Ph: 09 302 2665
So, I'm reviewing an Italian restaurant in recognition of next week's Festival Italiano. But I don't want to choose one at random: it might be crap. There are plenty of crap restaurants in this town that purport to be Italian. A lot of them thrive - testament to the fact that you can fool quite a lot of the people most of the time.
Let's go somewhere classy, I told the Professor, so I can write an appropriately enthusiastic review. Somewhere reliable. Expensive. She looked very pleased and said "Toto?"
It was less a question than an instruction. But I was happy to comply. Toto - the stress is on the second syllable; it's named after a beloved actor who was Italy's Charlie Chaplin - has long set the benchmark for Italian cuisine in town. It's pricey, but I've always found it terrific. Until last week.
For a start, the usually impeccable service was seriously off. The Professor reckons that my irritation at the maitre d's very familiar small talk is just because I'm a grumpy old bastard. That's a fair description, but it's not the only reason. If a waiter, having established that I've had a busy week, tells me I'm entitled to be out enjoying myself, I simply wonder what business it is of his.
But when he asks if it's a special occasion and the Professor says it's her birthday and he says ... nothing at all, I start to wonder whether I'm in a parallel universe.
Mind you, he couldn't compete with the sommelier who kept filling our glasses with the bottle of mineral water we had ordered. When I suggested - it was less a question than an instruction - that he leave it for us to do, he literally looked down his nose: "No bottles on the table, sir," he sniffed. "Fine dining" and swanned off.
Now, space does not permit me to discuss all the many levels on which this was wrong, but I will say this: I can be condescended to for free by just going into an expensive boutique; I take strong exception to paying for it.
To the food: the last time I was in this handsome room - a roaring fire at each end made it doubly inviting - was for the well-lubricated farewell of a colleague where not much attention was paid to what we ate. The time before that, nine years ago, was one of the 10 best meals I have ever had.
So there I was ordering the eggplant parmigiana with some trepidation because I knew the Professor would for ever after be disappointed with my domestic version. It was, indeed, quite superb, the aubergine flesh silky and oily without being greasy and the tomato sauce subtle enough not to drown the mozzarella.
Fortunately, the Professor didn't ask to try it. This was because she was busy rhapsodising over a sublime seafood soup in which big chunks of fish and shellfish were bathed (not swamped) in a crayfish broth with just a hint of spice.
It was a good start but, alas, it didn't last. Veal being an Italian specialty, I was drawn to the scotch on the bone, wrapped in pancetta. It was massive, but grievously undercooked, virtually raw. I left most of it and they unhesitatingly removed it from the bill (and offered us a couple of dessert wines too), which is good, but it's hardly the point. Cooking steak just right is kitchen 101, really. You certainly expect it in a place so fancy that they won't let you have a water bottle on the table. And, at the risk of seeming fussy, I have to add that I missed out on half my dinner.
The Professor meanwhile was very unimpressed with the seafood ravioli. The pasta was far too thick and the crab and salmon filling was doubtless meant to be subtle but came across as tasteless (the promised anise bisque was missing in action).
Grilled mushrooms tasted mainly of a balsamic reduction, zucchini flowers (one of Italian cuisine's great glories) were in an inedibly gluggy takeaways batter and the side trio of vegetables the waitress had helped me compose included a mountain of peas, even though peas were the only accompaniment for my luckless veal. That's waitressing 101.
Desserts included a very passable tiramisu and an oddly mouth-clingy chocolate, but the evening as a whole was a mild to moderate disappointment.
Verdict: Uncharacteristically patchy