Address: 150 Ponsonby Rd
Phone: (09) 360 1710
Cuisine: Modern Italian
Open: 7 days, from midday til late
Where to take three sassy foodies in town on a flying visit from Melbourne? Also to be considered was the fact that it was lunchtime on a drizzly Tuesday. I wanted somewhere impressive, yet not too try-hard, a place where I could guarantee it would be busy despite the weather, day and time.
It was obvious. Whenever I drive past SPQR on Ponsonby Rd, it always seems busy with famous and beautiful people swanning about, enjoying food and wine and long-since unfashionable vices. I rarely feel compelled to go there but when I do, I have to admit that I have a great time.
The food is usually exceptional, the service switched well on and the atmosphere? Thankfully there is one, with its starched white tablecloths, wrought iron and concrete interior and professional, long-aproned wait staff. They've recently been nominated as Best Auckland Establishment in the upcoming and prestigious 2011 Lewisham Awards, so I arranged to meet the internationals for lunch at this Auckland institution and crossed my fingers that they deliver.
We ordered bubbles and put in some time outside (hoping to be mistaken for famous people but, surprise, surprise, we weren't), before giving up and heading indoors to settle ourselves at a table by the fire.
We took our time deciding what to order and while we did so, we couldn't help but notice the boxes of fresh produce being ferried in through the supply door to the kitchen. The brazen Australians piped up and asked our waiter, "Hey mate, whatzeeentheboxes?" Seafood. Buffalo mozzarella. Deli meats. We knew what to order.
We shared a caprese salad - and what a great way to start. The buffalo mozzarella - the likes of which I've tasted only once before, in Italy at a mozzarella factory - comes from Clevedon and it was so fresh that it hadn't even had time to firm up and was still soft and juicy. Not only that, it was generously dished out, as were the wonderful pink, sweet and salty prosciutto and rich red vine-ripened tomatoes on the same plate.
The paper-thin slices of eye fillet in the carpaccio were drizzled with truffle oil and the flavour sharpened with shards of gritty parmesan and an anchovy dressing. This was another perfect dish. By this time, the place had begun to fill up nicely, and it hadn't gone unnoticed by the holidaymakers. They were now more convinced than ever that Aucklanders live the life of Riley, taking long lunch breaks between throwing ourselves off buildings with bungees attached to our ankles and jumping on a ferry to visit a vineyard. Who was I to correct them?
Our mains were even more impressive. All were seafood-based and I felt proud at the freshness of the ocean bounty being served up. Fat, roasted snapper fillets were draped over a risotto laced with that sexy herb, saffron, while al dente linguine was tossed in countless steamed cockles, garlic and a white wine and parsley broth. It was full of flavour. The seafood risotto was our only slightly disappointing dish. Crammed with cockles, there was little other seafood to be found (two prawns by my count and a few pieces of fish) and it was an annoyance to have to sift through the shells for the rice. Tasty but tedious.
I've heard it said that the staff at SPQR have an attitude. They do. It's a damn good one. They understand fully what it means to provide service that's proficient and attentive, meaning the small details never get missed. Water glasses were continually topped up, bowls for our cockle shells were replaced when full and finger bowls, with the all-important cold water, were provided for washing our fishy fingers.
We finished with an SPQR favourite - the enormous raspberry and vanilla creme brulee - served the classic French way in a large, shallow pudding plate. Creme brulee is a dime a dozen these days but to find one that rises above the rest with a custard that is only just set, that is not too sweet and is served absolutely chilled while the toffee top is burnt, as it should be, to a brittle crisp, is much harder to find. SPQR nails it and we were all reminded of what this "burnt cream" ought to taste like.
It was time to fly, literally, so taxis were ordered, there were kisses all round and I was left to reflect on how, after all these years, SPQR has become famous as one of Auckland's fashionable hangouts but it's also, reliably, one of Auckland's best casual eating establishments.
From the menu: caprese salad $27.50, eye fillet carpaccio $26.50, linguini $27.50, oven-roasted snapper $35.50, seafood risotto $29, creme brulee $16.
Drinks: Fully licensed.