A French fling

Perched in the courtyard of The French Cafe, sipping an aperitif is easily one of the nicest ways to kick off a balmy summer’s eve in Auckland. Especially when that courtyard has recently been renovated with the help of landscape designer Xanthe White, and you sit surrounded by espalier pear trees creeping up the brick walls, and vertical planters from which spills generous summer produce that might very well end up on your plate later on at the dinner table. The heirloom tomatoes certainly did, in a magnificent dish where they were both made into a gazpacho granita (its pink hue belied a taste that was so very red!) and sat alongside with lobster tails and ricotta.

I was very lucky to start two evening this way, this summer. And I daydream of ways to make it a regular occurrence. In any season. Last month, my husband and I went along for a meal – the chef’s 8-course tasting, and later in the month I was invited to the launch of the new, wonderfully elegant private dining area at the back of the courtyard, The French Kitchen. It used to be a tailors. It used to be dark and dank, they said. And now it’s light, airy and somehow calming.

It’s enough to make me want to get married again – just so I could book the space. It takes up to 30 or so guests – the perfect excuse for a small reception! It has its own large Electrolux kitchen where owner and executive chef Simon Wright cooks right there in front of guests, using all domestic-spec appliances. His wife and co-owner Creghan Molloy-Wright leads the front of house here and in the restaurant, and if you get a chance, engage her on the topic of the garden – her enthusiasm for the project is a pleasure to witness. A small group of us enjoyed a 6-course menu there to showcase the new space, in what was only – if I remember rightly – the second ever PR event The French Cafe has done. They like to keep things on the D-L, these guys.

A few weeks earlier my husband and I had dined inside the restaurant, which has also had a few design touch-ups. The lighting, I think, is just that little bit more ambient than it once was, making the famously ninja-like waitstaff even more so. We were blown away by each and every dish we had, but my very favourite was the egg-yolk ravioli which featured, alongside the large yolk which burst in a perfect marigold river – smoked potato, jamon Iberico, asparagus, peas and parmesan. Insanely delicious fine-dining comfort food, and a concept that would work in any season.

Simon Wright and his team are using the very best of seasonal ingredients. I know every chef says the same, but right now at The French Cafe, you can taste it, you really can. And it definitely helps that you can see it, some of it anyway, growing out there in the courtyard; our senses are, of course, intricately linked. Simon Wilson has just reviewed The French Cafe in the latest issue of Metro. It’s rather gushing, which he doesn’t do very much of at all. If you’ve got a special occasion coming up, this would be my place to book right now. And by goodness if you can get there while the romance of summer is still in the air that courtyard of theirs, do.

The French Kitchen dining room, photo courtesy of Charlie Smith
Tomato – melon, ricotta, lobster, granita (minus the lobster – a vegetarian version)

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