Let's eat: Bring back the guy in the chopper

By Peter Calder

Harbourside First floor, Ferry Building
Address: 99 Quay St, Auckland
Ph: (09) 307 0556
www.harboursiderestaurant.co.nz
Verdict: Underwhelming

Harbourside has re-opened and diners can choose from three themed bars. Photo / Michael Craig
Harbourside has re-opened and diners can choose from three themed bars. Photo / Michael Craig

At the reception desk, a hostess of self-consciously icy beauty asked us to wait while she farted around clicking things on her computer. Time passed - a minute, probably, but it seemed like more. It was long enough for me to wander away from the desk, study the redesign, wander back.

It was also long enough for me to get mightily pissed off. In the restaurant business, first impressions count. If their computer system doesn't allow them to pause in a task, check a booking and show a new arrival to a table, it's a bad system; if it does (and I suspect it does), the woman concerned needs to learn some manners. Harbourside was being marked out of 4 before my arse had even hit the chair.

I mention this at length not just because I was about to blow a couple of hundred bucks on dinner; not just because the restaurant is re-opening in a part of town where there is an ocean of choice; not even because the service at the old Harbourside was always impeccable.

I mention it because the new owners, the Good Group (the name is, I assume, not ironic) are the folk who established Botswana Butchery in the downstairs part of the same building a shade under two years ago.

Botswana Butchery opened to excoriating reviews - including one on this page. A few weeks after my piece appeared, I met a bloke at a party who told me that he'd been helicoptered in to sort the place out. "It's a catastrophe, mate," he told me. "You've no idea. Anyway, tell me, what do you do for a living?"

Our evening at Harbourside was rescued by our waiter, who looks like Forest Whitaker without the bung eye and was personable, informed, relaxed and efficient. He is a lot better than the prat who strode around the place announcing loudly to diners that he was "the senior waiter".

The redesign has introduced themed bars (one vodka, one champagne, one teppanyaki) and put a retractable roof on the deck, with transparent see-through screens to keep the warmth in. It may be the best dining spot in Auckland, even if it has destroyed the seaward view of a wonderful heritage building.

The prices have been redesigned too: half a dozen non-Bluff oysters at $35 must be an Auckland record and eight pieces of sashimi cost $22.

"But is it any good?" I hear you ask. Well, like the proverbial curate's egg, parts of it are excellent. The bread rolls were cold and the Greek olive oil wasn't a patch on some local ones. But those oysters (we chose ones from Parengarenga in the Far North) were rich and intense - the taste played across the tongue like that of a good Bordeaux - and the sashimi, which came with an industrial-grade serving of wasabi and a hellishly hot dipping sauce, which I earnestly suggest avoiding, was brilliantly fresh.

The kitchen's take on whitebait fritter was cool: the little fish arrived rolled up in an omelette, to which they had plainly been added once cooking was under way. The result was less like a fritter than a burrito, in which the egg encased the dense clump of juicy inanga. It was big, too, a satisfying feed for two.

The mains were much less successful. Crispy skin snapper was significantly undercooked, as was the Hervey Bay prawn in my bouillabaisse: the former had to be sawn through, the latter chiselled from the shell. The fish came with a clod of mash which was both excessively salty and inappropriately wintry - the salsa of grapefruit and cucumber worked better.

The variation on classic bouillabaisse used a shallow bowl richly filled with tuatua, snapper, mussel, meltingly soft squid and seared tuna, which made up for that raw prawn. But the rich and beefy broth was ill-advised: it overpowered the tomato and obliterated the saffron - assuming there was any.

Of the desserts, the Valrhona chocolate cream deserves mention because it was a concoction so spectacular that it belonged in an art gallery but the fact that the website is still in relative disarray almost three months after it opened makes one wonder whether that bloke I met should be choppered in here, too. A restaurant in a location that really deserves that overused word "iconic" needs to do better than this.

- Herald on Sunday

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