The hospitality industry can be a cruel mistress, but for Daniel Giordani, Keaton McDonnell and Abel Barriler, she must have been in a particularly vindictive mood.
Just days before the trio were due to open the restaurant they had sunk blood, sweat, tears and cold, hard cash into, COVID-19 hit. The doors at Ondine European Brasserie in Deakin remained firmly closed; the shell-shocked business partners sent back to the drawing board to rethink their approach to pretty much everything.
“It was an uncomfortable time, not knowing what tomorrow was going to bring,” says Daniel, who previously owned Ainslie’s Pulp Kitchen and is now the frontman at Ondine.
“You can be terrified and freeze … or you can make another plan.”
That plan was takeaway, and their fortunes were turned around by a simple but stunning boeuf bourguignon.
“We had to think about what food would travel well,” says Keaton, Ondine’s head chef who previously cooked at Pulp, Aubergine and Ottoman. “It just so happened that it was the classics – the comfort food.”
Alongside France’s most famous beef dish, the likes of cassoulet, French onion soup and mushrooms with polenta were packaged up for collection by locals no longer able to dine out. The beef started flying out the door.
“It made up more than 40 per cent of our sales. It just shows that something as simple as that, when it’s done well, can be so popular,” he adds.
Simple, well-executed classics – largely of the French persuasion – are what has drawn diners to Ondine since it finally began welcoming guests a little over a year ago.
In a city awash with cheap and cheerful Asian joints, Mod Oz and fusion fare, takeaways and grazing plates, they decided to go another way.
“Most Australian chefs are taught French as the basis of our cooking. A lot of younger kids see [classic French cooking] as old school, but that’s probably because they’ve been taught a bastardised version of it instead of being taught why these skills are important,” Keaton says.
“For us, we’ve always enjoyed it. I like the classics when they’re done really, really well – the technique involved. But nobody really does it anymore.”
It seems odd that something as traditional as classic French food should be seen as an outlier in a city with strong culinary credentials, but visiting Ondine does feel like a very different night out – in the nicest possible way.
The elegant but unpretentious room has a great atmosphere. Our fellow diners are a slightly older crowd, presumably locals happy to spend on a quality night out. Service is attentive but not overbearing, and everyone around us is in good spirits as they tuck into dishes ranging from artichoke and chestnut soup and chicken liver pate to coq au vin and choucroute garnie.
I have one eye on my main course and another on my dining companions, a group of six friends who’ve travelled down from Sydney to visit the galleries. They’ve given my husband and me the unenviable task of choosing the restaurant for dinner.
It’s never an easy thing finding something to suit all tastes, particularly when they’re a well-travelled crowd, among them a couple of members of one of Sydney’s oldest food and wine clubs, the Fork ‘N Corkers, who’ve eaten their way through some of the city’s best restaurants over 48 years.
I needn’t have broken a sweat. They’re tucking in with gusto, memories perhaps straying to distant lands where other memorable dishes have been enjoyed.
“We had originally looked at doing modern, instead of classic, European food, but then we saw what way the sales were going. People were tending to order more classical dishes, saying, ‘I haven’t had that in years. The last time I ate that was in Paris’,” says Keaton.
The secret to keeping guests coming back, he says, is the time and effort put into everything on the menu.
“We’ll describe to customers the process of making something like the boeuf bourguignon, and they go, ‘Oh, it takes THAT long?’ They ask if they can skip any of the processes to make it at home, and I tell them sure you can try, but it just won’t be the same. It’s like that even with the soup … it doesn’t happen in half an hour. It’s six hours on the stove before it’s even close to being ready.”
Despite how much things have changed since those rollercoaster launch days, neither Daniel nor Keaton are taking things for granted. “In this industry, there is always the unknown. You don’t know what the next week is going to bring,” says Daniel.
“For us, it’s as much a passion project as a business. It would have been much smarter to invest in something that would give us a bigger return, but we love what we do,” adds Keaton.
They’re not the only ones.
Realising we’re the only guests left in the dining room after a long and leisurely dinner, we pay the bill and head on our way.
“Some of the best French food I’ve ever eaten,” says one of our Fork ‘N Corkers mates as we slip into our coats and head out into the cool night air. A vote of confidence if ever I heard one.
Ondine European Brasserie is at 7 Duff Place in Deakin. It’s open for dinner from 6:00 pm to late from Tuesday to Saturday, and lunch from midday to 2:00 pm on Friday and Saturday. Takeaway is also available.