With low lighting, intimate booths and waiters who anticipate your needs by bringing extra bread and brushing down your table between courses, Frenchie is perfectly set up for a romantic dinner for two.
So it’s probably just as well that a millennial couple on their stressful first date here might be blissfully unaware that in the recent past, Frenchie was a euphemism for a condom (still, that’s not a patch on the Thai restaurant nearby, recently closed, named Tahi – the Malay word for excrement).
Besides, French cuisine truly is the food of romance, and certainly the first love of owner Mark Limacher. On the wall upstairs there’s a fading letter in French from the legendary Swiss chef Frédy Girardet, wishing Limacher well with the Roxburgh, his debut venture in these very premises back in 1992. Other Roxburgh relics include framed photos of classic French restaurants from the mid-century Time Life cookbook; and there are vintage French food and travel posters that once hung next door in another of Limacher’s award-winning ventures, Café Bastille (today Ortega Fish Shack and Bar). A well-thumbed copy of Escoffier’s Ma Cuisine returns to its place of honour in a display case.
Nevertheless, Frenchie’s interior is still easily recognisable as its immediate predecessor, Slim Davey’s. There’s still the 1950s television screen showing fist-fight scenes from classic Westerns (slapstick to us today) while Slim Davey’s cowboy-buckled leather aprons are still worn by the waiting staff – only now they’re overlaid with the stereotypically French, striped pirate shirts.
Le prix fixe, that mainstay of the French bistro, also informs the menu here – $59 for three courses. As in France, this represents great value. The vast French repertoire has been trawled afresh for obscure but authentic regional specialties such as aligot, a creamy, altogether heavenly melding of potato mash with cheese from France’s l’Aubrac region, here made with Cantal cheese and mixed with creme fraiche to make it less elastic than the original. It goes with the ‘Tongue and Cheek’ – a tightly pressed tile of beef cheek, fried and topped with sliced ox tongue, its richness cut with roasted rhubarb.
The hors d’oeuvres platter for two (Assiette d’apéritif) features the mildly pungent earthiness of pig’s head terrine, known more delicately to the French as fromage de tete, which perfectly evokes the Anglo-Celtic brawn of Kiwi childhoods. Elsewhere on the platter was smoked fish pate, smoked brisket remoulade, Garage Project Thrills ‘n’ Pils mushrooms (thankfully not hoppy and bitter) and by way of green relief, steamed vegetables with house- made, palpably garlicky aioli. Roast rump of lamb comes with a swede variation on potatoes fondant, in which chunks are cooked in stock which reduces away to almost nothing and caramelises at the edges. Simply delish.
Appropriately, the drinks list is French dominated – and massive. There are 26 apéritifs and 18 champagnes alone, not to mention over 100 wines, the task of choosing being made easier by breaking down the list into sections with colourful headings such as “White Wine – Fresh, Zesty, Racy and Flirty” and “Red Wine – Medium-bodied, Fleshy and Plush.”
Although the somewhat tired old French classics (French onion soup, Nicoise salad, steak frites, crème brulée etc) are refreshingly absent from this menu, it does include tarte tatin in its original apple iteration, which when properly made, still burnishes to a deep golden brown better than any of the other fruits favoured by modern chefs. This version was exemplary, not only in the apple but also the pastry. Its quenelle of beautifully textured ice cream had a familiar flavour which I could not quite identify until reminded by the menu that it was chèvre – a cleanly made, quality brand to be sure.
Head chef Teresa Pert comes full circle, returning to work for Mark and Helen Limacher in this 1860s colonial cottage once again after a stellar career in Auckland, Europe and most recently Canterbury, as head chef at the Cuisine – hatted winery restaurant, Pegasus Bay.