I’ve decided to start the year off in French. A commiseration for the downgrading of their economy, perhaps? Or maybe just because I love the place, and what it has done for cuisine, the word itself a french invention.
Cuisine has not just stayed in France – it has grown through the world as hard and fast as a weed, yet as welcome as a herb. It is a word that has been absorbed into other languages, transferring cooking from simply nourishment into art. It has influenced our cooking in more ways than we can imagine, and yet adjusted itself with the ages. Haut cuisine, then Nouvelle cuisine, and France even brought us the father of molecular gastronomy, Hervé This.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited La Petanque, a country restaurant just out of Melbourne (Australia). It has been awarded one “hat” by The Age Good Food Guide, Australia’s answer to an absent Michelin Guide, and a very reliable marker – the hats fairly much replicate the standards of stars in the Michelin Guide. Last month I reviewed one of Dubai’s top restaurants, La Petite Maison, not altogether as favourably as everyone else seems to have. And my question after this is – “What makes the difference between a good French restaurant and a great one?”
La Petanque is both an excellent example of well exported French technique and traditions, and a merging with Australian culture and ingredients. It looks like a French Provincial restaurant. Cream gravel path, lined with roses, lavender and olive trees. A petanque pitch to the right, sunshine twinkling off the boules and into the thick pines and over the rolling yellowed fields. But the building is Australian, heart and soul. A rustic and rusty brown wooden barn, peaked like the Sentimental Bloke’s cap, and with double doors opening wide with Aussie spirit.
The owners are french, as are several of the waiters. Diners could easily feel they are in the creases of the hills behind the Cote d’azur, and practice their french with the sommelier. The dishes themselves all come with a distinct French flavour, but also remain quintessentially regional. It’s very clever.
I started with the sweetbreads. My brother was about to order them until my Mum nicely declared they were sheep gonads (they aren’t – they are lymph glands). I had to change my choice from the rabbit terrine, to prove a point to him, and I’m glad I did. Perfect tiny titbits of tender and sweet meatiness, served with crispy lardons and al dente baby corgettes. The highlight though was the strip of hazelnut crumble and deep fried baby capers alongside – a trick I will definitely try at home. My father had the rabbit, which he kindly shared – a good terrine and lovely rillets. My brother and mother didn’t – scallops and radishes pretty as a necklace, and crab that disappeared before I could photograph it.
Mains were equally delicious. There was a profusion of duck on the table (the bird we rarely bother to cook at home) three of us ordered it. Here it was beautifully cooked – medium but not bleeding, and the skin crispier than usual – not the tasteless chunk of lard it often is when served alongside the breast, but savoury and nicely textured. The zingy braised fennel and rhubarb alongside cut through the richness of the meat and jus beautifully. The main of the day went to the pork belly – crisp, lucious, fatty and rich, all at the same time, and accompanied by finely shredded crab in a piquant glaze to balance.
We drank White wine from Lirac – neutral yet honeyed on the finish, and a strong reminder of provincial vacations, and Pinot, both a light and fruity village wine from the Bourgogne to partner the pork, and a spicy number from local Foxey’s Hangout for the duck.
As with all great meals, once the mains were finished, the thought of leaving the table was abhorrent. We stayed for dessert as the sun tipped westward. Mine, a tribute to both nouvelle cuisine and recent Persian trends in Australia, was gorgeous – pearls of pear cooked in saffron, tiny crumbly pistachio biscuits, pomegranate seeds, and olive oil ice-cream and gentle citrus sorbet. Others included a strawberry minestrone with basil sorbet – a light and zingy dessert, but possibly paled in comparison to the others, and a cocnut pannacotta with beetroot sorbet, rosewater gel and poached rhubarb – a very smart combination of colour and flavour.
As I strolled out onto the pitch, glass in hand in the late afternoon, to per-lonk my petanque balls inexpertly, I questioned my love over this restaurant as compared with my experience at La Petite Maison recently. One, I loved, the other… well, it was just a restaurant. My question after dining at La Petite Maison was – would this restaurant still be so very well received if you plonked it back in France? My answer was no. But I believe that if you transported La Petanque back there, it would be noticed by Michelin for sure.
The main difference? It’s not that one is in Dubai and the other in Australia, or one is in the city, and one is in the country. It is that one has unique personality and the other is simply a copy. One has tried to be exactly like its Nice restaurant sibling, and failed due to the simple menu relying on fresh local ingredients that in Dubai are impossible to find. The other (La Petanque) has brought France and its cuisine into an Australian kitchen, and delivered a child, rather than a sibling to the table. And this child is gifted.
Lunch Daily 12 – 3pm
Dinner Friday & Saturday 6.30pm till late
(reduced hours in winter)