The one thing that can be learned from France Soir is the value of constancy and continuity. Opened in 1986 by Jean-Paul Prunetti, the French bistro has been helmed by just 2 head chefs since it was established, serving local regulars and visiting foodies a pretty-much-unchanging menu of French classics along with Prunetti’s collection of imported and local wines that number into the thousands. A South Yarra institution, it continues to be a favourite for late-night dining, with orders taken until midnight, 7 days a week.
Walking into France Soir, the first impression of the long, narrow room is that is so quintessentially French. Pale cream walls adorned with framed French posters, dark timber floorboards, wood panelling, brass trimming, long mirrors along the length of the wall doubling as specials boards, simple linen-clothed tables overlain with paper and bentwood chairs, no features that would be out of place in a typical Parisian brasserie. The bar takes pride of place, occupying a sizable chunk of the floor space, with tables lined up against the opposite wall. The wait staff expertly navigate the remaining space to deliver prompt and efficient service, calling out to their colleagues in French of course, which just adds to the illusion that you are, in fact, in Europe and not catching up for lunch on Toorak Road, Melbourne.
The menu is a comprehensive collection of old school French bistro classics with a smattering of modern influences, honed and refined over the restaurant’s 27 years of service. Soupe à l’oignon gratinée, cervelles d’agneau, moules marinière, steak tartare, salade niçoise, rilletes de canard are just some of the standards amongst the hot and cold entrées. The main menu is similarly nostalgic – think steak au poivre, caneton à l’orange, boeuf bourguignon – with porc, pigeon and lapin making regular appearances on the specials board, and I couldn’t name many other places you would be able to dig into good crêpes suzettes and iles flottantes for dessert.
France Soir’s food philosophy is that of generosity and simplicity. Dishes are hearty and unpretentious, letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Meals start with a basket of warm slices of crusty French baguettes, creamy butter suitably at room temperature for ease of spreading. And bread plates? Who needs them?
Côtelletes d’agneau à la fleur de thym demonstrates that you don’t need to do much with quality ingredients. A generous offering of 4 tender lamb cutlets, bang on medium rare, served with a simple side of sweet green beans and bean shoot salad. At the base of the dish is a silky thyme sauce that gets points for both intensity of flavour and its spotless clarity.
Ventre de porc braisé aux cidre is a masterful pairing of pork and it’s good friend, cider. Pork belly is rolled and slow-cooked in a broth sweetened with cider and shallots before a quick turn in the oven to deliver puffed, crispy crackling encircling meltingly tender meat, interlayered with fat that disintegrates in the mouth. Served with plenty of that sweet braising mixture, baby potatoes and a sprinkling of chopped chives being the only form of ‘garnish’.
When it’s available, pigeon rôti comes highly recommended. Roasted whole, the meat is tender and still slightly pink, the skin rendered golden and crispy. Come springtime, this might be served with artichaut barigoule, a more modern interpretation of a Provençal white wine broth that makes the most of fresh, seasonal artichokes, broadbeans and asparagus.
Mains are served with a basket of golden frites for sharing at the table. These super-crunchy, thin-cut fries will definitely tempt you into asking for a refill but only if you have room for dessert as well.
Tarte tatin is a textbook quality finish to the meal; a chunky layer of sticky, caramelised apples sitting on a crumbly, buttery pastry base, served with whipped cream to mellow out the sweetness of the pie.
The dessert special is always worth looking into, particularly when it comes in the form of creamy praline and mascarpone mousse, artfully set atop a disc of dark chocolate and served with milk chocolate custard and chocolate biscuit pieces for that much-loved crunch.
Food, service and atmosphere; having mastered the combination, it’s no wonder that France Soir is 27 years in the game and still going strong. How I envy those living near enough to claim it as their local….