Sacre bleu! Our relations nationally might well be freezing with the French, but that hasn’t stopped them from launching a red-hot assault on Australia’s nightlife capital.
While we might not want their submarines, Sydney’s Kings Cross is suddenly becoming submerged in return in escargots, steak frites and creme brulee with a deluge of French restaurants, cafes, bistros and specialty retail.
“It’s weird that there’s so much French food on offer in the area now,” said Leigh McDivitt, head chef of Bistro Rex in Potts Point. “Maybe it’s a great substitute for travel in this time of COVID.
“But I also think people now appreciate quality produce and traditional recipes – and we butcher our own meat here and age it, too. There’s also a lot of professionals and actors and artists and older people in the area who might be more used to French food and French fine dining. And we offer them good food in a beautiful setting and, most importantly, no politics!”
Bistro Rex, which opened in 2017, with its chicken and guinea fowl pate en croute, steak frites Cafe De Paris, Coq au Fizz (roast chicken in a champagne braise) and classic berry-laden mille feuille, is just one of a phalange of French establishments now colonising the Cross.
Nearby is Franca Brasserie, Le Petit Louvre, Cafe de la Fontaine, the French fine-dining Metisse, Macleay Bistro serving up French-inspired modern Australia, Bistrot 916, which opened in February, and the newest establishment, Rustic French Bistro, which opened mid-September. They join the classic French patisserie Croissant d’Or a few doors down from Mon Petit Choux (my little cabbage), which, despite its brassical name, is actually a dress shop.
“The French style of cooking has always been popular,” said Andrew Becher, the managing director of Franca Brasserie, which opened further along Macleay Street in what’s considered the “Paris end” of Kings Cross in July 2019. “Many other cultures are influenced by French cooking.
“People are becoming more interested in sophisticated cooking too, with the rising popularity of cooking shows and they love all the really good food vision on the internet and social media now too. With strong visuals from the restaurant, that’s allowed us to flourish too.”
Undoubtedly, the French ambience of the place is also a lure, with the feeling, as soon as you’ve walked through the door, of being in a big, bustling French fine-dining brasserie. It’s good that it’s working too; Becher signed a 20-year lease on the huge space as a gesture of his faith.
But does size really matter? Around the corner, the owner of Le Petit Louvre argues not. Frenchman Christian Estebe operates his palais du fromage francais from a tiny space on Springfield Avenue, with prints of Francois Boucher paintings over the ceilings and walls, rugs on the floors, velvet curtains at the door, and an incredible selection of handmade boutique French cheese varietals dating back as far as 2BC.
“People love the history associated with my cheeses,” Estebe said. “All of my products are artisan and all – with one exception – bring over 300 years of history, because they’ve all existed for that time. It’s impossible to find anything of this complexity and simplicity anywhere else.”
Estebe serves cheese to be taken away or to eat on the premises, with platters accompanied by wines from the same region, as well as many other homemade delicacies. Cheese choices include a comte aged in a fort dating back to Napoleon and a goat cheese, Sainte Maure de Touraine, so creamy that it dribbles right along with the customer.
The French revolution at Kings Cross hasn’t been completely successful, however. A few of their compatriots have bitten the dust recently, including the granddaddy of them all, the restaurant Mere Catherine, which bade au revoir in 2019 after 45 years of dishing up French onion soup. And no longer, after dining on fine French fare, can Francophiles finish off their night at the club Moulin Rouge either. That, too, is disparu.
During that revolution, the Queen of France Marie-Antoinette is said to have cried, “Let them eat cake!” and that’s no problem at the Cross, either.
Feel like an eclair, a crepe, a traditional French pastry, a croissant, a galette or even a real baguette? Try Cafe de la Fontaine, a little slice of Paris at the point where Macleay Street meets Darlinghurst Road, opposite the famed Kings Cross fountain, which opened in March last year.
“I think during COVID-19 especially, it was nice to have something that is so reminiscent of being somewhere else,” said Stephanie Onisforou, the co-owner of the cafe that’s decorated with French antiques and has a miniature Eiffel Tower outside.
“It’s pure escapism, plus you can have a beautifully authentic eclair or pastry and be somewhere you remember, or dream of going. French food is so classic, and we always go back to classic dishes.”
The cafe hopes to have a liquor licence approved, so by December it will open later for wine and cheese or a crepe, too.
In February this year, Bistrot 916 on Challis Avenue opened, on the site of the old Lotus. Dan Pepperell, from the city’s Gallic icon Restaurant Hubert, has a menu that includes chicken liver parfait, steak au poivre and pasta escargots.
“Maybe it is back in fashion and maybe that’s to do with COVID and not being able to travel to France, and maybe it’s just not common to cook French food at home,” he said. “It can be challenging.
“This neighbourhood is good for us as it has a very sophisticated clientele, sometimes slightly older, who are interested in French dining. We sell a lot of offal, with brains one of our best sellers.”
Not put off by the competition, another Frenchman, Cyril Seguin, has just opened his Rustic French Bistro on Victoria Street, Potts Point, serving up homemade foie gras, duck confit, classic beef bourguignon and creme brulee, among others.
“Why not?” he said. “I realise there are others here, but we offer something different. These recipes were handed down from my grandmother, with traditional techniques and everything is homemade; something I’ve been doing for the last 20 years around the world.
“People can want something simple, or at other times fancy, and here they can go back in history for both. And French food is wonderful to sit and enjoy, with no politics.”