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Where to get a taste of France in Canberra

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With Bastille Day just around the corner, it’s time to think seriously about where to get the best and most authentic French food in Canberra.

Er, we mean, reflect on the democratic principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité—or in English, liberty, equality, fraternity, bien sûr.

La fête nationale, as it’s known in France, celebrates the storming in 1789 of the Bastille, a prison where King Louis XVI detained his opponents, which eventually led to the end of the monarchy.

The day is always marked in France on 14 July and involves a lot of food and wine. Like, a lot. But if you can’t get to France, don’t fret. We’ve rounded up the best French restaurants in Canberra that will be celebrating Bastille Day with special menus.

All run by imported French chefs who have trained in Michelin-star restaurants, you can also come back any time for that certain dining je ne sais quoi.

Buvette, Barton

Fabien Wagnon, Doma Group’s Executive Chef. Photograph: Rebecca Doyle.

Buvette is set in the swanky Hotel Realm in Barton, but executive chef Fabien Wagnon doesn’t want this to put off potential diners.

“Because we’re in a five-star hotel, we don’t want people to think, oh, I’m going to pay five-star prices. It’s not the approach we want. It’s a friendly French bistro, and wine bar,” he says.

“French food is easy – chefs make it complicated. There’s a technique, sure. First, is the ingredients – where you buy it from – and then it’s the cooking, and then the sauces.

“Sauces make 60 to 70 per cent of a dish. You can have very good produce but if there is no sauce…” He trails off with a Gallic shrug of his shoulders.

French food is full of flavour – and a sauce is almost compulsory! Image: Tim Bean Photography.

But while Fabien believes in the power of sauces to transform a dish and that chicken or duck “fat is flavour,” he’s aware that times have changed and people want to eat healthily, even when dining out. He swaps out butter for olive oil where he can, and “hardly” uses any cream except if it’s necessary.

“Even the vegetable purées, we make them lighter. If you cook them sous-vide, you don’t need so much fat,” he says.

“If you over-reduce the cream or if you over-butter a dish, the only thing you will taste at the end is the fat. And this way, you can feel the produce a bit more.

“We take traditional dishes and make them more light. I don’t want people to feel heavy and like, ‘I need to take a nap before I go back to work.’

“I understand that French food is not just about heavy food. It’s friendly, it’s easy to eat, it’s light.”

Having said that, expect to indulge on Bastille Day at Buvette. Enjoy a Sunday lunch of traditional pastries, charcuterie plates of oysters, cured meats and cheeses, a pig-carving station, macarons, and Croquembouche.

Buvette | 18 National Circuit, Barton | buvette.com.au

Les Bistronomes, Braddon

Les Bistronomes’ Executive Chef, Clement Chauvin.

With its exposed brick wall, large rustic clock set to Parisian time, simple painting of the Eiffel Tower in blue, red and white, unfussy white tablecloths and napkins, and black high-backed chairs, Les Bistronomes in Braddon evokes the charm of a simple French bistro.

Chef and owner Clément Chauvin wanted “a casual, relaxed atmosphere, but with good food, good wine and excellent service.”

Even the name Les Bistronomes is a play on these two worlds – and words. Bistronomique means casual dining in France, and gastronomie means fine dining – “So the bistro and the fine dining meet in one place,” Clément says.

You can see for yourself next Sunday when the bistro will be dishing up “a little collection of the most French dishes on the menu” for Bastille Day.

To start, indulge in a duck liver parfait served on brioche with sour cherry compote and freeze-dried cherries. “With the acidity of the liver parfait, you want the sweet and sour,” Clement says.

Next, garlic snails. But don’t be put off. “Be adventurous. My advice is to empty the shell on to a little piece of bread. The bread will hide the texture of the snail but you will still get all the full flavour of the garlic and the parsley,” Clément says.

An entrée of French onion soup served Bocuse-style means: “We put a disc of puff pastry on top of the soup and we bake it, so it’s like a crusty soup.”

Braised black Angus beef burgundy braised in red wine, and dished up with smoked mash potato, baked carrots and caramelised onions is “comfort food.”

