There are very few restaurants in Melbourne where regulars are greeted with effusive hugs and kisses from the staff. Yet that’s how it is at France-Soir, the incredibly French brasserie that’s been serving Melburnians 365 days a year since 1986.
Many of the current crop of regulars started coming here as children, and expect to run into a few family friends or other mates each time they visit. It’s that sort of place, though it definitely takes time to feel part of this community. Just like in Paris, the waiters can be a little, shall we say, blunt? It’s all part of the charm.
When we arrive at 4pm on a Wednesday, the Toorak Road institution is still packed. There’s a table of fifty-somethings who’re five bottles of burgundy deep into a conversation about the merits of #MeToo. It’s getting a touch heated.
Regardless of what’s going on, the kitchen brigade and floor staff sit down for lunch together at 4pm, every day, in the middle of the restaurant, busy or not. This is France. There are traditions. They are not to be trifled with.
Something else not to be trifled with is Geraud Fabre, who’s been head chef for 25 years. He treats his staff – many who’ve been here for more than a decade – like family. And like a real family, they have tiffs every now and then. When waiters Frank Sammut and Jimmy Pluet wander into the kitchen, he tells them in no uncertain terms to get back to the floor. “This is the kitchen! It is for cooking!”
Sammut is particularly unfazed. “The chef’s chill,” he says. And sure enough, Fabre is perfectly relaxed after he sits down to eat the tandoori chicken with coriander rice and carrot raita prepared by chef Lakshmi Venkat Rao Pentapati (Ven, for short).
“We have Indian maybe once a week?” Sammut says. He’s clearly pleased about this. “Every time I cook chicken in the oven it dries out,” complains bartender Tess Turner. “You need to add way more yoghurt,” Rao Pentapati says. “And just put it under the Salamander.” “The what?” Turner responds, before remembering that a Salamander is a type of grill.
The rest of the conversation is unprintable. Some of it is in French. Let’s just say a pleasant time is had by all – though Pluet tends tables while everyone else eats and has lunch later, by himself.
Afterwards, Fabre stands over a truly enormous Tupperware container filled with truffles. The scent is distinguishable at five paces. The guy who grew them is telling a risque joke. The crew has all scampered back to work. They won’t reassemble until the day’s second staff meal, always at midnight. “There’ll probably be more shirts off then,” Sammut says.
Tandoori chicken with coriander and cumin rice
Recipe by Lakshmi Venkat Rao of France-Soir
1.5kg chicken thighs, skin off
75g minced garlic
75g minced ginger
1 tsp chicken masala spice mix
1 tsp meat masala spice mix
1 tsp ground coriander seeds
1 tsp whole coriander seeds
1 cinnamon stick
2 cardamom pods
4 bay leaves
1 star anise
½ lemon, juiced
½ lime, juiced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch coriander, finely chopped (to serve)
Cut the chicken into medium-sized pieces. Combine all the other ingredients, except the fresh coriander. Coat the chicken thoroughly, wrap in cling film and move to the fridge to marinate for at least 2 hours. Overnight is better.
Preheat the oven to 200°C and place a tray inside to warm up.
Lightly oil the tray and bake the chicken for 30 minutes, turning after 15 minutes. Transfer to a grill for 10 minutes to add a smoky flavour. Serve with the fresh coriander scattered over.
Coriander and Cumin Rice
2 cups cooked basmati rice
2 tsp whole cumin seeds
2 long red chillies, chopped
1 tbsp vegetable oil
½ bunch coriander, finely chopped (to serve)
Salt to taste
Heat oil in a wok, on high. Add the chillies, cumin seeds and salt. Cook for 30 seconds, or until fragrant. Add the cooked rice and mix well. Taste and add salt as necessary. Finish with chopped coriander.
500g yoghurt 1 red onion, finely chopped 2 carrots, grated 1 Lebanese cucumber, grated 1 lemon, juiced 1 long red chilli, chopped 1 pinch ground coriander 1 pinch chilli powder Salt to taste ½ bunch freshly chopped coriander (to serve)
Add all the ingredients to the yoghurt. Mix well. Add water as necessary to achieve desired thickness. Finish with chopped coriander.
This story originally appeared in Melbourne Print Issue 25 .