300 Smith St Collingwood, VIC 3066
|Opening hours||Sat-Sun noon-4pm; daily 5.30pm-late|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Bar, Private dining|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9419 2202|
Vol-au-vent d'escargot might sound like a contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race, but it's actually one of several winning dishes on the menu at Scott Pickett's giddy new French-themed Smith St Bistrot.
It's an exuberant, big flavoured, turbo-French mash-up of a plate; glistening garlicky snails and lardons inside a pitch-perfect flaky-chewy vol-au-vent sitting on an emerald-green parsley puree and crowned with a flurry of pickled shallots, dill and parsley ($28). Ooh la la.
Pickett has never been one to hold back on his enthusiasms when opening a restaurant, as attested by a stable that includes Chancery Lane, Estelle, Matilda and the soon-to-open multi-venue Continental in Sorrento.
His flavours are big and his design statements strong, and at Smith Street Bistrot he's applied that formula with gusto, transforming a Victorian shopfront in inner Melbourne into an artfully cluttered backstreet Parisian bistro, complete with painted mirrors, silver napkin rings and gilt-edged plates, marble tables, scalloped burgundy banquettes, deco chandeliers, and brass and timber finishes.
The design, courtesy of Sarah Townson of Anthology Studio, also includes an impressive new mezzanine level that overlooks the dining room and open kitchen and can be curtained off to form a private dining space. There are walls that have been cultivated with live moss and, upstairs, an enormous private dining room lavish with heavy curtains and hand-painted wallpaper.
The menu references both classic French bistro cooking and the kind of retro French-inspired dishes that were the height of sophistication in Australia in the 1960s and '70s.
In fact, a couple of the recipes – including the unmissable oeufs mayonnaise with avruga caviar ($14 each), the mashed egg yolks popping with cayenne pepper, curry powder, mayo and lemon juice – come courtesy of Pickett's mother and grandmother.
Please check your oyster snobbery at the door and splurge on a few thoroughly enjoyable oysters Kilpatrick (or "Killas", as Pickett calls them) that add soy sauce, red wine vinegar and barbecue sauce to the usual bacon and Worcestershire sauce mix (half-dozen $25, dozen $48). You can get oysters natural and Rockefeller, too.
Nostalgic, indulgent food like this can easily fall into the category of pale imitation without a strong base knowledge of classic technique and balance. Pickett has insured against the pale with a strong kitchen team headed by Daniel Southern (Bar Margaux, Comme) and overseen by Pickett group exec chef Stuart McVeigh and the classically French-trained Pickett himself.
The combination of talent assures the success of dishes like a yellowfin tuna tartare brilliantly, subtly dressed with olive and sesame oils, soy sauce and sherry vinegar and served with classic lattice chips seasoned with seaweed and salted vinegar powder.
It's also the reason Smith St Bistro's creme caramel ($15) vies for the title of best in country. There's no reinventing the wheel here. Just plenty of meticulous attention to detail. The custard is made the day before it's served to ensure it's free from air bubbles and has a thrillingly silky-smooth texture.
It's also baked short and low so that it's just set, then spends just half an hour in the fridge before being served, the deep-brown caramel pooling at the custard's wobbly base and setting across the top to add a restrained, thoroughly attractive textural resistance. It's a reminder of why this classic dish has been assigned real estate on Euro menus for centuries.
There's more good stuff where that came from. King George whiting fillets ($44) loll about in a superb beurre blanc sauce studded with pieces of crayfish and salmon caviar, sprinkled with finely chopped chives and accompanied by pickled cucumbers and a cheek of lemon.
Then there's the chicken fricassee, a roasted and boned half bird glistening with a sauce made from roasting juices, mustard, brandy, tarragon and a little cream ($36). It shares the serving pan with a gaggle of diminutive vegies: turnips, carrots, potatoes and onions.
Sides ($12 each) tread a classic line, too – pommes Anna with a fermented truffle sauce and textbook petit pois – as does the wine list, which, over five or so pages, manages to tick all the champagne/burgundy/chablis boxes at prices ranging from reasonable to eye-watering.
Smith St Bistro is not a subtle nod to an owner's intellectual appreciation for Parisian bistros. It is an enthusiastic bear hug, the full chef's kiss.
Vibe Backstreet Parisian bistro
Go-to dish Vol-au-vent d'escargot
Cost About $200 for two, plus drinks
Drinks Comprehensive, mostly French and Aussie list favouring the classics.
Pro-tip The sumptuous private dining room is destined for every "best-of" list.
Michael Harden is Good Food's acting chief reviewer.