Dessert is crème brûlée but with a little twist: it will be on fire. “So it’s literally brûlée,” Clément says, which translates as burnt in French. “Just to finish with a bit of fire, because on Bastille Day there’s always the fireworks.”

Clément is thrilled that Canberrans have embraced the award-winning bistro’s most famous dish, the dramatic-looking duck à l’orange. 

“We cook it overnight in an ash crust and then we present it in the crust to the customers, and then it goes back in the kitchen and gets caramelised with pickled cabbage and orange sauce,” Clément says.

Les Bistronomes’ chestnut soup

Les Bistronomes will be moving to the Lanterne Rooms at Campbell Shops (which will, in turn, be moving to Campbell 5) in early October. Clément says the new space will translate to a more fine dining experience.

Clément says when he and his then business partner Abel Bariller opened the bistro in 2014 there was a hole in the market for real French food in Canberra.

“There was no real French bistro in Canberra… French cooking is hearty comfort food that’s made to be enjoyed – we don’t want people to come here and just be served food,” Clément says.

“We want them to enjoy an experience … be surrounded by the buzz and the atmosphere and spend quality time with friends and family.” 

Les Bistronomes | Eloura Street, Braddon | lesbistronomes.net 

Breizh Café, Ainslie 

Breizh Café. Image: breizhcafecreperie.com

Walk into Breizh Café in Ainslie, and it’s like stepping into one of many traditional crêperies that dot the cities and towns of Brittany.

With its real stone wall and touches of blue throughout, inspired by the blue painted shutters of the stone wall cottages in Brittany, the café and pâtisserie is like a slice of the picturesque north-west corner of France.

Old black and white photographs, a map of Brittany, wooden clogs, old biscuit tins, women’s traditional lace bonnets, and the black-and-white flag of Brittany, add to the rustic charm.

That’s what chef Bruno Paressant, who was born in the French region, and his Australian wife Bronwyn Thomson, had in mind when they opened the crêperie in 2013.

“The intention was to offer simple, humble food with flavour, and at a reasonable price, but lift the game, because if you go to a crêperie in Rennes, or Marseilles, or Lyon, they all offer the same boring galettes,” Bruno says, referring to the savoury crêpes.

“Six to eight fillings, and they just change the combination – tomato, cheese, spinach,  ham –and they just mix and match,” Bronwyn explains.

Breizh Café is known for its authentic crêpes. Image: Facebook

“We push the boundaries, to make it more interesting and exciting, because if we’re going do the same thing we’re going to get bored quickly, and we assume customers are going to get bored quickly as well,” Bruno adds.

Bruno says the café offers a different combination of flavours, but also keeps things exciting in presentation. “We fold the crêpes in different ways to make it a bit more interesting.”

There won’t be a crêpe in sight for the Bastille Day dinner though. “We have so many regular customers, they know our galettes, they know our blackboard, and we’re going to give them something different, something to celebrate,” Bruno says.

Diners can feast on salmon carpaccio with a dressing of coconut and ginger with mini blinis; twice-baked cheese soufflé made with “good quality Gruyere cheese” to ensure the “light and fluffy” texture with “a golden cheesy crust;” duck-braised Rossini with local truffle, foie gras and polenta chips; and a “crisp and crunchy” tarte Tatin (upside down apple tart).

Breizh Café | 5 Edgar St, Ainslie | breizhcafecreperie.com

Where to celebrate Bastille Day

Les Bistronomes in Braddon, will offer two dinner services, one at 6pm and one at 8.30pm. Food only $90, Beaujolais wine package $35. Bookings, 6248 8119.

Buvette in Barton will host a lunch from 12-4pm. $75 incudes a glass of champagne upon arrival. Bookings, 6163 1818 or buvette@domahotels.com.au

Breizh Café will open its doors for dinner from 6pm. Food only $90. Bookings 6156 0346.

The Alliance Française in Turner will dish up a French-Australian brunch of smoked salmon and blinis, bacon, scrambled eggs, tomatoes, beans, croissants, chocolate croissants, jam, fruit juices, champagne, mimosas, coffee, tea and hot chocolate from 11am-12.30pm. Price $50, and 15 per cent off for Alliance Française members. Bookings, enquiries@afcanberra.com.au or 6257 6696.

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