Lauraine Jacobs

Food Writer and Author of Delicious Books


6 June 2013


March 2013

I think I’m pretty good at making whitebait fritters. Mine are simple; puffy little pads chock-full of delicate whitebait bound together with free-range egg, with a simple seasoning of salt and pepper. Everybody loves them, but they fade into insignificance beside the amazing pre-dinner nibble we were offered at The French Café recently; little round toasted sandwiches filled with whitebait. Those managed to be buttery, crunchy and very whitebaitey at once, almost stealing the show from everything that followed for our dinner. But that’s to be expected at The French Café, where the menu is filled with deliciousness and you want to try absolutely everything on offer.

The restaurant has become a flagship dining destination for discerning Aucklanders and it seems like it’s always been there. Under the ownership of Simon Wright and his wife Creghan for more than fourteen years, it’s been kept at the undisputable top of New Zealand’s dining scene, through continual attention and re-invigoration of the business by this talented pair.

It’s a well known fact that the very best restaurants are like this, places that continually work at reinventing themselves. Not changing direction nor completely modifying every single detail of menu and décor. Rather, a canny restaurateur knows how to refresh, tweak and invigorate constantly while retaining the things that loyal customers love best and return again and again for. Just like Simon Wright and Creghan Molloy Wright do at The French Café.

Their latest initiative has been to take over the interior courtyard, together with the building across that space on the far side, creating a lush kitchen garden and their brand new room, The French Kitchen. The garden is filled with fresh-for-the-plucking herbs, vegetable plants and fruit, dictating the direction of the menu rather than ordering in whatever takes the chef’s fancy. And the new state-of-the-art airy separate kitchen has space for dining, cooking demos, parties and events for anything from 10 to 30 people. There are white walls, big glass doors, a great Electrolux modern kitchen, a fantastic pale wooden floor (made from floorboards in the old Orange Coronation Hall where my mother used to dance with Bill Sevesi in the forties), and some well chosen art from Gow Langsford.

Simon Wright will cook exclusively for parties who book this space and there will be wine dinners, special events and more. What there won’t be is distraction from the regular business of the French Café where diners are pampered and looked after with some of the most professional service and deliciously thought out food offered in Auckland.

The restaurant does have an á la carte menu option, but to order from that would be a travesty as diners really need to experience the breadth and depth of Wright’s cooking. For his kitchen team work quietly and confidently to send out food that’s expertly crafted, gently cooked and arranged on the plate so every dish is picture-perfect. There’s a tasting menu of about eight superb courses at $140, a set menu at $100 which offers choices for a three course dinner, the á la carte where you can pick and choose, and an eight course vegetarian menu at $140.

The vegetarian menu will certainly make the editor of the Ponsonby News a happy and satisfied soul! (It’s an interesting comment on the position of Auckland restaurants to note that our very best chefs, Sid Sahrawat of Sidart, Ben Bayley at The Grove, Michael Meredith, Des Harris at Clooney and Simon Wright are all offering superb vegetarian tasting menus. There’s something going on here!)

Many of the dishes appear on all the menus, and those I particularly loved were the kingfish ceviche with crème fraîche, caviar and garden greens, an heirloom tomato, melon and lobster salad with ricotta and a ball of gazpacho granite, and an inspired perfect egg yolk confit on smoked potato with peas and parmesan. Duck has always been my number one choice at The French Café and I positively swooned over a perfect seared duck breast garnished with spiced fresh cherries, parsnip and red wine. It’s lovely food that shows exceedingly complex work behind the scenes and yet when it arrives it is simple to savour and devour.

Desserts, and there are two included in the tasting menus, included a frothy sweet concoction of strawberries, meringue, cream, raspberries and mint, and a chocoholic’s delight that had flavours of mandarin, milk toffee, hazelnuts, malt and, of course, lots of chocolate.

The wine list is extensive and perfectly pitched to the audience. Some guests save up for a once-a-year splurge night out or a special celebration, there are regulars who turn up once or twice a week, and there are those who are willing to travel to the end of the earth for the finest food and wines. So the list offers wines to meet any budget and every single one of them, whether it’s a sauvignon blanc at $58 or a Burgundy at $800 is well chosen. There are also great choices by the glass and every varietal I could think of was there, on the list, from pinot blanc to gruner veltliner.

Service at the French Café has always been both friendly and attentive. And now it’s combined with the theatre of the French Kitchen. It’s a real treat to watch the intensity of Simon Wright and his chef, with their complete focus and concentration on cooking and plating the food, only metres from the tables. Like so many of the alterations, additions and fine-tuning they’ve brought to the restaurant over the years, this new project should catapult them even higher on New Zealand’s restaurant scene. Do not miss The French Café experience.

The French Café, 210 Symonds St, Auckland City T 09 377 1911 Dinner Tues-Sat, Lunch Fri

  • First published Ponsonby News
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