French Saloon, Melbourne [permanently closed]

Where: French Saloon, 46 Hardware Lane Melbourne

What: The only restaurant I’ve dined at where the chef is nice enough to let you know when you’ve ordered too much

Who: Sham & Cheese

Bloat score: 4 – If I were lying prostrate on my tummy, it would have looked as though I was levitating

Hardware Lane has a well-deserved poor reputation, but places like Miznon – the Melbourne outpost of a global Israeli pita empire – and French Saloon are rehabilitating the tourist trap. French Saloon is an airy and light-filled bistro that is perched atop Kirk’s Wine Bar — exemplifying much of the casual chic vibe that you find downstairs but with decidedly more flourish and pomp.

Scurrying there from the gym on a humid summer’s day with my backpack strapped on and rivulets of sweat streaming down my face means I wasn’t in perhaps best form for the well-coiffed diners of French Saloon, but I made do – a waitstaff gingerly took hold of my backpack to hang it in an undisclosed location and I composed myself by sipping on my sparkling water and trying to appear nonchalant while awaiting Sham & Cheese’s arrival.

Sham & Cheese and I bonded in our last job over our shared love of the heavenly ham and cheese croissants at Brioche (if you haven’t tried them, I beseech you to immediately) and sham was our favourite word of the year, in the way certain words insert themselves into your lexicon and refuse to leave, which led to the formation of Sham & Cheese’s moniker. Knowing that he enjoys the French national dish croissants, I thought Sham & Cheese would be the perfect dining companion for French Saloon.

Persisting with my self-imposed challenge of not consuming any alcohol over the course of January – not in any way repairing my image in the restaurant’s eye – I busied myself with the food menu. It was an interesting one full of disparate European influences, from Spanish (padron peppers) and Russian (potato blinis) to English (black pudding, anyone?) and Italian (burrata). There was no mention of confit duck or béarnaise sauce (the two French things I know, lel), though the steak menu was populated by predictable French staples like steak frites and côte de bœuf. I had already decided prior that I would not be following my food intolerances because it was my first time visiting French Saloon and I wanted to do it right i.e. I did not want to be limited to the oysters and the gem lettuce salad.

Sham & Cheese was only too happy to let me choose, and I was feeling fancy after having just been paid the day before, so I chose two dishes from the ‘To Begin’ menu (including the luxurious AF Yarra Valley caviar), two dishes from the ‘To Continue’ menu, two dishes from the ‘Add More’ menu and one dish from the ‘On the Side’ menu. Typing this out now, I realise how much this sounds for a mere two people, but the waitstaff who was attending to us for the night assured us that we’d get through it.

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The warm potato blini with Yarra Valley rainbow trout caviar arrived accompanied with whipped cod roe. This is highly pedestrian of me, but the part of this dish that most excited me were the Russian-inspired potato blinis! Light and fluffy, the small spherical blinis paired well with the tiny pearls of caviar and the cheek of lemon that I squeezed liberally over. I remarked to Sham & Cheese that the caviar tasted like a high-end version of the popping pearls you get in bubble tea, all but cementing my status as an uncultured diner who makes comparisons between an adulated culinary delicacy and the tapioca starch balls found in a takeaway tea-based drink. Although I greatly enjoyed this dish, I began to worry about how much we’d ordered – the eight potato blinis were a more generous serving size than expected.

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The crispy deep fried school prawns with padron peppers arrived next, accompanied by a velvety sauce that I can only assume had garlic in it, judging by how I felt after. I enjoyed eating the whole school prawns, head and all. The well-salted padron peppers were surprisingly spicy, much to my delight, and I was forced to soothe my itchy throat with a discrete slug of water, not wanting to betray my hard-earned chilli queen status.

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A huge pile of hazelnut and chilli-speckled burrata arrived on an oily bed of slow-cooked eggplant and this was the moment I knew we were done for. We were only three out of seven dishes in, and I was beginning to feel very full. In a fortuitous turn of events however, the waitstaff who had previously encouraged our gluttony strode up to our table with a concerned look on her face and proceeded to tell us that the chef wanted us to choose between our chicken and pork main because he didn’t think we’d be able to finish all of our food. You know you’ve crossed a line when even the restaurant wants you to order less, but I will forever be grateful to that chef who thought it prudent to let us know (we choose the chicken P.S.).

But back to the burrata; it was exquisite and I was able to enjoy it more freely knowing that we were at least halfway through our meal. The creamy, smooth and rich burrata had a slight kick due to the chilli and was heavenly when scooped on top of the slick eggplant and spread across the crunchy sourdough that was provided. This was an A+ dish; perhaps the best of the night.

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Our black pudding dish with soured cream and onion (which I carefully picked out, to no avail for my bloat score) was a treat, although I was gradually becoming too full to enjoy the flavours in front of me. The richness of the fruity and dense black pudding was nicely offset by the soured cream, which tasted akin to yoghurt (related: is soured cream a new upmarket phrase for yoghurt?).

The half chicken arrived and I could finally breathe a sigh of relief – our second last dish! I was so relieved I forgot to take a picture of this dish, for which I unreservedly apologise. The chicken was immaculately cooked and tender, while the cubes of smoked pork and sweet corn were worthy adjuncts when paired with the light gravy pooling at the bottom of the plate. The hand cut chips arrived but I told Sham & Cheese he had to walk the last part of the journey solo – I was done.

Our waitstaff sauntered over and gently asked us if we’d like dessert, but Sham & Cheese and I were catatonic and could only shake our heads in response. My energy levels had severely dipped I was so bloated, and I half-listened to Sham & Cheese as he told me a joke that deserved a much bigger laugh than the one it got.

If I could have had my time again, I would have omitted the black pudding and hand cut chips – the former because it was probably my least favourite dish of the night (though still scrumptious) and the latter because chips are what you order in fancy restaurants when you’re scared you’ll leave hungry in need of a McDonalds nightcap.

When it came time to pay, Sham & Cheese and I decided that we definitely had to tip the restaurant for saving us from ourselves. In my four-bloat fog however, I accidentally forgot to press two zeros after the initial figure on the Eftpos machine, which is how I came to tip a fancy restaurant 15 cents – a fact that Sham & Cheese only informed me of later when he’d stopped guffawing. French Saloon, if you’re reading this, I am so sorry – your service is worth more than a measly 15 cents.

French Saloon is open from midday to 2am Monday to Friday.

French Saloon Bar & Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Author: Sonia Nair

Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based food writer who persists with her love of everything deep fried and spicy, despite being diagnosed with a histamine intolerance and lactose intolerance after incorrectly thinking she was fructose-intolerant for several years.

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