Review: Comfort food at The French Cafe

Peter Calder,
On Trend,
Publish Date
Sunday, 12 February 2017, 10:09AM

When you make a reservation at The French Cafe, they send you an email straight away and, for the benefit of those of feeble memory (who, me?) or incapable of keeping a diary, they repeat it 24 hours before you are due to sit down.

It contains a couple of admonitions of the most exquisite restraint, the first of which suggests you dress up. The next mentions that "older children are welcome ... but if your child is under the age of 10, we ask you to contact the dining room for further discussion".

Don't you just love the very faintly menacing tone of that "further discussion?" Parents who do not actually regard their unrestrained offspring as providers of profound joy to the rest of the world, if only the rest of the world had the wit to see it, would immediately get the message. For the rest, I can only hope the further discussion is limited to the single word "No".

For as long as I can remember, and certainly since Simon Wright (in the kitchen) and Creghan Molloy-Wright (on the floor), took the helm about 20 years ago, The French Cafe has been the byword for fine dining in Auckland. Never mind that it's not a cafe and the food is not noticeably French: it regularly tops "best of Auckland" lists, such as the one that Metro put out saying Botswana Butchery was top-50, when it had been open long enough only to earn several such excoriating reviews that a fixit man had been helicoptered in from Queenstown to sort out what he told me was "a bloody disaster".

The French Cafe was named the fourth best in the world in another widely trumpeted poll of TripAdvisor members, which, to my mind, just confirms what a crock best-of lists are. Unlike many reviewers, I have not felt the need to assess it every six months to ensure, on their readers' behalf, that it is still up to scratch. But since I had not been since 2008 and its website was celebrating a "new year, new interior", I thought it worth taking the Professor back to the place we last went to celebrate her being made a professor.

To be honest (see "feeble memory" above), I can't remember what it used to look like but the interior, the main room dominated by an exquisite Karl Maughan canvas of rhododendrons, is a study in the same restraint that informs that "get a babysitter" request. I watched a waitress reset a table with such precision that she barely stopped short of using a spirit level and a digital caliper.

The service was warm and professional without a trace of that creepy obsequiousness that can curdle fine-dining experiences. And the food was, well, perfect really. Amuse-bouches of gritty corn croquettes and little caviar ice-cream cones; starters of ceviche with scampi or fig tart with a puffy, lightly roasted globe of goat cheese; a duck leg, as perfect in shape as a pear, which came with silky pumpkin mash and citrus notes alluding to the very French canard a l'orange. It was all wonderful, and yet ... So what's the but? It's a valentine, of sorts, to the Auckland restaurant business. So much has happened in the past decade. Interesting, exciting, paradigm-shifting dining is to be found all over town. A dozen or more trends have bloomed (and some have mercifully withered) since I was last here. And the result is that it feels stuck in a sort of time-warp. Like Antoines in Parnell, this is somewhere you go to be comforted by the thought that, the more things change, the more it will stay the same.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. Readers given to star-counting will wonder why my misgivings are not reflected in a less-than-perfect star rating. But a South Indian hole-in-the-wall joint called Satya got five stars in my third review in these pages for the same reason: what it seeks to do could not be done better.

Perhaps it's unfair to suggest that time has taken its toll on The French Cafe. Fiendishly expensive (the menu breaks down to something like $55 mains and $30 entrees), it is still in the very top tier of occasion dining in town. But whether that is enough to make it the transcendent experience it once was, I am not so sure.

A la carte: three courses $110 pp; four courses $135 pp. Tasting menu: $155; paired wines $85.

VERDICT: Still sublime, but in something of a time-warp.