26 Elouera St Braddon, ACT 2612
Canberra diners have Peter Harrington at Sage to thank for not a few things – making Gorman House as beautiful and upmarket as it should be, focusing with serious and obsessive intent on the most carefully grown and reared local produce, and, the point at hand, bringing some impressive talent from overseas to work in the city.
I'm thinking at the moment of Frenchman Clement Chauvin, who arrived at Sage from the Michelin kitchens of France still in his 20s in 2010. After almost two years doing some smart things there, he went to work for James Mussillon at Water's Edge, a difficult gig, given the out-of-the-way location of that restaurant. And now, he's going it alone.
Les Bistronomes looks like what it is – a cautiously set up, owner-operator business without masses of money sunk into the fit-out. The room is simple, dark carpet, a banquette down one side, a brick wall, bare tables, with just a few touches to lift it into smart territory – primarily the wall-long folding or sliding doors that will presumably be opened to the footpath on a warmer evening and generous striped chairs. There are plenty of tables on the pavement, also, in this Braddon spot that was for some years occupied by Delissio.
Chauvin has opened what he's calling a French bistro, and it sits closer to the upmarket end of dining than the other French bistro not so far away – the grunge-hip Pulp Kitchen in Ainslie. Chauvin's style is refined and very precise, despite what is an obvious determination to keep things more casual. A round of house-made tomato-flavoured butter and bread arrives as you sit, and the fresh, light tomato butter is an idea you'll recognise from Sage.
The menu is a one-pager, with just a handful each of entrees and mains, a welcome succinctness. Next time, we will go straight to the "plats pour deux" rather than fiddling around with the more structured entree and main part of the menu, since you get the distinct feeling that's where the action is. But this time, we try a bit of everything, starting with the "escargots et fillet de porc en persillade" (all entrees $17). I love simple French snail dishes with parsley and garlic but this is only partly successful, perhaps because of the unnecessary addition of rather tasteless pieces of pork and some grittiness in the snails. The parsley cream, though, is robust and deep with parsley, nicely seasoned. The house-made potato crisps are always a happy addition, and the petals are pretty.
Our other entree is an excellent thing. "Oeuf facon cocotte", which promises an egg with soldiers and asparagus. The egg is the star here. It's been whipped into a warm kind of savoury sabayon, if there's such a thing, a kind of foamy mousse, and served in the shell. Delicate and delicious. The asparagus is shaved lengthways. It's very pretty, with petals again – something of a signature touch by the looks – and fresh fennel.
But where this meal shines and offers something different to what you'll find elsewhere in the city is the shared plates ($88 for two). We order the bouillabaisse before realising that it is supposed to be dinner for two and supposed to be pre-ordered (it is described as dinner for two, and is in a separate little box of dinner for two on the menu – the other dish is boeuf en croute, a traditional beef Wellington with mushroom duxelles and fois gras). But they're accommodating enough to take our order and offer a half serve.
We are so happy we ordered this. The bouillabaisse is more fish stew than soup, in a wide tureen, the gravy dark and earthy, spiced, and with more fennel in here, as well as a pile of seafood – scallops, red mullet, scampi, snapper. Alongside is a board with charry toast, half a roast lemon which is a difficult and lovely touch, and an excellent rouille – a garlicky rich mayo. Unusual and delicious, it inspires us to order simply the plats pour deux next time.
We've ordered from the straight mains list also – canard a l'orange (all mains $36). This is a very sophisticated dish and we're put off when it arrives by the complex, over-plated presentation, since we're here for the promise of a casual bistro.
We look at it and wish we'd ordered the steak. As we eat, though, we swallow our negativity in admiration for the clarity of the tastes in this duck dish, which makes it feel more simple than complex. The piece of duck fillet is robustly flavoured and beautifully textured. The shredded cylinder of shredded duck meat rolled in pistachio is likewise intensely flavoured and good.
There is an intense licorice sauce, so thick and sticky you have to scrape it from the plate, some carefully pared orange segments, and two orange sauces - a darker spiced jus lovely with star anise, and a bright fresh orange sauce. It's a bright, focused and very well-handled dish, if over-thought in the context.
Peas with lardons and greens ($9) on the side are fitting. As is Edith Piaf on the turntable. The wine list looks largely to France, as you'd expect, but also to smaller and lesser known wineries of Australia and New Zealand in an unusual, succinct and quite intriguing offering. They offer 375ml options also, which is a good thing.
Desserts (all $14) have a lot going on. They're of the pretty, loose, intense and complex style you'll see not only at Sage but at so many restaurants abound the city at the moment. Strawberry and elderflower charlotte is a spring dessert, a brightly flavoured wobble of delicate charlotte with rose-pink fluffy floss, a little salad of cucumber, a sorbet which we don't enjoy so much, and lovely pink meringue wafers.
We're more enamoured of our other dessert - chocolate mousse with avocado, with the very dark mousse spilled out of a chocolate tube, excellently rich, with blobs of avocado and chocolate also on the plate, plus the petals, which finish the meal where we started – pretty looking and intensely focused in flavour.
Les Bistronomes is thankfully not trying to copy the loud underwear-on-the-outside youthful appeal of this part of Braddon. We like the craziness, but they can't all be like this, and chefs must be true to themselves if it's going to work.
Les Bistronomes is aiming to keep its focus off the high end of dining towards a more casual offering, but is also intimate and studied in the food. Clearly, Chauvin has the goods to make this work. In our view, offering dishes at the simple and gutsy end, like the bouillabaisse, will be the key to this.