115 117 Collins St Melbourne, VIC 3004
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri noon-3pm; Mon-Wed 6pm-10pm; Thu-Sat 6pm-11pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Events, Groups, Late night, Licensed, Pre-post-theatre, Private dining|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Chef||Philippe Mouchel, Aurelien Gransagne|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||(03) 8394 6625|
Rumour has it, if you had passed by Philippe Mouchel's new restaurant on launch night, you'd have witnessed the densest concentration of dining legends seen this decade. There was Jacques Reymond and Gabriel Gaté, our original celebrity chef. Rita Erlich, one of the first Good Food Guide editors, gave a toast.
But while Mouchel's contemporaries of old drank to his health and went back to semi-retirement, Melbourne's favourite French chef returned the next day to man the pass. The chef who's been schooling us on classic French for decades isn't done yet. He may never be.
This time, it's a new bistro dressed in white linen on the old Brooks site. And while the basement has had a sleek touch-up, featuring tan banquettes and curve-back chairs that sigh with softness and a marbled back bar that glows amber-gold, it instantly feels nostalgic.
Maybe it's the droves of mature devotees who fill the room and seem to be the biggest fans of the bright lights (it certainly favours menu-reading over romance).
It could be because you're watching Mouchel command a band of chefs, including Aurelien Gransagne of Michelin-starred L'Esperance, who all don floppy toques.
It is, however, definitely the service stylings of hospitality veteran Tim Sawyer – whip-smart and old-world with steak knives and wine lists (classically French over boundary-pushing) going to the gentlemen.
The menu is Mouchel's greatest hits. There are leaps of creativity, but the joy of eating here is wrapped up in seeing the classic techniques mastered. Yes, there's the rotisserie chicken, a herbaceous burnished bird, with potatoes cooked in the drippings – still the signature, and still great.
But more essential is the pate en croute. Order it purely to behold the perfectly textured pork and pistachio terrine, framed by its thick pastry border. Military lines of balsamic dots and piccalilli complete the OCD dream.
Escargot are ensconced in a fudgy tomato sauce and capped with a parsley crust that has the texture of par-cooked roux. It's the perfect cover if you don't like snails and pretty complex if you do.
In the non-traditional camp, think of plump prawns deep fried in wonton wrappers as French spring rolls, served with a wasabi-infused mayo that does them a lot of favours.
You can be a vegetarian at Philippe's when there's the chestnut veloute – a Mouchel classic – to consider. I'm just not convinced by the main course assembly of charred cauliflower, broccolini and asparagus adorned with plump pickled raisins and a swoosh of a bechamel that it's the kitchen's passion.
And it's just so much more about a fat chock of burnished wagyu and creamy scallops of potato impressed with a parsley leaf. Here you meet your new benchmark for bearnaise. For what's essentially a saucer of fat, the acid and tarragon line is so clear, it's actually refreshing.
And here's to ordering a main course, all for yourself. Make it the rockling, perfectly golden and laid over an oceanic bed of celery and mussel risotto, dressed with a bisque foam and tangles of lightly vinegared carrot. It sounds like a molecular '90s recall, but it's a helluva balancing act that sees the kitchen biceps flexed.
And really, you're not going to come to Philippe's because it's cool. Mouchel is beyond trend. His dishes are now firmly planted parts of Melbourne history that all else washes around.
Take that as instruction to order yourself a chocolate fondant flooding cherries onto the plate, or hell, go for broke with the floating island – no one's going to do meringue clouds in silky custard better.
Vibe: Veteran chef Philippe Mouchel reveals his vision of the perfect French bistro.
Pro Tip: Order the utter classics – that's where the magic happens.
Go-to Dish: The pate en croute is built for perfectionists.