If you judged a book by its cover, you might never peg Hellbound as a serious wine bar. The retro-feel ‘wine bar’ sign that points prospective customers down a flight of stairs may be encouraging, but it speaks more of dive bar than it does Willi’s Wine Bar. There’s a giant caricature of a Rousseau…
Words like ‘institution’ and ‘iconic’ get tossed around a lot, and not always with deep justification. But France-Soir, near the top of the Toorak Road hill in Melbourne’s South Yarra, has earned both of those monikers, and some time ago. It is indeed an iconic institution, and an establishment with a loyal following that few could match. And while the classically bustling French bistro that France-Soir is brings people in for the food, and the charmingly lively service, the wine offer has always consistently been one of the best in the country, and one of the most fairly priced, too.
The wine list runs long, and it runs very, very deep. Spanning 2,500-3,000 offerings, it celebrates Australian, New Zealand and French bottlings – no Chianti or Rioja here. And as much as it is a treasure trove of classic gems, there has been a subtle evolution that has seen more, dare we say, naturally minded producers find their way onto the list. Then again, the likes of Nicolas Joly, Jean Foillard and Georges Descombes are hardly new additions to the roster. With the upstairs rooms of the terrace building long ago converted to a climate-controlled cellar, everything is close to hand, even if the whites from the cellar list require a quick ice bath – time for some freshly shucked oysters and Muscadet, or another glass of Champagne.
It would be true to say that France-Soir, under the guidance of owner Jean-Paul Prunetti, has very much stuck to its guns. The core features of steak frittes, crème brûlee, steak tartare, duck a la’orange, salmon gravlax and the like, have remained virtually unchanged since its inception back in 1986 (33 years old and counting). But that would also be to sell it short. Behind those perpetually swinging kitchen doors, where 23-year veteran head chef Geraud Fabre does his thing, much has changed. Single use plastics are out, as are polystyrene boxes, dairy is delivered in steel, poultry and eggs come from best-practice suppliers, and beehives on the roof deliver over 100 litres of honey a year – all things that others might talk about loudly, are done quietly at France-Soir.