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|
To say that Philippe's splendid pâté en croûte takes three days to make would be correct. Making this complex cold meat pie-loaf with its buttery pastry crust requires precise ratios of pork, game meats, spices, nuts, madeira and jelly, and they must be marinated, cooked, mixed, shaped and baked with deep understanding and great finesse.
Given all that, it is also correct to say this pâté en croûte has taken 47 years because that's how long French chef and restaurateur Philippe Mouchel has been a professional cook – rigorous, meticulous, skilled and, in my opinion, undersung. Now 63, Mouchel is on the pans in his four-year-old basement restaurant, leading his team with steel and bonhomie as required and, as he's done for decades, sending young chefs onward as better cooks.
Mouchel's pâté en croûte is based on the recipe of his hero and great friend Paul Bocuse, the giant of French cooking who died last year. Bocuse dispatched Mouchel Down Under in 1991 to run his Australian outpost – the restaurant closed in 1997 but by then Melbourne had its hooks (or hook turns?) into Philippe Mouchel. Our city is the richer for his presence, our culinary culture improved in depth and integrity.
Mouchel's Melbourne restaurants have played with various levels of formality and fanciness. This stylish cellar plaits the strands together. You can feast here, dive deep into the rich wine list and let excellent staff dispense silver service aplomb. You can prop up the bar for $2 oysters and the monthly $25 dish-and-wine deal (it's duck confit for September).
Otherwise, split the difference and play Philippe as a relaxed but polished bistro, great for snails and charcoal-grilled steak, onion soup and rotisserie chicken, that pâté and ox cheek braised in beer.
Whatever you order, superlative French technique will underpin it. That's especially evident in the jus and sauces, made with painstaking care and pride. Bones are roasted, carcasses gently sauteed, huge burbling pots endlessly skimmed to bring them to sparkling clarity.
These bedrock preparations add dimension but not always heft. It's common to lament the heaviness of French food but there's restraint and lightness here, partly as a consequence of years Mouchel spent working in Japan. His food is judiciously seasoned and desserts are not too sweet. Butter, however, is a health food bien sur, and it's used liberally.
Mouchel's rotisserie dishes are a signature. The chicken has tarragon-scented mushroom paste tucked under the skin; it's basted with butter and salt, ridiculously juicy, and served with duck-fat roasted potatoes and jus so glossy you could check your lippy in it.
This isn't a vegetarian haven but there are options. The charcoal oven turns baby carrots into sweet, vibrant batons, lolling over freekeh with a soft egg and an emulsion of carrot, orange and ginger. It's robust and satisfying.
Charming touches abound. Charcuterie comes with a lovely pot of cornichons. Crusty bread is served in a cosy cloth basket. Oysters are bedded on crushed ice. Snapper isn't just perfectly cooked, it also comes with a splash of deeply flavoured fish soup and silky saffron aioli.
Desserts include exemplary creme brulee, and a profiterole sandwiched with praline cream and served with praline ice-cream and custard.
It's exactly the sort of relaxed indulgence that made the good old days so good, created by exactly the sort of skilled and passionate chef who should be a celebrated Melbourne icon.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)