Address: 165 Ponsonby Rd
Phone: (09) 360 1611
Cuisine: Modern cuisine
Woohoo ... Ponsonby Rd on a Saturday night! My new year's resolution of "getting out more on the weekend" was well and truly in action. Ponsonby Rd was teaming with throngs of relaxed, beautiful folk when we arrived at Ponsonby Road Bistro, in the heart of one of Auckland's busiest and best eat-streets.
Being a first-timer to this popular eatery I was alive to my first impressions - bustling, blond, hip, gorgeous, well-groomed. The layout of the large space is clever, with different seating areas sectioned off and each feeling like it has its own style. There's the pavement seating screened off from the roadside by pull-down blinds anchored into the asphalt.
Immediately inside but still very much open to the street, there's an area with a mixture of tables, from intimate twos complete with cool swivel chairs (and on this night, smooching lovers), to larger tables for bigger groups.
Further inside, you can take your pick from the line-up of tables against each wall or the stools around the central bar. I love a bar-seated meal but we'd booked a table so were ushered to one by the wall.
Chef Sarah Conway's hand-written menu had my taste buds doing cartwheels of delight. As well as being short and uncomplicated, everything on the menu was just pleading to be eaten. I'm told she even changes out many of the dishes every three weeks or so to ensure that regulars don't get bored.
Spanner crab linguine with chilli oil, shellfish of the day, prosciutto with buffalo mozzarella and stonefruit, house-smoked salmon with horseradish mash, chargrilled steak with parsley butter - luckily the list didn't go on for too long to test my other new year's goal of being more decisive when eating out.
As a starter my diner pal ordered the pan-fried haloumi and for me, the slight misfit on a bistro menu, duck and shitake spring rolls. The haloumi was a marvel of a salad with peppery watercress toned down and complimented beautifully by sweet dried figs, crunchy hazelnuts and lifted by the zing of fresh mint leaves. It was devoid of the squeakiness that can irritate, perhaps because it was sliced thinner than usual. I must try that at home.
My spring rolls, full of rich, dark shredded duck, sat on a crunchy daikon and seaweed salad with a well-balanced mirin-sesame dressing, hinted that the chef is prepared to go outside the usual bistro fare.
My roasted lamb rump was more what you'd expect of a bistro - simple and lovingly prepared. Tender slices of pink lamb, served with boulangere potatoes - thick slices, rendered soft by slow-baking them in stock - and a pea, mint and anchovy chutney. Given that lamb prices are set to soar this year, I'm getting in early.
With barely a spare seat in the place I was impressed with the speed and efficiency in getting our mains out. But a small gripe - our waiter, pleasant and efficient as he was, could have done his homework on what each dish was all about. If it's good enough for the staff at establishments that offer complex dishes to be well-informed of the intricacies of the chef's creations, then I'd expect a simple bistro menu to be a breeze.
It's annoying when questions are met with "I can find out for you". But it could have been his first night, in which case all is forgiven.
The market fish was a superbly cooked snapper fillet, skin on, on what is fast becoming the most fashionable of pulses, puy lentils. Braised in stock and onions (as well as another elusive flavour which we enquired about but didn't get a definitive answer) the lentils were nutty and slightly fruity and a wonderful accompaniment to the fish.
Some of the desserts held little appeal on such a humid Auckland evening - warm chocolate pudding and blackberry crumble - so instead I went for the lemon curd baravois which was cool and silky. The sorbet selection (raspberry and chocolate) was also a welcome cold blast on a muggy night.
Slightly more upmarket than your average bistro, Ponsonby Road Bistro still manages to feel casual, welcoming and unpretentious. The moderate prices and simplicity of the food meant that as I was leaving, I was already planning my next visit. It's got a buzz that's invigorating and I want more.
From the menu: Duck and shitake spring rolls $20, pan-fried haloumi watercress salad $18.50, market fish - snapper $29.50, roasted lamb rump $33, sorbet $10.50, lemon curd bavarois with blueberries $14.50.
Drinks: Fully licensed.