July 4 update: French Saloon is back! After two and a half years of existing as a functions-only venue on Hardware Lane, hospo legend Con Christopolous has reverted the space back into the European bistro and bar Melburnians missed so dearly throughout the lockdown age. Pop into sister wine bar Kirk's and ascend the staircase to see what remains – and what's changed. The below review was written in March 2016.
He’s collected almost the full quiver, including but in no way limited to: an Italian (Emilia), a couple of wine bars (Neapoli, City Wine Shop), a rooftop haunt (Siglo), a supper club (the Supper Club), and a European (the European). It was only natural the hospitality industry’s King of Moomba would declare himself dissatisfied and decide to add something French to his happy family.
French Saloon, housed above Kirk’s Wine Bar – a Christopoulos production in Melbourne’s 6th arrondissement around Hardware Lane – doesn’t beat diners about the head in some clichéd So-Frenchy-So-Chic kind of way. It’s typically understated, with a curving red timber ceiling, a long zinc bar, a winsome little terrace with umbrella-covered tables. It looks and feels like it could have been serving oysters – natural with a tiny bottle of Tabasco, or punchily flecked in bottarga and horseradish – at the dawn of existentialism. On the negative side there’s also a 20th-century approach to sound baffling, so it can sound like a small revolution is fomenting beneath the lazily twirling fans.
Executive chef-slash-partner Ian Curley and head chef Todd Moses (ex-Golden Fields and Supernormal) are in tight control of a menu that’s most accurately described as free ranging French. There are some dishes - duck with cherries and wilted raddichio leaps immediately to mind – that practically wear a beret, but it’s more accurate to pigeonhole French Saloon less with the France-Soirs of Melbourne, more with the current wave of wine-driven joints such as Marion. To that end its booze list ticks a hell of a lot of boxes, from Old World to New World, from old school to new school, and big names to boutiques, with a perky list of aperitifs (such as the peach wine Rin Quin Quin spritz) jonesing for the last of the warm nights.
You’ll want to start with the snacks, such as anchovy toasts with melting strips of lardo (the menu says guanciale but we can attest this is 100 per cent delicious pig fat) on a vibrant red pepper smoosh. There’s caviar, naturellement, whether from Siberian sturgeon (by way of Abu Dhabi) or Yarra Valley salmon, and sweet-leaning kingfish crudo, richly blobbed in confit yolk and performed with a gravlax-style dressing, the combination of mustard, red wine vinegar and dill mollified by crème fraîche. There’s chopped raw veal and oyster cream, the love child of vitello tonnato and tartare; the roughly chopped meat is saltily mined with fried capers and saltbush leaves. There’s a fragrant wodge of pan-fried blood pudding cut through by apple remoulade and prettily translucent blanched beetroot, and proper desserts (wattleseed brulée and chocolate madeleine) backed up by gelato from Gelateria Primavera, another Christopoulos production up in the 4th arrondissement. All in, it’s the kind of forward-leaning bistro food that defies national borders while keeping its heart in a readily identifiable place. And that means we can chalk another one up for a Christopoulos win.