Restaurant years are like dogs years, so venues like this quiet, unassuming French bistro at the well-tailored end of CBD anywhere basically qualifies for long service. For the last eight years, Bistro Papillon’s owners, Xavier Huitorel and Ludovic Geyer, keep things simple – but extravagantly French — with both the menu and decor at this solid 40-seater.
On a Friday night, the timber-clad dining room is packed with chatty nine-to-fivers and after-work couples nursing a glass of wine (all $15) in the dim, burnt orange glow. Walls are covered with framed vintage posters, and bottles of liqueur stand ready at the counter, should the waiter’s accent persuade you that a sticky, blackcurrant-spiked kir royale ($24) is a sensible place to start.
It’s fair to say that this is not a place for the vegos in your life, unless they’re content with a solitary earthy mushroom and winter vegetable risotto (so retro), or an entree of onion soup, which you will probably steal from them once you’ve tried the seven-hour simmer of caramelised onion to an intensely sweet, smoky broth. Dunk the salty, crisp-edged gruyere croutons
For omnivores, an entree of grass-fed Tasmanian beef tartare has the right amount of tang and richness. A rosy disc of handcut fillets come dressed with lemon juice, tabasco, vinegar and housemade mayonnaise. There’s no raw egg yolk or dijon mustard — but the creaminess of the mayo brings out a sweetness in the beef. Mixed with the crunch of shallots and capers, it’s an unconventional twist that works. Pair this with a ripe, gently spicy 2015 Chanson Bourgogne pinot noir.
Mains are the culinary equivalent of a Le Chat Noir poster: a best-of line-up with duck cassoulet with Toulouse sausage, a sticky boeuf Bourguignon and a Joy of French Cooking-era chicken and mushroom vol au vent. We go for a cassolette de fruits de mer — a seafood spin off from the heavier duck and bean stew. Chunks of just-cooked barramundi and plump mussels with spicy chorizo discs give this dish a Mediterranean makeover. Only the potatoes could’ve used more time in the tomato broth.
Like an Italian loafer or a white business shirt, a simple hanger steak might look plain on the page, but when a piece of Cape Grim beef is seared to a perfect ruby and served with a smoky red wine jus you’ve got all the reasons you need for a return visit. The magic, says the chef, is in the sauce’s three-hour reduction with roasted shallots and beef stock, which is edible proof that a slow and steady approach can win you’re the restaurant game.