11 Toorak Road South Yarra, VIC
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, BYO, Late night, Licensed, Long lunch, Pre-post-theatre, Romance-first date|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9866 8569|
Unfortunately for me, the 1986 Good Food Guide's writer has already done my job. Jean-Paul Prunetti's Toorak Road bistro entered the book that year. The blurb could stand almost unchanged. "If late in the evening you fancy some freshly shucked oysters, a pepper steak with a basket of pomme frites and a bowl of good salad, this is the place." Amen.
Restaurant Hubert may have bedazzled Sydney with its glamour and late night dining, ditto Entrecote on Domain Road. But the promise of steak, champagne and the kind of hospitality that has seen tequila being procured to fuel Bruce Springsteen's middle-of-the-road cricket match at 3am – that is a bargain France-Soir struck with Melbourne three decades ago and has never faltered on.
And maybe therein lies the secret to a business still so flush it's wise to make a booking. Or maybe it's a crew with not just years, but decades, of experience navigating paper-clad tables with the escargot, marinated salmon and onion soups that will never leave the menu. Geraud Fabre, only the second head chef in the restaurant's history, has manned the pass for 22 years.
It shows. Melbourne, a sucker for the new, still worships nostalgia. But while at, say, Pellegrini's, history is the draw more than the gloriously ugly plates of lasagne plonked on the counter, here the hit you get passing beneath the blue neon sign is met with highly edible, if cholesterol-damning food. When you order a special of the tiniest prawns, saltily dusted and fried to eat by the handful with mustardy aioli, they're better than any of the school prawns you've had in bars of late.
Jokingly, food has been called the excuse to get at the phenomenal 3000-bottle-strong French cellar, but you'll eat happily at France-Soir. Your steak is quality beef, a point that isn't trumpeted. They'll cook it however you like and serve it with herb butter or creamy mushroom sauce because the basket of crisp salty fries and everything on either side – maybe escargot in pools of garlicky butter; thick blanched asparagus napped in fluffy hollandaise, or a poached egg, stained purple with wine for breaking over a mushroom, bacon and red wine-drenched crouton – isn't rich enough.
Perhaps the swinging kitchen doors, tarts crested with strawberries in the counter, and caramel woods create a date stamp. But France-Soir, a trailblazer in its beginning for serving bread sans plates, for making casual dining with great service a thing, and maintaining a French-Australian cellar that has made it every sommelier's day-off destination for years, mostly moves through time unscathed.
That wine list especially, managed by Pierre Stock and now available to buy online, treads the Old and New world broadly, kindly providing explanation of cremants and non-vintage champagnes. There are burgundies you can't afford, but always Loire chablis and Barossa reds you can.
When you think you're ordering too much, you are. Carry on. The balance between the crisp shell and creamy centres of lamb brains is dead on, cut properly with capery dressing.
A creme brulee is textbook. Breaking the crust is like crushing brittle insect wings.
What's a fitful sleep and dropping a few pineapples when it means truly living large like the '80s, when lunches were long, heart disease a mystery and dishes were designed to taste rather than look good?
You still see big names, wheelers and dealers and men and women with improbable facial structures slip into tables. One colleague books lunch along with a day of leave. At any given moment, someone is jumping up as they recognise friends and running outside for a smoke. Imagine if France-Soir sold cigarettes alongside their entrecote and bordeaux. But they've never needed the crutch. The rest is enough.
Pro Tip: Phenomenal wine aside, you can still BYO every day except Saturday.
Go-to Dish: Here is a place to trust offal – the lamb's brains are perfect.