Ponsonby Road Bistro, Ponsonby

By Ewan McDonald

Herald rating: * * * * 1/2
Address: 165 Ponsonby Rd
Phone: (09) 360 1611
Website: ponsonbyroadbistro.co.nz
Open: Dinner Mon-Sat
Cuisine: Bistro

Today's column is brought to you by the letter R. R for restaurants and restaurateurs. R for readers and, if you'll pardon self-interest, writers. And R for the word That Must Not Be Mentioned.

Tonight we are at Ponsonby Rd Bistro, the eatery formerly known as Magnum. Owners Blair Russell, Mark Wallbank and Melissa Morrow say Magnum Dining Bar was meant to be about the first part of the title but the public got the idea that it was about the second.

"It was never our intention to open a bar," says Russell, who didn't find washing glasses at 4am on a Saturday attractive, particularly with two small Russells at home.

"So we decided to go back to what we know and do best - food."

Which, as the trio also run perennially stylish and successful Rocco just up the road, is more than fair comment.

Signs have been changed, stools have been removed from the casual eating area at the bar, and the menu has taken a new twist. On a street where there are more real estate agents to the square centimetre (and they'd love to take an offer on that right now) than anywhere else in the country, the prices have "met the market", too.

The new head chef is Sarah Conway, from London, where she worked in bistro and gastro (and that is not one of the increasingly tedious swine flu jokes) pubs such as Union Cafe, The Peasant and Heartstone Organic Restaurant.

Her one-sheet menu looks as if it's written in felt-tip but you can't tell with fancy computer fonts. Most of its dozen options come in entree or main size; the most expensive (chargrilled scotch fillet, chunky chips, three-mustard butter) will knock you back $28.50. On the previous menu, you'd fork out $35 for pan-roasted eye fillet with fondant potatoes, creamed spinach and bearnaise. If you were drinking and eating.

Magnum's motto was "simple, strong, honest food" but the new place has more of all three. Classic bistro, even comfort food. Hazelnut-crumbed lamb cutlets with romesco, jasmine tea-smoked salmon with asparagus, peashoot and mint salad, taleggio and fontina macaroni with savoy cabbage and truffle oil give way to what Jude, Sian and I ate last week.

Truth is, we made little piggies of ourselves. These are larger-than-usual servings and we would have been more than adequately fed with something from the front page of the menu and what the second page quaintly calls "puddings".

But I liked the sound of butternut, goat cheese and sage risotto, and the taste of it even more. Jude's cured salmon was redolent of the sea rather than a farm in the Sounds; pinenut-egg-herb salsa wrapped it into a zesty starter. Sian's southern clam entree took an Asian twist with red chilli and coconut curry.

By now it was raining. It was cold. The bistro was packed, and rocking (we had to wait a while for our mains). I mention these meteorological and metronomical details only because they added to the spirit of my coq au vin. Plain. Hearty. Rib-sticking.

Sian's gently grilled snapper, with gutsy Puy lentils, warmed with ginger and chilli, was more sea-market than its upmarket predecessor, which had a mussel, prawn and cioppino broth. Jude lapped up economical pork-belly with black bean chilli and a fennel-orange-chilli salsa.

We had to decide if we'd kick on to dessert. Sorry, puddings. We did: stonking rhubarb and apple crumble like your mother never used to make and strawberry ripple icecream like Tip Top never could, and a dreamy plum and pistachio tart. Sian said, "It's the mark of a good restaurant when you're so stuffed that you can't even think of dessert and then you look at the menu and eat it anyway."

They might have lowered the bar but they've kept the rather exclusive and slightly expensive wine cellar. Russell matched food with out-of-the-ordinary glasses, mostly but not only Kiwi - put that in the staff's hands when you dine here. As you should. It'll help lessen that pain in the R's.

From the menu: Caesar salad with avocado $16/$22; Chargrilled scotch fillet, chunky chips, three-mustard butter $28.50; Dark chocolate and almond financier, orange-poppyseed parfait, chocolate sauce $14.

Vegetarian: Salads, pizza, risotto.

Wine list: Prime cuts.

- NZ Herald

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