Sunday, 17 November 2013

French Martini - great food and better cocktails

I've been trying to get over to Southbank a little more of late.  Southbank has one of the highest concentration of restaurants in one spot in all of Queensland, perhaps even Australia.  Since I've been blogging, I've only visited a few of the restaurants and cafes in what amounts to a thriving dining scene.  We wanted to head out with some friends on Saturday night and one of the best things about hanging out with TB and CI is that TB is quite the foodie herself.  I'm not sure I know anyone, outside of the blogger fraternity, that spends as much time studying restaurants with a view to checking out as many as possible.  It was quite refreshing not to be the one making recommendations and when TB sent over her list of four possibilities, one jumped straight out.

That restaurant was Hatch & Co....  I had a bit of a chuckle to myself, Hatch & Co is one of the hottest restaurants in Brisbane at the moment and to think that TB thought we could get a booking on Saturday morning for later that night was amusing.  A quick call and a bit of a laugh later, we had sorted out that we would need to book a few weeks in advance for a Saturday night at that particular little hotspot.  There was another interesting looking place on the list and even better, we could get a reservation for four at 7pm with no trouble.

French Martini is one of the ever increasing number of French bistros in Brisbane and has been around for almost two years, which is a bit freaky to think about.  It's one of the many many restaurants located on Little Stanley Street, which has got to be one of the busiest for foot traffic, especially on a Saturday night, in Brisbane.  We'd arranged to meet at French Martini at 7pm and SC and I decided to take the short walk across the bridge from the CBD to Southbank.  Walking across the Victoria Bridge around 6:45 pm provided us with an amazing light show with a major electrical storm on the Gold Coast visible in the clouds on the horizon.  I was pretty thankful that the storm was not hitting us in the CBD, we needed a respite from the last few days' storms.

As is the way with SC and I, we arrived at French Martini bang on 7pm and joined the end of a little queue of people looking to grab seats at the popular little bistro.  As luck would have it, there was a group of four right in front of us who, with no reservation, grabbed the last outdoor table in a perfect spot.  When it came to our turn to be seated we were asked if we wanted a seat inside or out, at which point I dryly noted that there were no more seats available outside, so it would have to be inside.  It seemed as if having a reservation meant little as our table was not great and right under a loud speaker that would make conversation difficult throughout the night.

We were given menus to look over while we waited for our dining companions to arrive and in short order we knew why TB had French Martini on her list.  TB is an absolute cocktail fiend and while the restaurant name gave away much, the cocktail menu gave away more....  There were a heap of interesting looking cocktails available and while we were waiting for the guys to arrive, SC ordered a Chablis Martini to get the night underway.  Immediately after the cocktail order was taken, our waitress for the night brought over some 'snails' as she called them but given she was French and we were in a french restaurant, I preferred to call them escargot.  The two little escargot were bathed in lovely garlic butter sauce and speared with a couple of toothpicks with French flags.  The escargot were wonderful and earthy and had just the right texture, the flavour from the garlic butter superb.  It was a great way to start the meal.

Eventually our dining companions arrived with a tale of the slowest taxi driver on the planet and clearly frustrated looks on their faces.  It was that look that reminded us why we walk everywhere.  As our friends were seated they were given the menus and TB set about looking for her first cocktail of the night and CI went straight to the food section.  Looking over the menu, SC wanted to order the one thing that jumped out at me so after some negotiations ended up getting the camembert rôti au pistou et pain grille - Individual camembert baked in the oven with pesto & toasted.  This was essentially some melted cheese in a pot with toasted soldiers for dipping and the simplicity of the dish belied the fabulous flavour of the starter.  Put simply, it was delicious.  The camembert was gooey and had a full bodied flavour that was perfect and simple start to the meal.

I think the winning dish of the night went to CI with his choice of calamar a la carbonara - pan seared calamari w bacon, parmesan cheese & house made crème sauce.  I was very surprised when the dish was presented, it looked nothing like my expectations.  The calamari was bathing in the house made crème sauce which was incredibly rich and mouth wateringly good.  Any great saucier chef in any French restaurant in Brisbane would have been happy with this sauce.  The calamari was important only so much as it was something to eat with the sauce and when the perfectly cooked calamari was gone, there was plenty of sauce left in which to dip the mound of baguette that came with the dish.  Yum. 

The starter that had caught my eye was the steak tartare - finely diced raw eye filet with a brilliant yellow egg & little piles of chopped condiments.  Most of the time when I get tartare, its quite refined but this was a more rustic interpretation with a very large pile of eye filet with a beautifully orange egg yolk on top.  The condiments to be mixed were on the side with the idea that I mixed them myself, which is normally OK except for one minor detail.  The plate that my tartare was presented on was long and skinny and left no room for me to easily mix the ingredients together.  As a consequence the capers, onion and other condiments could not be balanced throughout the tartare.  What I ended up with was a very imbalanced steak tartare that fell a little short of good.  While I applaud the presentation which was nice, there are practicalities when self mixing and these were not considered.

