After a year of feverish excitement over a crop of new restaurants that sprang up like gilded flowers down Ponsonby Rd, we decided to revisit an old faithful. Swashbucklers has been cooking up some of the freshest seafood in the city for around 25 years. It's at the business end of the Viaduct Basin. The Air New Zealand building's just down Fanshawe Street. Further down Westhaven Drive you'll find the city's posh marinas, the poncy Auckland Yacht Club - and among all this glamour and money sits the old sailors' bar and eatery, Swashbucklers. The restaurant occupies a couple of rooms festooned with old signs, ancient rudders and other seafaring stuff, plus an expansive deck that's often crowded shoulder to shoulder on Friday afternoons. The furnishings are old style. No sign of an interior designer here. Brown varnished tables and chairs, some high, most low. The menu is ancient too: Fish and chips, shrimp cocktail, scallops mornay. But one of the better blasts from the past is the prices. For example a huge main course plate of tender, thin-sliced, fried calamari costs just $30.
This place comes with a history. Rumour has it the famous sailor, Ginger Gibbs, who opened Swashbucklers in 1997, died upstairs, way before his time, after a particularly long night.
Ginger certainly knew how to set the stage for fun and food and his mantra lives on. We visited during one of those weird statutory holidays after New Year. Nothing much was open. Indeed, even Swashbucklers had run out of fresh fish by 7pm. Their trawler had managed to get out despite the storms, but earlier guests had eaten every last piece of snapper, tarakihi and whatever else they hauled in that day.
Luckily there was plenty of other seafood on the menu. We started with a series of entrees: shrimp cocktail for me which, surprisingly, was not served in a tall glass with shredded lettuce, but in a divided plate. One side contained about 50 big, fat, tender shrimps (or were they small prawns?). The second contained a delicious tartare-style sauce. Dead plain, sweetish and tangy at the same time, they made a perfect but innocuous duo. Brian's seafood chowder, on the other hand, was breathtaking. The base was satisfyingly tasty, but the effect of a handful of mussels, scallops and other seafood was stunning. Soft, flash-cooked shellfish in this amazing soup added up to heaven. Meanwhile the accompanying garlic bread had been made with new season's garlic, thickly buttered then flashed under the grill. Superb.
Another high point was the calamari. How could it be so tender? I wondered if they used the same technique as my mother, soaking the fish in milk, then flouring and deep-frying it for not a second too long. Certainly it was the silkiest we've tasted in Auckland - or anywhere else.
Back to my scallop mornay entree, which other friends swear by. For me, even though the scallops were cooked to the texture of marshmallows, the cheese sauce was a little too overpowering. I certainly needed that greek salad side to cut the richness.
And so it went. The fettuccine was superb, as was the spaghetti marinara. The fries were crunchy. Even the mashed potato was brilliant and the $12 desserts were real: Hot apple crumble, hot ginger pudding, a superb cheesecake and more.
So while we missed out on Swashbuckler's famous fish and chips ($23), our evening was a delight. Even when the place was almost empty and our extra guests rolled in from the Waiheke Ferry, our long-suffering waiter pinned on a grin and offered them dessert.
Our meal: $224.50 for a beer, three glasses of wine and a Coke, five entrees and three main courses, garlic bread, greek salad, mashed potatoes and four desserts.
Our drinks: Something for everyone. A well-selected list of New Zealand wines, Tiger beer on tap and soft drinks too.
Verdict: Good old-fashioned service (without the bowing and scraping); good old-fashioned food; good old-fashioned serving sizes (including the Pirate's Platters, which would put modern sharing plates to shame); and at around $50 a head, good old-fashioned prices too.