Woollahra Hotel, 116 Queen Street Woollahra, New South Wales 2025
|Features||Accepts bookings, Business lunch, Long lunch, Outdoor seating, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 9327 9713|
In Paris, regular patrons of Brasserie Balzar on the Left Bank staged an uprising in 1998 when it was taken over by the giant Flo Group. They formed a Committee of Defence to force the new owners to preserve its character, to continue to employ the ageing waiters and to keep pot-au-feu, cassoulet and choucroute on the menu. They succeeded and, to this day, you can go to 49 Rue des Ecoles (5th) to dine on history.
That makes Woollahra's Bistro Moncur our Brasserie Balzar. Opened in 1993 by Dr Ron White and chef Damien Pignolet, it was a 1990s success story, sending out thousands of onion gratin souffles and sirloins Cafe de Paris to its seasoned regulars. After White's death, publican John Ryan bought the business in mid-2011, with Pignolet leaving the building six months later.
So where is it at now? Ruined by the new owners? A shadow of its former self? Resting on its bay leaves? Do Woollahra diners need to form their own Committee of Defence?
Well, I must say, it looks the same, with its graphic Michael Fitzjames mural, paper-over-cloth tables, bistro chairs and vaulting timber-lined ceiling. The menu, too, from executive chef Darrien Potaka, and Pignolet protege and head chef Ben Hall, is free of surprises for any Moncur habitue.
Both the Provencale fish soup with its rouille and the pure pork sausages with potato puree are heading for their 20th anniversary next year, both having featured in Moncur's first review in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide in 1993. The Barossa chicken liver pate ($21) is also as I remember it; the smooth, rich, creamy-buttery parfait wrapped in pork fat and sent out with pickled cherries, warm, toasted brioche and very fine furls of Melba toast.
''Damien's salmon marinated in sauvignon blanc'' is still called ''Damien's salmon marinated in sauvignon blanc'' ($18.50), and has even more of a quiet elegance about it that stands it apart in a world of over-garnished crudo. Sliced - not too fine and not too thick - it's meaty and luscious, its natural oils infused with floral aromas and the soft acidity of the sauvignon blanc. And, yes, it comes with a slab of thick, hot, sourdough toast - a pox on all gravlax and charcuterie platters that come without.
Much of the joy of bistro eating is built on butter. The Rangers Valley scotch fillet ($44) - served nicely charred and perfectly rested, with thin, good-as-they-get chips - is swimming in red wine butter. Buttered cabbage - gorgeous, green, shredded - forms a bed under a thick fillet of crisp-skinned pan-fried cobia (black kingfish) fillet ($41.50), served with a good bisquey sauce and a slightly gratuitous, price-justifying, bug tail.
The only sensible antidote to this richness is as much red wine as you can drink; no hardship when the list is both classic and contemporary, running the full spectrum from Grange and Hill of Grace to a vibrant, civilised 2009 The Long Trek Pinot Noir ($68) from Central Otago.
Dessert is another Pignolet classic, the caramel-glazed apple tartlet ($16.50) leaping straight off page 326 of his masterly cookery book French. It's well-crafted, but overly filled with creme patissiere.
The crowd is drawn from the livelier side of Woollahra: dashing oldie couples, three-gen families, cougars, Lady Godivas (lots of hair, not much underneath) and a few mortgaged-up urban professionals.
But you can't talk about Bistro Moncur - or Brasserie Balzar, or Melbourne's France-Soir, for that matter - without talking about the floor staff. Michelle Packer has been there for more than 16 years and now shares the head manager's duties with Karen Sang. Darren Barnett has clocked up 12 of the past 15 years and Liza Noakes 10 years. Then there's Cherie Mitchell, Annette Baker, Garth Green, Julio Gomes, Rebecca Simmons. They're not cloyingly friendly, but they have all the right moves; they look out for everyone; they wipe the dead leaves off the front steps when it rains; they run the place as if it's their own.
So all the good things about Bistro Moncur are still in place, and a few of the not-so-good things. The no-bookings policy seems very much at odds with this level of dining and the prices are getting harder for all but the rich to justify.
But if you go, you should start with Damien's marinated salmon, and follow with steak and chips, and much red wine. Then finish with a sense of relief that there is still a Bistro Moncur in the world.
Best bit Staff who run the place as if it's their own.
Worst bit The no-bookings policy.
Go-to dish Damien's salmon marinated in sauvignon blanc, herbs and aromatics, $22.50.
Address 116 Queen Street, Woollahra, 9327 9713, woollahrahotel.com.au.
Open Lunch Tues-Sun; dinner daily; no bookings.
Cost About $160 for two, plus wine.
How we score
Restaurants are judged out of 20 on the total restaurant experience. The score comprises 10 points for food, five for service, three for ambience with an extra two points possible for something special - be it location, service, attitude, commitment or wow factor.
13 Good if not great
14 Solid and enjoyable
15 Very good
16 Capable of greatness
Restaurants are reviewed again for the Good Food Guide and scores may vary.
Terry Durack is co-editor of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.