Libertine is an opulent celebration of Vietnamese-French fusion, housed in the Barracks complex on Petrie Terrace at Paddington. Having read numerous positive reviews since it opened a couple of years back, I was pleased to finally try Libertine for dinner one Saturday night recently.
Our party of four had booked an inside table for 8pm but the restaurant was bursting at the seams when we arrived so we were offered an outside table or the option of waiting while our booked table was made ready. We chose to wait, and I'm glad we did. Within 5 minutes we were ushered in and, while the open-air courtyard with its glowing lanterns is pleasant, it's not a patch on the restaurant's plush interior.
Set in a heritage-listed building, Libertine features antique chandeliers, flocked wallpaper, dark wood and a generally over-the-top French-Vietnamese colonial vibe. It's the kind of place that makes you feel like you've REALLY dined out, before you've even taken a mouthful.
But what about the menu? Well, it offers an inventive list of dishes that combine Asian and French influences with high-quality Australian produce. The dishes draw not only on Vietnam but also on Japanese and Chinese cuisines. All are designed for sharing.
Streetfood selections include simple offerings like roast cashews with shrimp and chilli ($5), as well as more elaborate dishes like seared Japanese scallops ($6.50 each), five-spice barbecue duck crepes ($7.50 each) and king prawn and organic pork summer rolls ($8 each).
After much discussion, we ordered two Berkshire Pork spring rolls from the Streetfood menu to begin. For mains, we chose four dishes from the large shared menu: barramundi en papilliote, confit duck l'orange with papaya salad, Kinkawooka mussel bisque, and the Black Angus sirloin.
Food ordered, we turned our attention to drinks. Libertine offers an impressive but pricey drinks list, with 14 beers ($6.50-$16), close to 20 cocktails ($14-$17), extensive spirits ($8.50-$20), and a selection of fine wines (from around $10/glass up to $345 for a bottle of very good champagne). All are available at the bar if you just want a drink.
Our foursome chose eclectically -- one quaffed Dos Blockos beer, two shared a nice bottle of red, and I chose a traditional Vietnamese lemonade transformed into a cocktail by the addition of a shot of vodka. We all enjoyed our choices, but I have to say that my cocktail seemed to be very light on vodka given its $16 price tag.
Our entrée appeared a little while later, and it was a hit, with succulent pork spring rolls enhanced by a spicy green chilli sauce. Their generous size meant that two were fine shared between four as a starter.
Next out was the Black Angus sirloin -- my choice and my favourite of the mains. Cooked rare and presented sliced on a large board, it came accompanied by a mild tomato and chilli jam, betel leaf jus and deep-fried crackers. The steak was tender and perfectly cooked, its flavour enhanced by the dipping sauces.
The mussel bisque was not the thick soup we'd expected but rather a pile of mussels with a flavoursome broth lurking at the bottom of a large bowl. Still, it drew praise from everybody and a side of baguette was great for mopping up the tasty broth. On the other hand, the barramundi was nicely cooked but somewhat bland, served only with a very mild herb butter and lemon. Adding one of the perky sauces from the Black Angus dish gave it some much-needed oomph.
Our confit duck went AWOL for some time and not until we queried our waiter did we find out it had gone to another table in error and a fresh dish was being prepared for us. While we didn't actually mind the break in our meal, this incident reflected an overall klutziness in the service that seems out of place in an establishment like Libertine. The backpacker waitstaff seem to have been recruited for looks rather than competence and, although all were pleasant and helpful, service was best described as 'patchy'.
Still, the duck was very good when it did arrive, carefully rendered to remove much of the fat and leave a dense, richly flavoured dish. We followed it with two servings of the lime tart with coconut sorbet ($12). It was the perfect palate cleanser to end our meal, and a great example of the fusion principle, combining classic French pastry skills with fresh Asian flavours.
Our bill for four came to $250, with around $80 of that for drinks. Not cheap, but we did feel like we'd eaten a special meal in a special place. While the service was less than top-notch (and I've since read quite a few other on-line reviews that point this out), and not every dish shone, Libertine did enough things really well during our visit that I would recommend it to friends. And I look forward to dining there again myself.
I love Libertine - yes it's a little expensive, but the whole experience is wonderful with amazing food. On my few visits we have always had fantastic service, so sad to hear it's fallen off a little or perhaps it was just an off night.