Louis is the much-anticipated venue from beloved Canberra chef Ben Willis and the DOMA Hotel Group in Barton. The fine dining French restaurant takes the space formerly occupied by Buvette, and opened in June.
Arriving a few minutes early for our dinner booking, we’re invited to sit in the bar and enjoy a drink. The bar feels warm and old world-y without being outdated. The quirky leather couches are raised to suit the high top tables, and small lamps emit a warm glow.
I choose a Stone Fruit Charlie Chaplin, which has a base of West Winds Davidson plum gin and peach liqueur. It’s fruity and a little sweet with a nice lime citrus kick. My friend has a Rum Manhattan, complete with a maraschino cherry.
Moving to the restaurant, we peruse the menu, which is divided into appetisers, entree, main and dessert, with sides and a cheese course also available. It’s a deliberate move away from modern share-style menus back to a classic Mediterranean French bistro way of dining.
The menu states that it is the seasonal winter menu, although there are a surprising number of dishes that feature out-of-season ingredients. The list of classic French dishes challenges my proficiency in menu-French and we need clarification on a few items – and sneakily Google one or two others.
We start with prawn croustillant with rouille (prawn deep fried in crisp pastry served with a saffron yellow mayonnaise) and smoked eel with Avruga caviar in a chickpea pancake. Both are elegantly simple bites with bold flavours.
For entree I have spanner crab cannelloni, which is surrounded by a ring of clams in a delicate and creamy bourride sauce. The crab filling is almost spongey in consistency, and the pasta is perfectly al dente. The clams are so delicious that despite the elegant surrounds I surreptitiously use my fingers to slurp the remaining sauce from the shells. It’s an old-school dish but despite its quirky retro presentation it doesn’t feel outdated: the flavours are vibrant and it’s meticulously well made.
My friend orders the duck breast, which comes with a medallion of duck sausage and beetroot served on French puy lentils. The duck breast is deliciously juicy and the sausage is flavourful and well seasoned. The sweet beetroot is contrasted nicely with a scattering of bitter radicchio leaves and the lentils are dripping with a rich jus that begs to be mopped up with bread.
There’s a small but satisfactory list of wines available by the glass and a much longer list of bottles. I enjoy a French Chenin Blanc with our entrees and ordered a South Australian Nero D’Avola to accompany our mains.
We have the Murray cod, which comes with tasty herb dumplings and a velvety sauce, and the 250g rib-eye steak with mustard butter. I’m a little surprised that we were served two thin slices of steak rather than one larger piece, however, this may be a choice based on the French style and the meat was still cooked rare, as requested.
The mustard butter sauce is intense, but the side of cos hearts cut through the richness with fresh herbs and an acidic dressing.
While the entrees showed a mastery of multiple techniques – some quite complex – the mains were so deliberately simple in contrast I was left a little underwhelmed. Considering that they come with a hefty price tag, I would have expected a few more elements to the dish or a more impressive presentation, however it does align with the Louis ethos of ‘elegant simplicity’.
For dessert we share the mandarin trifle, which is absolutely divine. White chocolate cream, airy sponge, crisp honeycomb and a sweet mandarin curd are topped with a tart mandarin sorbet. We were well and truly full by this point but couldn’t resist having just one more bite, and then another.
The service at Louis is attentive with a high standard of professionalism. The staff are knowledgeable about the menu, helpful and prompt. The tables in the restaurant are spaced apart, and the noise is kept to a reasonable level.
It’s clear that there has been some thought put into making an older crowd comfortable in the space, although there was a mix of old and young guests the evening we visited.
Louis will appeal to those who prefer a more formal dining style and it’s an excellent example of classic French cuisine. Perfect for a special occasion meal.
Louis is located at 18 National Circuit, Barton under Hotel Realm.
They are open for dinner from Monday to Saturday from 5 pm, and for lunch on Thursday and Friday between 11:30 am and 3 pm. The bar opens from 4:30 pm for drinks and bar snacks.
Book online via the Louis website, and follow Louis on Facebook or Instagram.