Surpassing its neigbouring competitors, A la bouffe is a fine showcase of authentic and accessible French dining luxury.
South Yarra and its Chapel Street precinct is Melbourne’s Rodeo Drive – home to frenetic shopping, orange tanned bodies, boozy nights, big brands, big hair, bigger cars and cash. With an off-white frontage that one could walk by without a glance, A La Bouffe is a recently-opened French bistro deftly translating the natural elegance of French sartorial style into the culinary sphere. Arranged over dual levels, the ground level’s window and bar seating has a casual aspect. Greater formality is found in the upper dining area, comprising paper-topped tables draped with white linens, black cushions dramatically scattered over claret banquette seating, and sepia photographs capturing iconic and nostalgic Parisian scenes. Bringing dimension to the typical dark wooded bistro furnishings, deco mirrors line the walls and are scrawled with the specials of the day. It’s all set alight by discreetly sparkling crystal lighting and golden fabric lanterns. Well-suited for any number of occasions, A La Bouffe is intimately French — a classy affair with an injection of je ne sais quoi.
MoMo & Coco visited for a weekend celebratory luncheon. There were two menus from which to choose, both referencing traditional French bistro/braisserie fare. Allowing great flexibillity for all stomach sizes and budgets, incredible value may be found in the prix fixe lunch menu at $26 for 2-courses, $32 for 3-courses, and a range of baguettes for under $15. The more extensive a la carte menu was structured into a traditional 3-course style of “entrees, plats principaux, garnitures, les desserts.”
From the a la carte menu, one dining companion selected the Coq au Vin ($31), tender chicken that had been beautifully diced and braised in red wine sauce, flanked by a dollop of luxuriously buttery mash. Two of our dining party went for the Steak Frites ($30), an indulgent, perfectly cooked-to-desired-medium-rare-but-no-oozing-blood, 200 grams of quality grass-fed Goulburn Valley Beef Scotch Fillet, with a round of Parisian butter, generous salad accompaniment and simply extraordinary crisp golden fries.
As one part of MoMo & Coco is more inclined to lighter lunches, we also sampled from the very good value prix fixe lunch menu, a deliciously crusty baguette filled with rillette and greens ($13), served with the same crisp fries. Dare we say that rillette is sorely missing from the restaurant meat scene? If A La Bouffe opened a baguette specialty cafe offshoot stocking these baguettes in the CBD, the much-lauded Earl Canteen will face some very stiff competition. We give special mention to the wine list too, tightly curated and highlighting some stunning drops from both Australia and France.
French fashion may be universally acknowledged, but it arguably does not have the same universal appeal as French desserts. At A La Bouffe, the dessert menu was a veritable encyclopedia of traditional French desserts, with a few irresistible twists. Numbering 13 desserts, the menu listed two types each of crepes, creme brulees and glaces, and the ever-popular chocolate fondant, mousse, tarte tartin and the lesser-seen clafoutis. Indeed, MoMo & Coco will admit that it was this extensive dessert menu that enticed us to visit, and certainly, to re-visit. First to be sampled, the “Pear and Lavender Creme Brulee” ($16). Flamed at the table to a delicate crackly finish, it was a deliciously golden treasure enveloped with restrained hints of lavender, and within which were buried small pieces of soft sweet pear.
Not commonly seen in Melbourne or Australian French restaurants, the second irresistible sampled was the “lle Flottante” ($14.50). Instead of a more traditionally hard, vacherin-like meringue, A La Bouffe’s version featured a pearlescent ovoid cloud of soft meringue perched on a shimmering pool of creme anglais. It was dotted with crunchy caramelised pralines for a decidely heavenly textural contrast. A beautiful light dessert.
The “A La Bouffe” ($17) was a spectacular visual feast of a millefeuille tower. MoMo & Coco’s dream sandwich. Two rectangles of puff pastry were baked fluffy and perfectly messy when bitten into, as a good pastry should be. Its puff fatness was juxtaposed against the generous layering of curvaceous custard swishes and slender strawberry slices, emerging like a mirage above an oasis of tangy berry coulis. Another exquisite contemporary rendition of a classic French dessert.
The staff at A La Bouffe embody a notion of hospitality that should be intrinsic and innate and yet frequently overlooked in the hospitality business. Genuinely warm, discreetly attentive, intuitive and sharply coordinated, they complemented to perfection, the fine setting and beautifully rendered culinary offerings. The only gripe that MoMo & Coco would note here was that wine was not poured at the table. A minor point though, in light of all other things.
As supposedly the most European of Australian cities, Melbourne is not wanting for fine French cuisine. There’s the pricey though generally reliable CBD stalwarts that MoMo & Coco have frequented for after-work, pre-theatre or special dinners (par exemple, Bistro Vue, Comme, PM24, Bistro Guillame, Bistro D’orsay, French Braisserie). There’s also the more character-filled, albeit mostly ordinary inner city venues (Paris Go, Libertine, Madame Sousou, Bistro Thierry, Koots Salle a Manger). In the immediate South Yarra neighbourhood, Chez Olivier is a favourite for a casual meal in a charming nook, and of course, the long-standing France-Soir must be mentioned for its classical renditions, its breathtakingly corset-tight seating and the equally breathtaking egocentrism of its service staff. By stark contrast, A La Bouffe surpasses both neighbours by possessing the best of both — beautiful heartfelt food delivered by unpretentious staff in an utterly elegant setting. And oh, the sublime desserts deserve a very special separate mention — of a generosity of flavour and spirit most pleasing in a dining landscape increasingly invaded by high-priced tapas-style small plates of gimmicky experimentalism and just passable vagueness. Overall, A La Bouffe is a fine showcase of rather authentic, accessible French luxury. With a name derived from the French colloquialism to “let’s eat,” MoMo & Coco believe that it woud be a bonne idée to hurry to A La Bouffe before the hoards discover this new, and what will undoubtedly prove to be an immeasurably timeless, treasure of French Melbourne. On y va, mes amies!
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: A La Bouffe Bistro, 268 Toorak Road, South Yarra, Vic 3141.
- ☑ Budget: $$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Neo-classical French.
- ☑ Must-eat: Every dessert (of the 13 available) that you can fit in, but especially the “Creme Brulee” and the “A La Bouffe.”
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Surpassing its neighbouring competitors, A la bouffe is a fine showcase of authentic and accessible French dining luxury.