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Herald on Sunday Rating: 3/5
Address: The Riverhead, Cnr Queen and York Sts
Ph: 09 412 8902
It never ceases to amaze me how wide the range of opinion - or experience, which may not be the same thing - can be about a given restaurant. Sometimes I might write in disobliging terms about a place only to see a sole contrary comment posted online in the Restaurant reviews section, whose faintly whimpering tone is almost audible, and I can be pretty sure that it is from the owner's sister-in-law (or the owner, hiding behind a nom de plume).
But check out on those dining-out websites where one "best restaurant in Auckland" is followed by another "my scrambled eggs were teppid" and "our waitress had real attitude issues" and you'll see what I mean. For the most part, the opinions posted triumphantly celebrate the endless variety of people's taste.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The Riverhead, the pub that houses The Landing, was built in 1857 on the shore at Riverhead, a settlement at the northwesternmost extreme of the Waitemata, the nearest the east coast comes to the Kaipara Harbour.
Boats would berth at the jetty right in front of the pub - you can still take a boat up there; see the website above - and the street names make it plain that the town rated: Queen, King, York, Princes - none of your School Rd or Commerce Street here.
Paula and Stephen Pepperell bought the rundown place at a mortgagee sale in May 2010. By November last year they'd been open nine months and were picking up the prize for the best renovated bar or restaurant at the Hospitality New Zealand annual awards, so they must be doing something right.
The bar (called The Portage) is cheery enough, though it's a little too scrubbed-up for my taste. The work of local sculptor Garry Dunn is all over the place and the redesign could have done with a dose of "less is more" thinking.
Restraint is a hard thing to manage, I know, but as the Professor keeps reminding me, it is important.
The same goes for the kitchen. really. Perhaps the good Mr Kavanagh ate only in the bar - his column is called Pub Spy, after all - and the menu looks good there: you can hardly go wrong with nachos, burgers, fish and chips and pizzas.
But through in The Landing the results are not very impressive. Three courses here will set you back more than $60 without drinks, so they've set the bar moderately high.
But most of what our group tried was acceptable in execution and ordinary in concept: mussels steamed in beer and coriander became a cliché 10 years ago and calling salt-and-pepper squid "smoked salt and Sichuan calamari" didn't make it any more original or taste better than bland.
One of our number was most impressed by a bloke-sized bowl of seafood chowder and the braised boar belly was thoughtfully paired with a radish-and-apple salad, but taken as a quartet, the entrées felt like a time warp.
The mains by contrast seemed the work of a chef trying to go upmarket and trying too hard. My duck salad was an attempt to tweak the idea of a salade Nicoise by using smoked duck and a mash made of Maori potatoes, but the roulades of duck-meat were so small they seemed like a garnish on a too-large pile of mash.
Elsewhere on the table nicely cooked salmon fillets were topped with olive tapenade - a marriage made in hell if ever I saw one - and another piece of fish was overcooked to the consistency of building material. Desserts were routine, but no more.
The Riverhead is a lovely destination particularly on the huge three-level deck where we sat under massive oak trees (they thoughtfully provide blankets if you get chilly).
The waitresses wear T-shirts emblazoned with the words "She'll Be Right", which is an apt description of their efficiency, but it's always hard to get staff in the country and they're terribly cheerful and nice.
I wouldn't hesitate to recommend a trip up here for a beer and a nibble, but as a dining destination it doesn't really cut the mustard.