Erinn Jordan and James Guldberg (head chef) eat at Aquitaine Brasserie. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
Remember the po-faced wait staff? The menu tomes, written not only in culinary Francaise but incomprehensible calligraphy? How about the bank-loan wine lists and atmosphere that made us sit up straight and speak in whispers?
Thankfully French cuisine in Australia has lost a fair bit of its attitude over recent decades. Or perhaps it's us who have changed. Thanks to travel and cable TV, most of us know our cassoulet from our bouillabaisse, and going out for French is no longer the stuffy, anxiety-inducing experience it once was.
The flip-side, purists would say, is that it has lost a little of its authenticity, but is that so bad? It certainly didn't seem to be on the minds of the happy crowd at Aquitaine Brasserie on a Saturday night.
An entree from Aquitaine Brasserie. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
Between Italian-accented Popolo and contemporary-Australian Stokehouse, Aquitaine opened a couple of weeks ago, and word of mouth seems to be doing its job.
It's a welcoming space that shines most brightly at night, with an amber glow that has been created with clever lighting and a huge decorative copper panel inside.
Diners can sit at the bar, high tables with comfortable leather bar stools, or, if in a group, book the private dining on the mezzanine floor. Most of the action takes place outside though. Tables are clothless, tiled and candlelit, all positioned to have river and city views.
A dessert at Aquitaine Brasserie. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
It's the perfect spot on a warm spring evening for catching a cooling breeze and toasting the fairy-lit city skyline with a glass of Chablis.
The wine list put together by sommelier Lucy George, who also oversees owner Nick Pinn's other restaurant, Malt, is interesting. It's divided by French region, but as an example of style rather than geographical location, and includes some Australian wines made in the French style in each category. There are also a friendly number of by-the-glass choices.
Chef James Guldberg's menu is contemporary French but not in that overproduced kind of way. Rather, he has kept a foot firmly in classic territory but manages to interpret old standards terribly well.
A main dish from Aquitaine Brasserie. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
Terrine, the old bistro classic, is offered on our visit as both a special (tentacle "flowers" of pressed octopus wrapped in red pepper with a whipped smoked potato puree) and a duck and rabbit version.
It's common for terrine to be served with pickled vegetables — the acid a perfect foil for the richness of the meat, as well as adding textural contrast — but so often they are just vinegary little bombs that lead to that "just ate two packets of salt and vinegar chips" tongue-numbness.
That's not the case here: rather, subtlety rules. Pickled carrot and onion and a wedge of pickled fennel have their flavours emphasised rather than smothered.
Crescents of apple have been lightly roasted in a cinnamon-scented sugar syrup, while a bunch of dried pickled grapes are reconstituted with spiced wine syrup, and prunes have been soaked in Armagnac.
The rustically textured terrine encases a nugget of silky foie gras we spread on thinly sliced baguette. I could almost have gone away happy with just this and my glass of Chablis, but the siren song of duck proves impossible to resist. It is served as a pink-hued fan of confit breast with a duck pithivier (a small round duck "pie"), a bed of kale and a delicate and slightly bitter orange sauce.
Our other dish, pork strip loin is equally good, coming with small batons of rhubarb poached until just tender, cavalo nero, a smooth white bean puree and a beautifully made pork jus.
Bouillabaisse, and hazelnut crumbed lambs brains, we earmarked for a return visit.
So far, the food so good. We almost want to leave while we're ahead, but decide in the name of research that the dessert menu needs a look-over.
Simplicity rules, with just four choices, all takes on classics: chocolate mousse with berries and orange shortbread; a tonka bean creme brulee; Cointreau strawberry clafoutis with salted caramel ice-cream; and the most traditional of desserts, served in every restaurant, bistro and auberge in France, tarte tatin.
Buttery flaky pastry with a good proportion of apple, three generous scoops of cinnamon ice-cream and shards of peanut brittle was a bookend to a faultless meal. The only criticism I can level comes with the service, not the food. While very obliging, wait staff are not as informed about the menu as they should be. Perhaps the view distracts?
- (07) 3844 1888
- Cuisine - French
- Prices - Entrees $16, mains $33, desserts $11
- Features - Wheelchair access
- Chef(s) - James Guldberg
- Owners - Nick Pinn, Peter Kedwell
- Opening Hours - Mon-Sun noon till late
- Seats - 140
- Author - Natascha Mirosch