Few thrills: Le Grand Cirque's cheerful bunker. Photo: Ken Irwin
There's an inescapable irony, in this bread-and-circus-obsessed city, to be sitting in Le Grand Cirque thinking about bread. The lack of it, specifically - although the popcorn, at least, is free. Swish aside the heavy black ceiling-to-floor curtain separating the cavernous dining room from the unsettlingly dark entrance galley, and behold the popcorn machine. A festive carton of the stuff - fake bacon flavoured - lands on tables before water and menus. It's designed to set the scene: the restaurant as entertainment. Tres moderne.
But the bread, that'll cost you. And that really sets my scene. Five bucks for five slices of baguette and salt-sprinkled butter. In a French restaurant it's nothing short of a dereliction of duty. Especially when underneath all its modern theatrical posturing it's as quintessentially Gallic as a Citroen running over a lost beret on the Champs-Elysees. Le Grand Cirque is essentially new scaffolding erected around the cultural relic of the French bistro. A menu with such ethnic clarity these days is almost breathtaking: from pissaladiere and pork rillettes to mussels a la Bretonne and steak with blue cheese sauce.
It's so French the bread situation is a borderline international incident, and certainly worth taking up with Manu Feildel if you can fight your way to him at the pass. The chef-turned-reality-TV-judge and Australia's most improbable dancing star single-handedly accounts for the circus component of Le Grand Cirque. Saturday night, four weeks into opening, he's the headline attraction for the five-deep queue waiting for photos and autographs. It's a fascinating window into the strange, cultish world of the celebrity chef.
Go-to dish: Beef tartare topped with Jerusalem artichoke crisps. Photo: Ken Irwin
Le Grand Cirque is Feildel's first Melbourne excursion. He's hopped into bed with the Made Establishment (Press Club, Hellenic Republic et al) at the site formerly housing the group's Greco-Italian Mama Baba (euthanised before its second birthday - don't tell me we're not living in harsh restaurant times).
It's easy to imagine Escoffier smiling benignly down on a menu given to remarkably little cheating, unless you count the tiny Jerusalem artichoke crisps decorating a puck of beef tartare with an excellent hand on the sharpness. The capers and shallot are cut to miniature to highlight the ripely silken meat. Or a textbook pissaladiere - the crust more shattery than some - with silvery anchovies and strips of capsicum striped across the onion's long-cooked ooze.
Snails prove once more they're the French abalone - a textural thing, oui? - drenched in garlic and parsley butter and partnered with the wobbly curd of roasted bone marrow. A good pearl barley and mushroom risotto outdoes the Italians at their own game, the unforgiving grain rich and luxurious.
A puck of beef tartare (left) and pearl barley and mushroom risotto. Photo: Ken Irwin
The frites, on the other hand, are pale, flaccid, and far too unexciting for anything fried in duck fat. And the skin on the coq au vin - no gnarly old rooster but a plump and tender young chicken - is too enthusiastically caramelised (I think the less polite term for it is ''burnt''), although the lardons distract attention by leaching their flavour into the baby onions and mushrooms bobbing in the russet-coloured wine sauce.
It would be great to see Feildel get to the literal guts of French cooking but it's pretty clear his TV audience is setting the pace. It's a pity. I'm convinced it's the French above all others who could turn the most committed offal-phobe on to brains or tripe. France-Soir's just up the road on that count, although Le Grand Cirque counters with a sophisticated French-leaning wine list - not as encyclopaedic as its august rival, to be sure, although it uses an Enomatic system to offer mortals the chance to taste a 25ml splash of Bordeaux.
The My Kitchen Rules crowd ought to lap up the modern concrete bunker, with a proper bar eyeballing the open kitchen and diners perched on cheerful yellow banquettes underneath a black and white movie projected silently on the wall. They'll like the way Feildel visits tables, and they'll like - deservedly - the creme caramel with salted toffee crust.
I wonder if they'll be disappointed that underneath the ruffles it's simply a polite, middle-rung French bistro with polite, middle-rung French bistro food; solid rather than thrilling. Apart from the bread, though. That's not so much Gallic as galling.
The best bit Dinner and a show
The worst bit More adventure, please
Go-to dish Tartare de boeuf, $22
- 03 9207 7421
- Cuisine - French
- Prices - Typical smaller dish, $14; main, $30; dessert, $15
- Features - Accepts bookings, Licensed, Wheelchair access
- Chef(s) - Manu Feildel
- Owners - Manu Feildel & Made Establishment
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Diners Club, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Daily, 5pm-midnight
- Author - Larissa Dubecki