The basement restaurant's soft grey interior.
The basement restaurant's soft grey interior. Photo: Michael Dodge

Basement, 137 Flinders Lane Melbourne, Victoria 3000

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Permanently Closed

Three things tell you you need to come to this restaurant. On top of the counter: six tarts, perfectly symmetrical in a way that desserts haven't been in years. Behind it: French-born chef Florent Gerardin, one-time student of Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon, alumnus of Vue de Monde and most recently Pei Modern. And somewhere in the midfield, the one and only Geoffrey Rush – definitive proof, as Melburnians know, that this is the current place to be seen.

You still get yakitori down in this Flinders Lane den that once held Yu-U. Only today, it's a concertina of rabbit belly served with a riff on Jacques Pepin's blanquette.

This is Oter, where Gerardin is bringing back the sexy of symmetrical tarts and veal-head terrines, but also grilling prawns on a Japanese binchotan grill.

A selection of symmetrical tarts.
A selection of symmetrical tarts. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Contemporary French is the official line, or as Gerardin is insistently putting it "French sans cliches". But this isn't old world made new. It's simultaneously both.

On the one hand, Gerardin's cooking has a distinct lack of garlic, soy as a salt fix and mirin as a vinegar go-to. There's the chance to go omakase-style at the kitchen bar where chefs primp plates with Gallic intensity – a situation you should embrace. But Oter is also the French-est thing to happen to Melbourne since Jacques Reymond hooned into retirement on a motorbike.

You begin with breakfast radishes and butter, fresh churned from Schulz Organic cream. A gratuitous cheese display graces the bar, dragged before you just as your defences are weakest. And behold: a doorstop of meaty, savourily spiced boudin noir that's a straight-up homage to Ducasse.

Bread, butter and breakfast radishes.
Bread, butter and breakfast radishes. Photo: Wayne Taylor

This is hoof-to-stem cooking using produce gained only through some impressively tight relationships with suppliers.

The tete de veau is a specialty you won't find elsewhere. Vic's Meats scoured hard to find veal heads, which are brined and roasted, the sweetbreads, tongue and meat picked and pressed to a terrine, which is sliced and warmed on the grill and finished with a rich sauce gribiche buckshot with riced egg, cornichons and herbs.

It's evident early on that avoiding richness is a challenge best forfeited at the door. Snackage takes the form of crisp crepe cigars dripping kurobuta ham and foot-ripe Cantal cheese. Whitebait protrude from salty, shaggy potato waffles, for running through lemon creme fraiche.

Tempting: the cheese display.
Tempting: the cheese display. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Meatwork across the board is astounding: mustardy pots of rabbit rillettes are perfectly enriched with duck fat. Soft pink waves of Blackmore's beef tongues sparkle with a cornichon, caper and beef jus dressing.

Cliches? There's a million. They just happen to be the ones that make France great.

Like Coda and Tonka, the other babies of owners Kate and Mykal Bartholemew, who are joined here by Tom Hunter, the set-up is modern, minimal but built for comfort, the space transformed to a soft grey shell, where the chairs are broad, the glassware fine-stemmed, and sketches of the birds of La Rochelle prevent things from looking too harsh.

Tete a veau (veal head terrine) with sauce gribiche.
Tete a veau (veal head terrine) with sauce gribiche. Photo: Wayne Taylor

And drinking at Oter, under the guidance of ex-Dinner sommelier Jordan Marr, is exciting. And expensive. It's primarily French, small-producer stuff: grower champagnes, burgundies with age and varietals you've never heard of. Marr is an exceptional guiding star who hopefully never has a day off, as one busy night shows service sits at 80/20 in favour of excellent versus not-quite-tooled-yet to sell those by-the-glass options that run from $15-$40.

Back on the plate a verdant nettle soup with little dabs of cream and rosemary oil is so perfect that the intense smoked eel it washes around is a hitchhiker we could take or leave. Cobia wings, brined, steamed, and picked into rough hunks hide in a forest of cool kohlrabi ribbons lightly dressed in a bright mustard and mayo dressing. Crunch.

Constant evolution is evident across a number of visits. The menu for example, initially all in French, is now semi-translated. The rabbit blanquette – the leg and breast meat a little too firm and salty to start – is being cooked longer now to relax the flesh.

Raw swiss brown mushrooms with seaweed vinegar.
Raw swiss brown mushrooms with seaweed vinegar. Photo: Wayne Taylor

On the flip side, shaved raw swiss brown mushrooms, fruity against fresh ricotta with a subtle seaweed powder, is now more intensely flavoured with seaweed vinegar so it pings rather than plays on subtle nuance. Here, you hope Gerardin knows when enough is perfect.

But, then, this is a chef whose fervour could singe across a room. It's this that's led to Oter's pastry chef, formerly untrained in the craft, to now be producing the shortest of crusts, filled with biting lemon curds, and perfect apricot and almond frangipane – pure eye candy for the OCD-inclined.

That's the kind of bloody-mindedness it takes to build great.