Address: 3 O’Connell St, Auckland City
Ph: (09) 377 1884
Maybe it's the high ceiling and wooden floor, probably it's the fact they don't play background music - but whatever the reason, O'Connell Street is one of the few restaurants where it's intimate and cosy - and you can still have a decent conversation.
The menu is classic bistro and this Saturday night we hit the rollout of their new head chef, Alex Strobach's new menu. So, while the menu appeared much the same as the last time we'd visited, our meals arrived at the table with a flair and a flourish that moved them into the exceptional class.
O'Connell Street's famed wine selection was as good as ever too, as was the service. Our enthusiastic waiter produced an excellent Prophet's Rock pinot gris for me to try, followed by a Moscato d'Asti - a light, bubbly fresh affair, which I went with. Meanwhile Brian settled for a superb Chateau des Combes St Emilion grand cru, which he insisted is almost impossible to get elsewhere by the glass and, at $18.50 (gulp), was a steal.
The bistro also serves complimentary homemade sourdough bread rolls with a sweet and nutty olive oil to eat while you order, which is a welcome rarity these days. I started with the seared scallops, which arrived lined up like a platoon of soldiers on their long plate. There were about eight fat, juicy scallops, their orange roe attached (meaning they really were local) interspersed with similar-sized rolls of smoked Serrano ham wrapped around braised witloof. The tastes were fabulous: sweet, delicate scallops, crisp tangy witloof and strong, salty smoked bacon to provide the contrast, both in texture and taste.
Brian's sweetbreads on a toasted brioche were also excellent. On a previous visit the sweetbreads had been more of a medley with sliced mushrooms and caramelised onions. This time it was simply sweetbreads and caramelised onions - and plenty of them - artfully heaped on the brioche. Again they were beautifully seasoned and cooked.
By now things were hotting up, the dining room was almost full and our waiter was flat-out. However, he still had time to refill our glasses, try to tempt Brian away from the St Emilion, (no show) and ask us if we wanted to wait the usual 25 minutes between courses or settle for 15. After a couple of nights out in a row we gratefully opted for the shorter pause.
So to the main courses: rare-roasted duck breast with a confit leg for Brian and the roasted lamb rump for me. Again both were superb. My lamb, cooked to a perfect medium-rare, was improved mightily by the accompanying spicy aubergine and zucchini medley plus a shallot and olive jus.
Meanwhile, Brian was dealing to his duck, which came with potatoes that had been cooked then reassembled. Interesting, but no match for our side of the first jersey bennes of the season. Small and succulent, bathed in butter, this was a high point for both of us, as was the fresh asparagus sprinkled with smoked ham lardons and crisp hazelnuts. Again delicious.
Although the dessert choices sounded fabulous, each with its own carefully chosen wine match, we were way past a serious pudding. So, despite hankering after the treacle tart, we opted for the sweet selection of chocolate truffles, chocolate fudge and macadamia pan forte.
Later, as we left, we saw a friend, his wife and her sister patiently waiting for our table. "Isn't it great?" they enthused. "Our favourite restaurant!"
It's easy to see why. O'Connell Street provides that rare mix of classic bistro food against an elegant, romantic backdrop. The service is superb, wine choices are exceptional, the cuisine faultless and the prices reasonable considering the quality.
A star player in the orchestra of downtown dining options.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $266.50 for two entrees and mains, a plate of sweet treats and four glasses of wine.
Wine list: Outstanding, with varied and interesting options from home and abroad, plus superb suggested matches for your dessert.
Verdict: Sophisticated world-class bistro, offering classic, expertly-cooked cuisine in an elegant yet intimate setting.