Bistro Gitan, Melbourne restaurant review
Author: Michael Harden
Photography: James Braund
As a concept it's irresistible: three of Jacques Reymond's offspring open their own business with one of their father's young chefs in the kitchen and with Jacques himself along for the ride as the "supposedly silent" partner. Throw in the most recent experience of the siblings - Edouard at MoVida, Antoine at Longrain, Nathalie as sommelier at Jacques Reymond restaurant - and one of the prettiest, leafiest outlooks in town and you'd think the place would be aquiver with ramped-up excitement from all the highly marketable pedigree and potential. But in fact there's nothing over-hyped or quivery about the place. Instead, Bistro Gitan has stepped calmly off the blocks with a charming, low-key and appealing confidence.
Gitan is French for "gypsy", and the gypsy idea - in the freedom-loving, roaming-about-in-caravans sense rather than the persecuted Romani one - informs the bistro's direction. Unsurprisingly, there's a French bias at work here: the menu is liberally seeded with the likes of charcuterie, escargots and gratin dauphinois, the style of service sees tables laid with linen and butcher's paper (stamped with the Gitan logo), and the fair prices also speak with a trad French bistro accent. But being a place with a gypsy heart, it happily takes influences from further afield. There are some Italian and Spanish touches, a smidgeon of Japanese and Chinese, even the occasional indigenous Australian filip, such as the native pepperberry-flavoured liver parfait, but they all work seamlessly with each other as if being gathered together on the Gitan menu is where they were always meant to be.
The best example of these various influences playing nicely with each other comes with a cracker of a dish that's headed for signature status. Piccata served with fresh pappardelle and finished with balsamic vinegar may at first appear full-blooded Italian, but chef Steven Nelson makes his piccata with chicken livers of impeccable quality, just seared (to retain a beautiful juiciness), button mushrooms, batons of salty kaiserfleisch, pickled shallots, garlic and butter, bringing a decidedly French feel to proceedings. But when the pan is deglazed with balsamic and a little soy, mirin and sake, it becomes better to stop trying to determine the dish's ethnic origins and just enjoy the attractive slipperiness of the house-made pasta ribbons, the flashes of sweetness among the earthy flavours, and the faint but present background of buttery richness.
There's further influence-mixing in an entrée of ocean trout that's shiny under a caramelised glaze made of soy sauce, palm sugar, hoisin and sake. The orange-pink flesh is medium rare and accompanied by small pieces of rockmelon, ribbons of pickled cucumber, transparent potato crisps and a fresh horseradish aïoli. There's a fair bit happening on the plate here, but the little jabs of texture, the subtle moments of sweetness and salt, and the attractive colours all serve to enhance the fish.
This successful mixing of ingredients also plays out in the décor and layout of Bistro Gitan. Once a traditional corner pub (the Fawkner Hotel), the building has in recent years been through several incarnations that have opened the ground floor space into one large, elegant, dark-hued room with a central bar and a semi-open kitchen. French doors and sizeable arched windows bring natural light and the greenery of Fawkner Park, across Toorak Road, into the room. The pale parquetry flooring is pleasingly simple, as are the texture of a patterned pressed-metal wall surrounding the open fireplace in the small lounge area and the mix of seating that includes classic dark-stained timber bistro chairs and a few banquettes over to one side.
The lighting - via copper-shaded wall lights, naked bulbs on cords illuminating the blackboard menu above the kitchen pass and circular French farmhouse-style fittings in the centre of the room - is low and flattering, but not so dim you need a torch to read the menu. Noise levels tread a similar path - lively and mood enhancing rather than deafening and tiresome.
Décor-wise, there may be little remaining that speaks of the traditional pub, but Bistro Gitan retains a well-run hotel's instinct for comfort and user-friendliness that blends neatly with the Reymond clan's fine-dining-bred eye for detail. Certainly, it's still a place to drop in for a quick drink and a snack, with the sizeable bar affording the best sight-lines in the room and several beers on tap.