There was a little bit of an overlap for starters and mains with TB ordering the 500 gram moules marinieres as a starter and CI ordering the 1 kg version as a main.  A very simple dish the moules marinieres was fresh Tasmanian mussels cooked in white wine, golden eschallots and parsley served with crusty baguette.  There are not many nicer things than mussels cooked in a lovely French sauce, it's simple and delicious.  French Martini did a great job with the mussels and both CI and TB loved them.  I was interesting watching their differing styles in eating the mussels over the course of the night, with TB doing so in a very dainty way that took ages and CI just ripping into them and eating them while they were still piping hot.

There was more duplication of meals as well with SC and TB both ordering the Canard (Duck) a ‘l’orange - Confit duck Maryland w orange sauce, oven baked potatoes and Provincial vegetables.  I think of all of the dishes we had at French Martini, these were the most disappointing, mainly due to the l'orange sauce.  It seemed as if it had been over reduced and lost much of the lovely tangy orange flavour that a good sauce should have, it was also very sticky.  The duck itself was well confit and fell off the bone and had reasonable flavour, but the sauce just detracted from the overall flavour of the dish.  The vegetables that came along with the duck were interesting but didn't seem to compliment either the sauce or the duck.

My choice of filet de poulet - oven roasted chicken breast w sauce tarragon & Provencal vegetables, herbed tomato fared a little better, but only because the tarragon sauce was lovely.  I found the oven roasted chicken to be dry and even lashings of the wonderful sauce could not save the dryness of the the chicken breast. Something that I had not seen before was a duplication of the 'provincial vegetable' on my plate, which were identical to those on the duck dish.  No wonder the balance was not right, two different sauces with two different birds but the same vegetables.  I think they probably went better with my chicken, but that was because of the creamy sauce.  I have to admit to thinking that the capsicum didn't belong on either plate.

So far CI had been the winner with a starter and main that he was over the moon with and if truth be told I was a little jealous that I had not gone for the same combination.  At least he was gracious enough to share quite a lot of the mussels in his 1 kg pot.  It was time for dessert and three of us decided that we would partake and TB decided that another cocktail would be a better option.  I can understand why too, the French guy making the cocktails was a master and had made us all a lemon meringue martini that was spectacular, so good that even I had one. 

There were only three desserts on the French Martini menu, which is not a lot but there were definitely options for us all.  Having had some interesting experiences with French pastry in the past, SC decided to risk ordering the mille feuille au chocolat - chocolate custard between leaves of puff pastry topped with salted caramel and was richly rewarded for doing so.  The mille feuille was wonderful, with rich chocolate customers sandwiched between perfectly crispy pastry with caramel sauce dripping over the top.  Mille fueilles are always difficult to eat but the combination of the pastry, chocolate and caramel was amazing and easily outshone the mess that SC made while eating it.

It was an easy choice for dessert for the lads, we both wanted the crème brulée - set vanilla custard capped with burnt caramel.  There was no pretence with this crème brulée, there were no biscoti or ice cream to distract from the main show, it was the brulée in the [bowl] on a plate an that was it.  It was a bold move, essentially saying that French Martini backed their dessert and it would speak for itself.  Was it the best crème brulée I've ever eaten?  No, but it was very very good, it was creamy and had just the right amount of vanilla and a burnt sugar crust that was near on perfect.  We both practically licked our [bowls] clean.

It had been a pretty good meal overall with a couple of exceptions with the mains, most notably the chicken and duck dishes.  The best dishes had been the starters and the mussels, which to be fair were really lovely. What we found interesting was how small the kitchen area was in French Martini and while the restaurant is not large, its large enough that it warrants a bigger kitchen space.

Our wait staff were friendly enough on the night and they all seemed to be French with cute little French accents.  The predominant theme in French Martini is pink, with lots of pink around the place and all the waitresses wearing pink aprons.  The cocktail guy behind the bar was a seriously cool looking dude and a little bit of French attitude.  Having said that, he was clearly a master at his game and spent some time with us at the table finding out what we wanted in our cocktails, which led to the seriously good lemon meringue martinis.

There were plenty of highlights at French Martini, enough to think that I would head back for a return visit sometime.  The thing we all agreed was the most painful was our table location, which was right underneath the restaurant's speakers.  They obviously needed to provide sound for the whole restaurant and sitting underneath them meant that we had to really speak up to hear each other.  I love music in restaurants, it's required in fact, but gee, when you are underneath it and you have to listen to cheesy French music all night, its a bit much.  Perhaps next time we would be better placed outside...

Our bartender on the right mixing like mad making cocktails 
SC's first cocktail was the Chablis Martini
While it was not on the menu the Bar guy made TB an Appletini.  The apple work was amazing.
There was a hodgepodge of seating around the dining room
Loved the pressed metal ceilings and the ironwork in the light fittings
The bar area was well stocked and ready for action
The teeny weeny little kitchen area
This clock let me know how we were going for time all night, but was it really from 1879?

French Martini on UrbanspoonFrench Martini

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