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On my son's recent birthday, he asked to be taken somewhere French. He wanted to relive his backpacking trip to France of a few years ago where his taste buds had bonded with escargot and creamy French cheeses. I got my research hat on and sifted through reviews of Melbourne's French restaurants.
Although a special occasion, I am afraid that price was an object as there were six of us out to dine. After checking out a few menus online, I decided it would almost be cheaper buying my son an airfare back to France than taking the family out for lunch.
It seems in Melbourne that whenever you put the word French in a restaurant name, it gives the owners the immediate right to hike the price as high as the Eiffel Tower.
Then I discovered Bon Ap' petit Bistro and Cafe in Brunswick. It is not on most people's radars as it only opened in 2016. To my astonishment mains were less than pub prices! But it was also tucked away in the less trendy end of Brunswick Street. And it wasn't just a restaurant but also a bar and drop-in cafe. Would it be worth the risk?
Common sense and knowledge of my bank balance prevailed and knowing that the craved for snails were on the menu I stepped out on a limb. Parking was a breeze. Unlike the trendy end of Brunswick Street, it was easy to park. At least on a weekend.
From the moment we walked in, there was a comfortable vibe. This was not a traditional upmarket restaurant with white table cloths and ram-rod waiters that sneer at your French pronunciation of menu items. It was more like being in an old world Parisian cafe. One of the owners served us and wore a French beret with style. The tri-colour was on the wall, there was a standout ornate staircase, and the feeling of having stumbled into a French neighbourhood eatery.
We worked our way through an absolute feast, starting with excellent coffees (we'd skipped breakfast and had to wait for some or party) and boards of French cheeses. There was a Roquefort sheep, mild blue from Auvergne, Delice de Bourgogne soft ripened triple cheese, and caprinelle goat milk from the Pyrenees served with slices of crisp green apple, walnuts and French bread.
My son tucked into his escargot with the shells gleaming in the hot garlic butter. There were all the shiny implements one uses for such extractions. Not a fan, myself, but he said they were the real deal and operated on them with such fanfare.
Our vegetarian had a beautifully served Ratatouille with goat curd cheese and toasted French bread. The carnivores amongst us had steak aux povre with Kampot pepper and cognac sauce, French fries and a side of green beans shallots and walnuts. If I had my time over again, I would have ordered something different. The sauce was lovely, but in the end a good steak is a good steak in any country and McDonalds has stolen the allure of French fries. Plus there were more unique experiences on offer in this great French bistro.
Our fussy eater stuck with a ham and cheese sandwich which in the hands of a French chef was a crispy baguette, layered with French butter, ham off the bone, gruyere cheese. Other dishes on the menu included charcuterie board of chicken liver pate, ham parfait and a pork mash with mini gherkins and crusty bread and poisson du jour (fish of the day).
We were there for lunch but if you go at night there is an even wider menu including items such as moules au cidre (mussels cooked in Normandy cider), coq au vin and agneau de pré-salé (7 hours salt bush lamb, green olives).
You can buy French wine by the glass. I'll attempt to name some of them, but you must excuse my French. There was an Alain Brumont Sauvignon, Grenache Blanc Viogner from the Rhone, Pinot Gris from Alsace to name a couple. They were only slightly dearer than normal bar prices and there were some precious drops.
Some of us did order dessert. My tip - if having the creme brulee - share it. It's probably one of the best in Melbourne and also one of the largest. Magnifique!
Incredulous also was the inexpensive bill. There were six of us and we had coffees, a couple of cocktails, cheeses, wine, a few entrees, mains and desserts. The bill was just over $300 which was only around $50 a head. Later I realized that while we had ordered everything separately, they had kindly added up our bill, according to the set menu which was 2 courses for $29 and three for $37. Even though those dishes were shared across different people.
What I loved about Bon Ap' was also that you could do this place in phases. You could check it out just by dropping in for a coffee and croissant, you could have a baguette style lunch, or hot dishes from the larger menu. You could duck in for cocktails and wine accompanied by a French cheese board or head out in the evening for an impressive restaurant dinner. Certainly a place to keep in mind for your next French craving.