It’s been a long focus of Essentials to celebrate the many landmark icons of Melbourne, Australia – its sensational cafés, historic restaurants and art galleries; including its people: chefs, artists, designers and all the creative minds who have collectively shared in building the culturally rich tapestry that is the city we know and love today.

British-born, Melbourne-based chef Ian Curley, like many before him, brings a wealth of knowledge and artisan colour to the region. His CBD establishment French Saloon, set on the second floor of a former Victorian-era pub building, feels as though it’s always been here. Ian however explains that close to a small fortune was spent designing the space, polishing floor boards, adding timber paneling, plus importing the extravagant French handcrafted timber and pressed-tin bar in order to make the new feel perfectly warm, aged and therefore harmonious.

The main dining room of Ian Curley’s French Saloon

Including an outdoor roof terrace plus private function room to seat around 30 guests, the restaurant has an elegant soulful appeal, visually warm with a perfectly layered polished patina. The years it seems have been very good to this place; and as I’m seated as yet another new diner within the space, I feel instantly at home. The atmosphere inspires relaxed conversation and no doubt the restaurant’s modest food and drink prices encourage return visitation. Like many of the great restaurants and cafés before it – Tolarno French Bistro (now Tolarno Eating House), Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar and Florentino – Ian’s French Saloon has earned its place as yet another great icon of Melbourne.

There’s a gentle ease to dining here – the dishes are designed for sharing and add a light visual beauty to the table. Rather than demanding your attention, the dishes become a part of the conversation: soft layerings of joy that tease the palate. A plate of heritage tomato with black sesame, chick peas and basil seems a revelation – not for its list of ingredients, but for way in which Ian restricts what’s on the plate. Thick slices of red and green flavour-rich tomatoes are lightly seasoned and dressed, the crunchy-fried chick peas fluffy and light – it’s an exercise in colour, fragrance and texture.

Starting with a quality main ingredient and adding subtle layers of delicate flavour is Ian’s approach with most of the smaller plates. Burrata curds topped with cubes of roasted pumpkin, lightly-pan seared witlof leaves and slow-caramelised rich ripe figs cooked in honey lend a decadence to both in texture and taste – and also visual elegance. I surrender myself more deeply (listening to conversation rather than joining it) while enjoying a butterflied grilled king prawn – its sweet flesh is paired with a nutty brown butter sauce laced with sweet ginger. My focus is now drawn to every tiny mouthful, each bite anticipating a taste sensation with glee. The wagyu carpaccio with tomato vinegar, horseradish and anchovy is slightly more robust in flavour, yet has textures of silk and softened butter. My cares melt away in relaxed enjoyment, aided by a glass of aromatic Gamay – softly sweet with just the right amount sour cherry acidity balancing its weight.

Larger share plates might include an 800 gram slow-roasted lamb shoulder with braised peppers and black olives; or roasted free range chicken with potato aioli and persillade (garlic and parsley sauce). Here again, the impeccably sourced main ingredients – treated with the utmost respect – are cooked simply, yet with brilliant technique. I feel like kicking myself for over seasoning and over thinking the last poultry I roasted at home. But it makes me smile too, as I think to myself how a well-trained chef can soon turn the seemingly improbable into the revelatory possible. Ian also does this with his roasted fillet of John Dory with zucchini and shellfish sauce. It’s an uncomplicated  dish, yet totally epic. The perfectly seasoned golden-fried crispy fish skin married to its soft white flesh underneath makes a perfect pairing with the thinly sliced zucchini and rich edginess of shellfish sauce. This is the way fish is meant to be cooked.

French Saloon’s steak tartar comes plated with a free rage egg yolk and a perfectly round dollop of gentleman’s relish – a brown sauce comprising horseradish, Worcestershire and other ingredients that deliver umami rich flavours and a good deal of heat. This adds a generous layer of punch to the beautifully glistening, seasoned herb-laced raw beef. If the idea of raw steak and egg yolk bends your mind a little in the wrong direction, I urge you to let your palate do the thinking. It’s as divine as the selection of French imported cheeses and enticing choice of small uncomplicated desserts that finish every meal with heart.

French Saloon
First Floor, 46 Hardware Lane,
Melbourne, Victoria

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