Phone: (09) 3604528
Rating out of 10: Food: 7, Service: 7, Value: 7, Ambience: 8
Over the last few years one of the landmark sights of Ponsonby has been the crowd hanging around the Chapel Bar and Bistro on the corner of Anglesea St. Its popularity has been demonstrable and on its website it makes the bold claim that it isn't on Ponsonby Rd but that it is Ponsonby Rd.
Given the ever-growing competition we are not entirely sure what the spirit of Ponsonby Rd is - the old latte-sipping culture so doggedly caricatured by the rest of New Zealand, the trendy wave of ethnically influenced eateries or the watering holes where the "creatives" gather to de-stress and try to hook up without the aid of internet dating.
Many of the latest arrivals base the attraction on their food and we were interested to see how a long-time player like Chapel fares in that respect. It describes itself as a bar and bistro but on our visit the bistro wasn't getting much of a workout. The bar was loud and busy, as a bar should be, but there wasn't much eating going on, even from the menu section described as Barside.
This was a little surprising as the one dish we sampled from that list would have accompanied a cold beer or two very well, being crispy bits of chicken provided with a hot chilli sauce to justify its description as Korean, even if it seemed more reminiscent of Kentucky than Seoul. Other alcohol blotter offerings included spiced dates and pistachios and the routine grilled squid and barbecued beef skewers.
For the remainder of our first courses we picked three of the "light bites" and I passed, with some reluctance, on the roast bone marrow with a white anchovy beignet.
The most interesting dish we did order was the ravioli of black sausage, which I have to admit I mistook for a mushroom when it arrived. But the pasta was delicately flavoured and the filling tasty, backed by a morsel of sauteed cabbage. The buffalo mozzarella needed little work on the part of the kitchen but it was accompanied in classic Caprese style with tomato and basil, and the pork belly was a decent example of its type, properly crisp-skinned and with the meat requisitely melting and well flavoured.
I suspect the option of a choice of five different pizzas usually does well with the drinking customer, but we opted to sample the main list. Of these the most straightforward were the most successful.
My roast fillet of beef was a generous chunk of quality meat competently cooked and the hint of gorgonzola gave it a bit of individuality. The fish of the day was tuna and again it was competently prepared, graced with some mussels. One of us made her choice on the strength of a taste for grilled asparagus, which was listed as an accompaniment to the potato gnocchi. The asparagus was fine but the main event was damned with faint praise as rather boring.
A similar verdict came from the person who decided to go against our group view that choosing chicken in a restaurant is often a mistake. Nothing to object to, but the leeks, mandarin and walnuts were not enough to lift it from the dull category.
The servings were generous enough to discourage us from trying the desserts, which included chocolate-covered figs and a white rum and vanilla panacotta. Given what we had been served previously it seemed likely they would be of a decent standard without being exciting. The waitresses had some good dance moves and were courteous and hard-working if not entirely convincing in their professionalism and as Chapel is a bar we were a bit surprised by the non-availability of a couple of our wine choices.
Chapel's longevity proves it can pull an audience and if you go for a drink you can be assured that any food you order will by no means be bad.
But the Ponsonby places that depend entirely on their success for the quality of the eating can rest easy on their laurels.
Our meal: $293 for four small plates, four mains and eight glasses of wine.
Wine list: Enough choice of cocktails and wines to suit most customers. Our standout was an astringent Prunotto Barbero d'Asti from Piedmont with the dependable Soho Waiheke syrah and a Lake Hayes Central Otago pinot noir being well received.
Verdict: A lively Ponsonby meeting place with the pull being the social spirit of the bar rather than the competent but limited food.