Vive la Screwball France
Claim to fame: The bistro goes outré
Reason to go: A meeting of the demi-monde and the city’s power players brokered over chicken fricassée
To look out for: The private rooms, one themed as a Port cave, the other celebrating the works of chubby-chasing Colombian painter Fernando Botero.
Start things off with a Pastis Fizz at one of Hubert’s two – count ’em – two full-service bars. There. Now that your eyes have adjusted to the gloom, what can you make out? Depending on your vantage there may be a stage with a jazz combo doing their thing, or a row of banquettes filled with couples canoodling over terrine and Raveneau. Wherever you’re sitting there’s a strong chance your vista will include framed French posters, dripping candles aplenty, crisply dressed, well-mannered waiters, and row upon row of wine bottles. So far so Rive Gauche.
Turn your eye to the menu and, at first glance at least, things are deeply traditional: steak frites, roast duck, leeks vinaigrette, duck liver parfait.
But wait a minute: isn’t that oeuf en gelée set in a jelly of bonito stock? And what’s that sauce au poivre doing on a confit field mushroom?
Chef Daniel Pepperell evinces a clear love of tall-toque French classiques, but also a hearty willingness to give them a sly tweak. That could be something as apparent (and apparently silly) as the rabbit-shaped pieces of bread adorning a rabbit rillettes, or something a bit subtler, such as the winning addition of slippery shiitake mushrooms to a chicken fricassée (made with the whole bird, feet and all).
Maple syrup jelly provides the shimmeringly pretty barding for a duck liver parfait, cabbage gratin made with kimchi gives the dish newfound oomph, and XO sauce makes the decidedly unorthodox (but perfectly apt) enhancement for plump escargots.
Yet the kitchen also knows when to play things straight for just as chic effect, whether it’s a big juicy steak, a silky sauce Nantua to pair with cod quenelles or the bitterness of the caramel that pushes a crème renversée into the must-order bracket.
There’s a similar intelligence at work with the construction of the wine list. If you want something a bit hairy and interesting, whether it’s from the Loire or the Adelaide Hills, it’s there for you. Though you could also while away a happy evening or five working your way through the Burgundy selection, or reveling in classic Australiana. The operators’ background in bars (they own some of the city’s best-liked watering holes, including the famed whisky den The Baxter Inn) also means that anyone hankering for a well-crafted cocktail may do so with confidence.
Serious devotees of la cuisine ancienne might find aspects of the Hubert experience alarming or at the very least disorienting, but for the rest of us it’s an exciting exercise in bringing the best of the past – including the too-often ignored business of restaurant-craft and the art of creating a richly immersive atmosphere – into the present day with admirably seamless results.