it soon became a mission to dodge the buckwheat in the dish and that grew a little tiresome and spoilt my enjoyment of the dish somewhat. As I find is pretty standard across the world, mains these days seem to be the low point of the meal and this was no exception. They paled in comparison to our earlier courses and after having such amazing dishes they just didn’t impress.
Much to our delight we were treated to a pre-dessert before the parade of final courses arrived. Another standout small dish, this was a deconstructed pavlova – meringue, passionfruit sorbet, kiwi fruit, blueberries and vanilla custard. We would have been happy if that was all we had for dessert, it was delicate and delicious.
caramelised milk, hazelnut, malt powder, mandarin – $22
peaches, buttermilk, white chocolate, raspberry – $22
TOFFEE APPLE PARFAIT
vanilla cream, blackberries, nougatine, feijoa – $22
baked custard, pastry leaves, almonds, sultanas, jasmine – $22
For the dessert course we sampled all four options on offer, and for me the Caramel Pear led the pack. Toasty caramel, pastry and nuts balanced nicely by the pear and custard. Perfection! The Toffee Apple Parfait took out second place for me, a huge range of flavour pops and textures surprised and delighted in this dish that was enjoyed unanimously. The Textured Chocolate pleased the chocoholics at the table but chocolate desserts don’t really excite me, nor do chocolate/citrus combinations. The Poached Apricots, which is the dessert included in the tasting menu, really didn’t resonate with me. The buttermilk let everything a bit watered down and milky, lacking in distinct flavour. It was the least favourite of the four as judged by our table of diners.
The service was exemplary and attentive without being overly so, and very friendly and helpful. Can’t fault it. I was also shown their private dining room with cellar and ‘The French Kitchen’, their larger private space with it’s own kitchen demonstration space.
The wine list was very well curated and I dare say you’d be very happy with any selection off the list. We started with one of my all time favourites, the Nevis Bluff Pinot Gris 2014, and followed with the Neudorf Tom’s Block Pinot Noir 2013. Both reasonably priced and delicious.
I spotted two beautiful looking cookbooks on the way out and must check them out at a later date!
If you are visiting Auckland or living in Auckland and haven’t been yet, make sure you add The French Cafe to your ‘must dine’ list. Just remember to book well in advance as it can be tricky to get a table and almost impossible at short notice. You’ll no doubt have an amazing time in the hands of Chef Simon and the team.