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The Press

John Leathlean

John Lethlean writes

“This is the old Maria and Walters. Then it was empty for a while. Then it was Wine Bar 11. Then, under new management, it became Le Cézanne. It was sold and under new management, it stayed Le Cézanne. It sold again and, under new management became Moretons Brasserie late last year.
This pattern is not atypical of many shopping-strip premises set up as restaurants; it’s an industry with notorious failure and/or burn-out rates. Now, I may be wrong, but that shouldn’t be the case for this newish, yet decidedly old-fashioned local bistro.
For one, the gentle hum of contentment resonating through the place on a grim Wednesday night in April – from a good-size crowd – says quite clearly there is a place for this kind of familiar, traditional European approach to the local restaurant.
Second, the owner working the floor and cooking is clearly enjoying every moment.
Moretons is a simple space behind the traditional, bull-nosed veranda of Rathdowne Street’s Carlton café belt; a rectangular room with high ceilings, mirrors and superb old French absinthe posters on the walls, jarrah floorboards and an open kitchen – the kind you walk through to reach the lav – at the back. Bentwood bistro chairs are parked up against small tables set with linen and white paper overlays; all the hardware is humble and functional rather than flash. Each table has it’s own earthenware jar of Pommery moutarde de meaux – grain mustard. It’s a pleasant touch, but I would rather have a pot of sea salt than the iodised version that pours from an acrylic combination pepper grinder / salt shaker. And, at Moretons prices, linen napkins instead of paper.
Nevertheless, this is quite like any cosy, French-influenced bistro you’d find in the home counties of London, and indeed the English family that runs it did exactly this back home. The menu offers drinks such as a Kir Royale and Bucks Fizz, a “menu prix fixe” at lunch and refers to “entrees” as “starters”
There are restaurants run along textbook lines and those adopting a more idiosyncratic approach, and it is immediately becomes obvious Moretons is the latter; the owner skips from table to table like a sparrow, checking things, taking orders, having a quick chat and barely concealing the pleasure she’s getting from it before dashing back to the kitchen. Very likeable.
The food is quite good, the chef grew up in Singapore, but trained in England and France, which explains why escargot a la Bourguignon can sit beside pan-fried chicken livers cooked in walnut oil with sweet soy and grapes; or why roast pigeonneaux with braised cabbage, chestnuts and port jus shares the main course billing with seared Atlantic salmon on baby bok choy with soy and ginger sauce.
A pile of mussels ($12) steamed in white wine, torn herbs – mint, coriander and basil – with chilli and, supposedly, black bean (not in evidence) is good:
Seared scallops ($14) are huge and superb, taken straight from the shell. Fleshy, sweet and tanned from the pan, they come with a curious combination of chopped mushrooms, radicchio leaves, a dollop of crème fraiche and an Asian-inspired, chilli- infused paste with dried shrimp through it. OK, it sounds a little improbable but is, in fact, jolly good.
The braised duck breast – the magret is the lean portion of a fatty duck – is a good piece of firm tasty meat, dark-skinned from a quick flash of heat before serving ($25). It is served on a bed of smoky, sautéed spinach with a ginger-poached half pear on top and some of the poaching juices around the plate, frites are included. Simply tasty stuff.
Ditto a piece of char-grilled, soy-honey marinated chicken breast – Japanese chicken fillet with glazed onions ($22) – with steamed bok choy on the plate and some soy-based sweet/salty sauce with delicious ginger and garlic flavours around the plate. Not rocket science, but pleasant, although the onions are undercooked.
Our delightful host, however, clearly saves her best for last: the individual summer pudding ($10) is sublime. This is made from first class raspberries, blackberries and blackcurrants – not excessively sweet and with a hint of acid – the bread thinly sliced and sopping with juices, the plate dressed with pouring cream and strawberries.
Despite a small wine list, nearly all our neighbours at dinner have brought their own. On that basis, the value for money here is OK. But those buying off the list – i.e. who face a bigger bill at close of play – might be excused for expecting more from the overall dining experience.
With some tuning, it could be a long time before this already popular little restaurant finds itself under new management again. I certainly hope so.”

The Age Epicure Tuesday April 16 2002 – gave 13.5/20 points