"Come on funsters, good times await, and we won't tell if you don't." Photo: Joe Armao JAA, Joe Armao JAA
We're Melbourne diners, so we live our lives in the backstreets, don't we? We're au fait with laneways and we disappear into basements, dart to rooftops and find it very boring to eat on main roads (unless from a van). Well, sometimes, and not always, and perhaps just a bit. But still, I'm a little weak-kneed about Hell of the North and the frisson started with its side-street location (off Smith Street) and its beckoning yellow door set in a window-free bluestone wall that seems to say, "Come on funsters, good times await, and we won't tell if you don't."
The restaurant's name comes from a killer French bike race, but the place isn't torturous at all. Behind that door, a cluey crew delivers French food and wine and a smart Melbourne experience in a series of hidey-hole rooms. Make of the place what you will: French onion soup at the bar, beer on tap and home early? Sure. Settle back for the night with cocktails and the $65 feed-me menu? Absolutely. Sneak in at midnight for beef tartare and fries from the supper snack list? Sorted.
Chef Sean Marshall trained with Melbourne's French food master Philippe Mouchel, then spent two years cooking in top French kitchens. His food pays deep respect to classical traditions but keeps a canny eye on local culinary breezes. There are excellent renditions of dishes rarely spied in Melbourne these days, except perhaps in venerable cookery reference Larousse Gastronomique.
Paupiettes of flounder are painstakingly filleted, rolled with crayfish and prawn mousse, poached and dressed with rich seafood bisque. Gnocchi parisienne, another old-timer given new life, are made with choux pastry (rather than potato dough) so the dumplings are in the same family as eclairs. They're flavoured with mustard and tarragon and tossed with buttery mushroom and pumpkin. The delicious sweet smoothness of the dish is cut with vin jaune, a sherry-like aged wine.
The retro Frenchy theme persists with flambeed crepes suzette, but there are also on-trend dishes both savoury (farro salad with smoked goat's curd) and sweet (salted caramel mousse).
The drinks list is dominated by French wines at approachable prices, with Euro-style Australian examples bringing up the rear. Like the good-value food, the wine list bursts with savvy enthusiasm and I foresee plenty more adventures behind that jaunty yellow door.
Four stars (out of five)
- 03 9417 6660
- Prices - Starters, $3-$24; mains, $20-$27; desserts, $12-$13
- Features - Licensed
- Cards accepted - EFTPOS, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
- Opening Hours - Wed-Fri, 5pm-1am; Sat, noon-1am; Sun, noon-11pm
- Author - Dani Valent