Damien and Justine Monley have a hit on their hands with the fresh, flavour-packed menu, cool surrounds and warm service at their new offering, Bowral’s Grand Bistro.
When you’ve been open for less than six months (at time of writing) and you already have established classics and a loyal customer base under your belt, you know you’re onto something. Husband and wife team Damien and Justine Monley have been welcoming a steady stream of locals and delighted visitors since opening Grand Bistro, tucked around the side of Bowral’s Grand Arcade, in June 2016.
The airy, fresh space is light and welcoming, and feels like a cross between a modern Parisian bistro and a classic Australian cafe: think white walls, tables and chairs offset by pops of apple-green and towering fiddle-leaf figs, with local artworks adorning the walls (check). More often than not you’ll be personally greeted by the unfailingly friendly Justine, wife of chef Damien (who also often pops out of the kitchen to bring out dishes and chat to diners about the food) – together, they operate kind of like a cooler version of a ‘ma and pa’ owner-operator duo. You sense a genuine passion for what they’re doing here; they’re 100 per cent involved.
With fans like renowned chef Guillaume Brahimi singing his praises, Damien’s talent in the kitchen hits full flight here in Bowral, where he has direct access to the Southern Highlands’ incredible local food producers. He’s passionate about seasonality and showcasing the best of the region, and works with other local chefs such as Nicola Coccia of the also-new nearby Bistro Officina in a ‘locals supporting locals’ mentality.
I’ve already sampled the excellent coffee (The Grounds of Alexandria), the crunchy-yet-pillowy, cinnamon-y deliciousness of their ricotta hotcakes, and the zingy, zesty delight of the Baghdad eggs with green pea hummus and pickled onions, sumac, mint and yoghurt for breakfast; as well as items like the cauliflower fritters with soft egg, spinach, hazelnuts and raisins for lunch.
So I’ve come to test out the new dinner menu, which launched to an impatient crowd in September (until then, night-time appetites had been whetted with a series of special events). Entering the restaurant one Saturday evening, it’s filled with the same warm buzz that pervades during the day. It remains casual and informal; and with a kids’ menu and service starting from 5:30pm, offers a great option for families looking for an early dinner on the town.
My husband are greeted and seated by Justine before perusing the new menu, which is complemented by a wine list featuring the Monleys’ own Howards Lane Vineyard, alongside other local stars including Tertini Wines, Artemis and Cherry Tree Hill, as well as offerings from further afield (you can also grab a Southern Highlands Brewing Co ale on tap).
We kick things off with a few starters, which would also go down well as companions to cocktails or wines with a group of mates. My husband gives the plump oysters with a mignonette dressing a thumbs-up; and we both tuck into crunchy, creamy salt cod coquettes with smoked paprika aioli (dangerously more-ish), puffed cassava crackers with a Balinese peanut sambal (nutty, crunchy and the perfect foil to a lovely crisp white wine or cold beer) and a confit ocean trout rillette.
I order gnocchi with zucchini flowers, herb butter, zucchini puree and pine nuts but it’s already sold out – a friend sitting at a nearby table informs me it was fantastic. Instead, I go for the pork belly – meltingly soft squares of meat topped with crunchy crackling and accompanied by roasted fennel and a crunchy combo of apple and celery (I’m kind of glad the gnocchi sold out, after all). My husband orders the duck breast – tender, pink slices of duck with juicy segments of Valencia orange (I steal a bite and love the delicate balance of flavours). A wild rocket salad with crunchy walnuts and delicious merlot dressing, and some Swiss brown mushrooms round out our meal.
My husband and I tend to talk a lot when we get a rare night out together; perhaps for that reason, by the time we finish our mains we’re nearly the last left in the restaurant. Full to the brim, we pass on dessert – but with raw chocolate torte with pecan crust, espresso and Seville orange peel, and vanilla bean panna cotta on the menu, any sweet hankerings are likely to be sated.
The Grand Arcade
295-297 Bong Bong Street, Bowral
Closed Mondays; dinner Thursday – Saturday only