As did Felix tonight.
Felix is one of the gems in Merrivale’s portfolio of restaurants. Located opposite the Group’s Ash Street Cellar on Ash Street (a small lane that runs behind Sydney’s George Street), the restaurant is a Francophile’s erotic dream.
As you walk down Ash Street with its European vibe and enter Felix it is as if you have been transported to Paris. You would almost be forgiven to think that it was a clone of New York’s Balthazar Restaurant – one of that city’s best French restaurants. The maitre de welcomes you in a French accent and you are seated in bentwood chairs or on a long cushioned leather banquette with a table draped with fresh and crisp white linen. Bow-tied waiters dressed in black and white and donning long white aprons glide across the tiled floor effortlessly. The bistro features brass fittings, petite lamps on the tables, a seafood bar and, as a feature wall, a large display from the excellent wine collection. A mirrored bar to the left of the entrance is a space for sipping or sampling from the menu without having to be too formal. But what is with the bottle of Tabasco on the tables?
The Baroness was sparkling tonight in her black Karen Millen dress so we just had to start with bubbles – a glass of Verve Cliquot rose ($25 by the glass) – while pursuing the menu and the absolutely mind-blowing wine list which features an impressive and serious range of European drops with an array of carefully-selected wines available by the glass (which we decided to do so that we could match a wine to what we would dine on).
Service was exceptional and unobtrusive – from the moment we arrived to the moment we left – it was flawless. Baroness has a habit of teasing waiting staff to gauge whether they’re up to scratch and how the rest of the evening will flow. Our waitress, Karel, passed her test (and cheekiness), with flying colours. Not only did she like dishing out the bread (an in-joke between us and Karel) but she was a world of knowledge about the menu and the encyclopedia that make up the wine list. She expertly and without fear offered wine recommendations for each course. Karel made the night enjoyable and memorable.
The wine “book” had 34 by the glass and the bottles were broken up into appellation: Champagne (63 houses including magnums), Alsace, Loire Valley, Rhone Valley, Langedoc & Corsica, Bordeaux, Jura, Savoie, Bourgeone and Beaujolais as well as varietals from Australian and New Zealand. I don’t usually review the wines when discussing the food but considering my wine pedigree, and to give Karel her dues for choosing exceptional matches, I will make the exception.
For entrée Baroness had half a dozen freshly-shucked Coffin Bay oysters ($21) from Felix’s oyster bar which was accompanied by a red wine and shallot vinaigrette. The plump oysters, just opened, not interfered with and arranged on a bed of crushed ice, were über fresh and succulent. The course was matched with a glass of the 2008 Andre Perret Condrieu “Chery’ – a superb vigoner from Northern Rhone ($44). One whiff of the Andre Perret and you would think that you were in a French garden – there were scents of honeysuckle, violets, orange and peach. Tropical fruits like lychee and peach danced around the palate.
I have a weakness for steak tartare ($22) and will even gauge a restaurant’s success or failure on the dish. The hand-cut steak was superb. Topped with a plump and glistening golden egg yolk the neat cylindrical steak was surrounded with toast and piles of chopped red onions and gherkin. Three mustard pots arrived in a blink of an eye and thankfully the Tabasco was there at the ready. After much mixing and mashing I was in caveman Heaven. The meat was fresh, raw and delicate – and it was one of the better steak tartare I’ve had (or I have made!) in 2012. With raw meat I needed something with a little gaminess – the 2008 Bell Hill ‘Old Weka Pass Road’ Canterbury New Zealand ($29) provided just that with overtones of black cherries and raspberries and allspice as well as a degree of Burgundian style about it.
Other entrees included French classics like chicken liver pate ($16); mussels Normandy ($18); a Gruyere souffle ($20), a soup du jour ($13), and salmon rillettes with creme fraiche, cornichons and toasted brioche ($18).
The mains list is extensive. The restaurant offers “Plats du Jour” – tonight was a coq au riesling but depending on what day of the week you could have anything from suckling pig from the rotisserie (Tuesday) or a daube of beef (Thursday). There is also the classic duck confit ($32) and steak frites ($38) or a lamb pie with sautéed mushrooms and tarragon jus ($32).
For the main event, Baroness ordered what I though was the highlight dish and wine of the evening – the pork braised cheeks with honey and clove which was served on mustard mash ($32) and a 2009 Domaine Barroche Châteauneuf-Du-Pape ‘Signature’ – a GSM from southern Rhone – ($28). As soon as her plate landed on the table the whole atmosphere filled with star anise and rich reduction scents. The cheeks – coated in a rich, powerful, sticky and wonderfully flavoursome reduction – effortlessly melted in the mouth and the dish’s bold and sweet flavours lasted and lasted. The Domaine Barroche was truly a magnificent wine with black cherries, ripe raspberries, blackberries and herbs with a hint of anise, lavender and leather and displaying a full-bodied, long-lasting, luscious and silky/spicy palate. It was as sexy as the Baroness in front of me.
I decided on the Saturday plate du jour – the coq au reisling ($38) – a creamy version of coq ua vin. I wasn’t blown away by it – not to say that it was bad – just that I suppose I expected a bit of a wow factor being a plate du jour. The accompanying 2009 Château Pierre-Bise Savennières ‘Roche aux Moines’ a chenin blanc from the Loire Valley ($19) was a good match. Chenin is quite underrated in Australia but this was a classic example of why it is a much appreciated wine in France (and Château Pierre-Bise produces some of the best). It was dry and savoury with a touch of honey and apples and a slightly chalky texture and actually went well with the flavours of the dish.
To accompany the mains we ordered a plate of steamed vegetables with herbs and hazelnut ($8).
The desert selection was tempting: vanilla creme brulee, blood orange and hazelnut sable ($16); mandarin souffle, orange and cardomom caramel and chocolate cream ($18); and profiteroles, vanilla ice cream, melted custard and hot chocolate sauce ($16) – to name a few. But after such a hearty meal there was no way we could fit in a desert so we decided on a liquid version – a glass each of the 2010 Paul Jaboulet Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise from Southern Rhône ($12). This is from the same Rhone producer that makes the striking “La Chapelle” hermitage (shiraz). It’s a white wine from muscat blanc a petits grains and has an attractive golden colour with a nose of peach and quince followed by honey. It starts fresh but then melts and integrates on the palate with a lovely mouthfill of candied tropical fruits.
You have to hand it to Justin Hemmes – he can create a bon vivant’s version of Disneyland and Felix on that night was “The happiest place on Earth”.
The verdict: Forget dining in Paris, it’s all at Felix. Magnificent service (without French attitude), combined with elegant and classic French fare and an exceptional wine list make Felix an elegant and sophisticated bistro with all the trimmings.
What: Felix, 2 Ash Street, Sydney NSW Australia. Phone: (02) 9240-3000.
Ate there: 28 July 2012