The "petite" section of the menu is all about good things to snack on with drinks, and includes house versions of croque-monsieur (with morteau sausage) and croque-madame (with blue swimmer crab), freshly shucked oysters, and excellent school prawns, dusted in flour spiced with cumin, star anise, turmeric and coriander seed, then deep-fried and served with an aïoli spruced up with lemon and lime zest and a touch of Tabasco.
There's more crustacean action in the Mooloolaba prawn cocktail where poached plump prawns coated in a ketchup made with black and balsamic vinegars, Worcestershire sauce, tomato and ginger come with a beautifully textured lemon and ginger "egg dressing" (like a mayo but with the eggs cooked slightly to give a richer mouthfeel). Grapefruit and orange segments and witlof leaves take the dish a few refreshing and tangy steps away from its creamy-sweet ancestor.
Updated retro moves continue with the garfish Colbert, a whole boned garfish (aside from the silvery, sculptural head) eggwashed, breadcrumbed and deep-fried, and served with the same lemon and ginger egg dressing as the prawn cocktail. On top of the fish is a salad of tiny squid rings, dunked in rice flour and flash-fried before bring tossed with fennel and spring onions. There are good flavours to be had, with the nattily textured salad a highlight, but, though the garfish looks the goods, it fails to deliver flavour-wise, its delicate taste lost among all the other action.
More big flavours arrive with the bavette: the 150-day grain-finished wagyu flank steak easily holds its own as it lolls in an intense mix of white anchovies, Café de Paris butter, marinated olives, baby capers, garlic chips and tiny fried onion rings.
It's a pugnacious but well-balanced dish that delivers big flavours and textures in the right proportions.
Those after subtler flavours should head for La Pôchouse, a traditional dish from the Jura region, the Reymond family's French home turf. This immensely comforting, soupy kind of dish sees hapuku oven-baked with salad onions, mushrooms and bacon, glazed with white wine, and served in a bowl with olive oil, butter, lemon juice and fromage blanc added to the cooking juices to create a rich but refreshing broth. Wilted sorrel leaves on top contribute a few nicely judged acid notes.
With a menu that dashes about from intense and robust to delicate and understated, the wine list (the domain of Nathalie and Edouard) wisely keeps a fairly broad focus without ever becoming unwieldy. There are 15 choices by the glass, 250ml pichet and 500ml carafe that reflect the list's line-up of French and Australian headliners, and Italian, New Zealand Spanish and German support acts. Most of the list is under $100, but there's a smaller benchmark-riddled reserve section where you can nab a 1991 Cullen cab merlot or a 2007 Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets Premier Cru for (quite) a few dollars more.
The sweet end of the meal keeps it mostly French and includes a busy take on chocolate mousse that adds poached pears, rhubarb, cassis syrup, a chocolate marquise and vanilla anglaise to the mix. A simpler option is the tranche Napolitaine, a pastel-striped ice-cream and sorbet "terrine" that looks like a miniature sun-faded retro beach towel. The five distinct layers of house-made flavours - Grand Marnier, pistachio and praline ice-creams, apricot and raspberry sorbets - come with excellent amaretti and shortbread biscuits.
Given the Reymond lineage, it would be easy to observe the smooth and hospitable nature of Bistro Gitan with a slightly dismissive "but of course". But while it's obvious that Nathalie, Edouard and Antoine have an affinity with restaurants, their bistro's seamless mix of charming service, lively food and interesting wine also points to a whole lot of hard work to get it that way. The kids have done Reymond père proud, making this one gypsy the neighbours are happy to have around.
52 Toorak Rd West, South Yarra,
(03) 9867 5853, bistrogitan.com.au.
Cards AE MC V EFT.
Open Lunch Tue-Fri noon-3pm; dinner Mon-Sat 5pm-10.30pm.
Prices Entrées $10-$24, mains $28-$34, desserts $12-$15.
Vegetarian Two entrées.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus The Reymond kids in full charm mode.
Minus The odd cooking wobble can rock the ride.