4 Upper Queen St
Ph: (09) 309 2775
Verdict: Comfort food at comfortable prices
Special. It's such a nice word. And who doesn't want to feel special at a restaurant? Would you like your dinner or would you like something special? Well, it's a no-brainer, isn't it?
But in the restaurant business, a special is often not very special at all. For a start it is not like its supermarket counterpart, a good buy; it is seldom cheaper than an equivalent menu item. Nor is a special to be confused with a speciality, a dish for which it's worth driving across town: Tony Astle's tripe; Epolito's pizzas; the chicken mole at Mexican Specialities.
The dishes drawn to your attention just as you are getting to grips with what's on the menu are lent an allure of respectability by being called "specials", but most of the time they are a kitchen's last attempt to wring some return out of a liability. They've ordered too much of something and it's about to go off, or they are repurposing leftovers: beware good cuts of meat being casseroled or stuff with lots of gravy.
Plainly there are exceptions. If the waitress says the chef managed to get his hands on some excellent wild goat, or the first of the season's asparagus and they will cost you an arm and a leg, you can bet they'll be very special indeed. Order with confidence. But to quote the great Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential: "Beef Parmentier? Shepherd's pie? Chilli special? Sounds like leftovers to me."
The memory of Bourdain's advice to diners (avoid fish on a Sunday, unless you saw the chef standing knee-deep in sea water haggling with a fisherman as you walked home from church) came back to me as I sat in Wooden Board Kitchen and looked at the specials board.
My son was most interested in a dish that involved braised beef cheeks in a vol au vent (puff pastry case). "Sounds like leftovers to me," I said. "You reckon?" he replied. He had happy memories of the daube I'd cooked (2kg beef cheeks; two bottles of wine) last winter. So he ordered them.
Your kids have to learn by their own mistakes, of course, so I pretended to believe him when he said it was good, even though it was lukewarm in the middle. It had the look and taste (I sneaked some) of a rescue job, even though braised beef cheeks were on the entree menu.
It was the only notable failure of this relatively cheap and moderately cheerful eatery just off K Rd in the cheerless expanse of Upper Queen St (not to be confused with upper Queen St). It had gone below my radar until now, although it's been open a couple of years, but it was moderately busy, on the Thursday we showed up, mostly with what looked like groups of students.
It takes its name from the habit of serving some dishes on wooden boards, though the choice of ones that come on plates seems somewhat random. And the food is what might be called simple, wholesome and unfussy -- a mission statement that plenty of restaurants around town would do well to adopt.
We enjoyed sharing an entree of scallops seared with bacon and served with salsa and a nice gremolata. The roasted beetroot tartlets were less successful: the beetroot was tepid and had failed to caramelise and, irritatingly, there were three between four of us, even though we had made it plain we wanted to share them; it takes no great imagination to adjust quantities and price in such situations.
The creamy tomato sauce in which some beautifully tender steamed mussels swam was pretty good too, even if it showcased the kitchen's reliance on sugar.
A cheeseburger with Angus beef was well received, and the lukewarm chips were replaced quickly and apologetically. The Professor's cannelloni (pumpkin and spinach) showed no great flair but was perfectly acceptable. But I was disappointed in the "roasted chicken", which was breast meat, seared and finished in the oven.
The breast meat was not as dry as it can be, but "roasted chicken" conjures up very specific comfort-food expectations: half a chook would have looked -- and tasted -- much better.
There were some basic desserts (the apple crumble could have done with more butter and more browning). But particularly allowing for the prices (entrees low teens; mains low 20s) this is a good-value diner worth a visit.