It can’t be easy taking over an institution that is synonymous with excellence in food, service and style. For three decades, The French Café has been in the careful hands of some of the country’s best chefs. Until September 2018, owners for 20 years, Simon Wright and Creghan Molloy-Wright, delivered food with simple elegance backed up with impeccable technique that made Simon’s cooking much loved. Assured service headed by Creghan made dining there a delight.
If anyone could do justice to the restaurant with a seamless transition then it would be another husbandand- wife powerhouse combination in Sid and Chand Sahrawat. Their restaurant, Sidart, has long been an exciting dining destination with thoughtful, clever cooking that makes full use of modern techniques and trends, applied with Sid’s effortless grace. Their other restaurant, Cassia, is rightly popular as one of the best Indian dining experiences in the country with a string of awards to its name.
Lesley Chandra, the long-time head of development and research at Sidart, has taken over the reins as head chef here and is doing a fine job. It says a lot about the trust the Sahrawats have in their staff but it is also a reflection of the time they spend encouraging them to gain new experiences for professional growth.
So if you have been dining at The French Café regularly for many years, will you be happy with the changes? The surrounds are much as they were with subtle tweaks, and it’s telling that most of the front-of-house staff have been retained. Restaurant manager Simon Benoit ensured that the service on our visit was impeccable. He’s a warm and engaging host who exudes calm professionalism without a whiff of snobbery. Sommelier Hiro Kawahara (ex-Cocoro) curates a wonderfully diverse wine list. If you aren’t choosing a wine pairing for your meal, then do let him suggest a glass for you as his selections are varied, interesting and on the nail.
The food is uniformly excellent and sometimes brilliant. There are dishes here that nod to the stalwarts of Simon’s menu (such as the confit duck with kūmara), but it is very much Sahrawat’s food. There is, of course, a dégustation menu, but it isn’t compulsory to dine this way. The three or four course à la carte menu gives enough scope to work through a variety of dishes. It includes plenty of snacks and the house-made sourdough. On the night I was there, the wonderfully clear, umami-rich shiitake broth, a Sidart mainstay, was a snack highlight. The presentation, on ceramics by Peter Collis and Rachel Carter, is tight, and signature flourishes including ‘hidden’ food are to the fore. Crisp skins of buttermilk, wafers of celeriac, or liquorice meringue shards and the like, give no inkling of what lies beneath. You’ll need to tap, crack or shift to reveal the rest of the dish.
A quail dish with lovage, beetroot and truffle curd is a beautiful ballotine, cooked perfectly, warmth and earthiness coming from the beetroot and the curd creamy and delicate. Likewise the harmonious balance of cured trevally with buttermilk, dill and kombu makes for excellent, joyful eating. For those requiring a degree of reassurance, the wagyu steak provides comfort with a lush celeriac and coffee purée.
It feels to me like Sahrawat is playing a tad safe here, trying to appease a crowd who may not be familiar with this style of food. The offering is technically brilliant, if occasionally over-seasoned, but it felt that there was little in the way of evolution in the dishes. I’m sure it’s a deliberate step, and that this careful and steady approach at the beginning of Sahrawat’s stewardship augurs well. I’ve no doubt changes will be coming. Be assured that, in the meantime, Sid at The French Café is still one of the best dining destinations in the country.