Le Bon Ton (51 Gipps Street, Collingwood), which takes its name from an old-time New Orleans phrase, laissez les bon temps rouler ('let the good times roll'), is a curiously appealing mixture of the moodily subtle and brightly obvious. Owned by two American brothers, Will and Mick Balleau (old hospitality hands, with their Richmond venture Chingon), and assisted in the kitchen by another two American brothers, Jeremy and Christopher Sutphin (ex-Fog), Le Bon Ton is a venture in Belle Èpoque-era romanticism. The décor is impressive: exposed brick walls, polished cement floors, a bar overlaid and finished with bright copper and wood panelling, ornate touches in upholstery and lighting, and an astro-turfed courtyard with beautifully-strung fairy lights (and she's SOLD!), with the operational smoke pit to one side.
The courtyard and indoor, more casual bar area offer table service by warm and enthusiastic staff - and I must say, I was highly impressed by the service on my first visit, only one week after opening. Water glasses were magically refilled, menu items explained, concessions made for any food not available.
Sadly, my most recent visit, on a Saturday night to the dedicated dining area, was less impressive in terms of service. A "Shortcake Fizz" cocktail ordered by my friend was sent back for its flavour - perhaps it was technically well-made, but it made my friend feel ill - and we were still charged for it. Very surprising, considering the bar is headed up by ex-Black Pearl aficionado, Evan Stanley, who so charmingly introduced himself to me on my first visit. I'm sure he knows his stuff, but this particular drink just didn't go down well. (We did have a lovely non-alcoholic drink, a "Watermelon Hi-ball", which I found pleasing and would happily order again, and apparently there are many other excellent cocktails on offer, plus a full wine list and nine beers on tap.)
Also, we were suddenly asked to pay and clear the table for the next booking, despite having not been attended to in any form for some 40 minutes. Well -- a one-off perhaps. It was a fully-booked Saturday night, after all. Only a few weeks into trading, I have been back to Le Bon Ton three times already, and this was the first inkling I had of anything less than super-impressive.
OYSTERS! This place has oysters. One of its multiple angles is as an oyster bar (the others include absinthe salon, smokehouse, cocktail bar and beer garden), and one day, I had a craving. A couple of friends and I easily smashed two dozen (coming in at a hefty-but-well-worth-it price tag of $84.00) - do try the vinaigrette on offer; it was delicious.
|Southern-style buttermilk fried chicken|
|Texas caviar (black eyed peas) with pico de gallo and tortilla chips|
|Texas chili cheese fries|
|Smoked pulled pork shoulder sandwich on brioche|
Another angle: 24-hour licence! That's right folks, you can get your 4am-absinthe fix, or fulfil your pulled pork craving at 11pm, right here on the former Glasshouse/Hell Towers Saloon premises. Food is served til 6am on Friday and Saturdays, and til late on other nights. These Americans genuinely know their stuff: between them, they have ties with Alabama, Texas and New Mexico. Quality beef and pork cuts are smoked for hours (using Australian hard woods), and good god, they are delicious. (Sorry, vegetarians - this one's for the carnivores.) Downside: you do tend to leave this venue stinking like woodfire. Be prepared to wash your clothes the next day. (Hey, I still think it's worth it.)
|Spicy fried calamari|
|Gulf style fried crab cakes|
|Kitchen sink salad with tequila marinated prawn skewers|
|Kitchen sink salad with blackened market fish|
The house sauces are explained by staff at every sitting and add some massive kick, if that's your thing.
Sides are also punchy; nothing about the food here is half-arsed. Other than oysters and smoked meats, try the crab cakes, blackened fish salad, buttermilk fried chicken, spicy calamari, chili cheese fries, or for dessert -- PIE.
Remember that scene from When Harry Met Sally, where Billy Crystal makes Meg Ryan pronounce 'pecan pie' in that weird voice? I can't help but think of it every time I eat pecan pie, and when I saw it on Le Bon Ton's menu, I had to try it. Now, I can pretty safely say, I WANT TO HAVE ITS BABIES. Little, caramelised, crumbly-sweet-pastry babies. Apparently the banana cream is awesome too, but if you've read this blog before, then you'll know how I feel about banana.
|Apple pie (not banana woohoo)|
There has been a crapload of American-style food trends in Melbourne recently. I was just beginning to get over all the re-jigged burgers and tacos, but I think I'll go with the trend for a while longer.
My recommendation? Take a small crowd to Le Bon Ton one weekend afternoon. Enjoy some drinks and oysters in the courtyard, and then share heaps of food, so you can try everything. (Save space for dessert.) Go home drunk and happy, then wash your clothes the next day. Rinse, repeat. Good times.