How lovely it was to dine with a dear friend I’d not seen for a while. We spent the evening discussing our hopes and aspirations, gently roaming around the different aspects of our lives, sharing news and views and laughing at ourselves. I swear we took our lead from our surrounds – a modest, non-combative, inner-city French bistro that minds its own business and meanders along doing what the French do so well; lulling you into an enchanted headspace.
French chef Antoine Salles took over Touquet, a small restaurant at the opposite end of O’Connell St to another of our city’s favourite bistros, in December of last year. A mere two months later the redevelopment of O’Connell St began, and the council’s vision for a shared space was to drag on for more than six months, nearly killing Touquet before it had even begun.
Luckily the French do nonchalance well, the “c’est la vie” attitude paying off in times such as this so that in chef Salles’ mind there was nothing to do but hunker down, keep cooking for the loyal regulars and hope that the bureaucrats and contractors would eventually get their job done. And they did.
By September the work was complete and the all-important foot traffic returned to what is now an inviting city backstreet and one of the few in Auckland that still boasts its majestic and original architecture.
With a light and bright interior and a menu that hasn’t been reduced to the usual cliched classics of coq au vin and cassoulet, Touquet is cleverly avoiding being just another casual French-style bistro that Auckland already has enough of.
We’re set up nicely, beginning with two elegantly presented bruschetta, one topped with a sharp goat’s cheese cut with creme fraiche, bright and tender edamame beans and a spritz of lemon zest; and the other piece of crusty, grilled bread draped with lashings of serrano ham and shavings of parmesan. It didn’t escape me that both plates suffered from “the drizzle” of balsamic glaze, which always seems so terribly old fashioned.
Unless, that is, you’re a French chef, in which case it is permissible, even attractive, defying good taste and reason in the same way that French women somehow still manage to look elegant and demure wearing cardigans featuring cats and sequins. It’s beyond me just how this happens. Anyway, both bruschetta had “the drizzle” and both were divine.
A starter of Akaroa king salmon, cured for 24 hours, produces a gorgeous gravlax. The long, deep pink slices are gracefully curled on a plate with soft marinated baby potatoes, Yuzu creme fraiche and topped with matchsticks of radish and the soft spikes of fresh dill. A nod to tradition comes with an exquisitely chunky venison terrine, which is rustic, moist and so full of hearty flavours it barely needed the onion jam or gherkins to improve it in any way.
Outside the rain pelted down and the cobblestones glistened while inside lilting French music and an Amelie look-alike waitress did a good job of transporting us to you know where.
The pork belly was neat and tight and served well by a creamy mash and orange sauce and my main, a chicken supreme stuffed with mushroom on a risotto, showed off Salles’ classical training; the boned-out breast was perfectly formed and, again, I’d have accused it of being dated had it not delivered in every way.
By the time we’d gone from savoury to sweet and licked our spoons from an excellent tarte tatin and a silky chocolate and caramel tart, we were discussing the possibility of a short sojourn together next year, to France. A few nights in Paris is what we decided, then we’d meander off to a village somewhere in the south of France or perhaps, to the elegant seaside resort of, you guessed it, Torquet.
That’s what can happen while dining in the right company – your imagination can be encouraged to run wild. Meantime, as the weather warms the cobbles of O’Connell St, I’m looking forward to more bistro dining closer to home and this little gem will be on the list.
Address: 23 O’Connell St, City
Phone: (09) 309 5456
Cuisine: Casual French bistro
From the menu: Bruschetta serrano ham $6.50, Bruschetta goat cheese $6, Salmon gravlax $15, Venison terrine $15, Pork belly $28, Chicken supreme $28, Fries $7, Chocolate and caramel tart $12, Tarte tatin $12
Drinks: Fully licensed