32 Commercial Rd Prahran, VIC 3181
|Opening hours||Mon - Sun 12:00 – 11:00 PM|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Degustation, Events, Green-eco focus, Groups, Licensed, Lunch specials, Long lunch, Outdoor seating, Private dining, Pub dining, Romance-first date, Wheelchair access, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9999 0990|
|Free wine for Citibank cardholders here|
L'Hotel Gitan is the realisation of a Reymond family dream: to captain a pub of the people. Pre-opening it was pitched as a casual joint serving family-friendly French food where the collars are unbuttoned and the good times roll. In reality, the most pubby thing about the old Hotel Max now that it's in the hands of Jacques Reymond, his wife Kathy and his progeny (Antoine, Edouard and Nathalie, who also run South Yarra's mod-French/Spanish Bistro Gitan) is its curved brick Art Moderne frame.
You may still find the odd posse of women sucking on Virginia Slims and loading ice cubes into their (very good) wine on the patio, but beyond the threshold this is unquestionably more a smart French-ish bistro than your new local boozer. When we show up without a booking on a Wednesday night we're given a look that implies this is a mistake. It is, for the record. There's a row of seats at the bar to cater for walk-ins, but every other table can be booked and has been filled since L'Hotel opened in late November.
The room is all smoky mirrors, cushioned banquettes, marble and brass, with a long, shiny bar backed by Escher-style tiles and a drinks list far more heavily weighted towards educated winos and cocktail fanciers than beer buffs.
Central to the action is an open kitchen flanked by cushioned bar stools, where you can sit and watch the eight cooks searing steaks, plating elaborate salads and attempting to suppress their natural rage under the watchful eyes of iPhone-armed diners. This set-up has to be one of the most perverse dining developments of the past 20 years. And people love it. If you're lucky you might see Jacques Reymond himself make a fast cameo. But it's actually head chef Adam Smith, alumnus of Reymond's eponymous fine diner, commanding the fishbowl.
The pan-European-and-sometimes-Asian menu tends to give traditional bistro and pub numbers a gentle nudge rather than a kick in the pants.
You might start with hunks of Moreton Bay bug in crunchy tempura jackets served with harissa mayo, a swipe of smoky baba ganoush and a few citrusy chickpeas. It's the best version of the ubiquitous Deep Fried Thing with Spicy Mayo bar snack I've come across in ages.
The menu follows the formula of a rich French base, freshened with some form of exotica. A grilled slice of potato terrine holds giant pools of melted foot-ripe Comte and comes with lightly pickled king brown mushrooms and turnips. Boudin blanc and boudin noir sausages are countered by an apple relish and a swipe of sweet corn puree.
The nicoise salad is deconstruction gone right. You get a triple whammy of tuna – a thin seared steak smothered in a mustard dressing on a green bean bundle, ribbons of raw tuna cured with a little ginger and soy, and a creamy heap of poached fish, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and tiny capers, bound with mayonnaise and topped with half a soft-boiled egg.
Is that salad expensive for $36? Kind of. Despite the promises of family-friendly feasting, you probably wouldn't file L'Hotel Gitan under "cheap Tuesday with the kids", unless you drive a Beamer and consider having a house cleaner to be a human right.
Small steaks with good pedigree are about right in the early 30s range, served with a bowl of crunchy, fluffy double-fried chips and a whipped bearnaise or a lime, chilli and coriander-driven salsa. But some of the dishes really go for the gouge. The pork indochine bun is a bastardised banh mi featuring a crumbed cube of pork belly, a black vinegar and liver pate, a sniff of salad and a seeded mustard-egg dressing. It's delicious, but it's also a two-bite slider for $13. I also struggle to find the value in a $14 dish consisting of three chicken spare ribs – one of the cheapest offcuts on the market – and a few spoonfuls of barley tabbouleh.
Smith and crew can cook, no question. But if you're going to pay a premium, then you begin to look for the next-tier service and that doesn't always correlate. Each time I've showed up, both with and without bookings, there's been several minutes of standing around in the doorway waiting for someone to notice. The service, once seated, is friendly and professional, but pedants may notice the little slips, like your $16 glass of Denis Pommier chablis being poured with labels obscured.
Does that matter? Not really. It's just a matter of realising that this isn't quite the freewheeling pub promised, nor the more formal bistro you know. Right now, it's in between, but that's still a tasty place to be.
Best bit: The open kitchen stadium
Worst bit: Confused personality
Go-to dish: Nicoise salad - a triple hit of tuna done three ways, $36
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18Excellent 19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best