The drawback with restaurants making a design feature of their open-plan kitchens is that instead of paying rapt attention to the sparkling conversation of your dining companion, you can be distracted into watching the chefs all night. Where do they get their stamina? How do they make it all look so effortless? And how do they make the simplest food taste so good?
All these questions crossed my mind as we sat in our ringside seat at Marvel Grill, the Wynyard Quarter spin-off from the much-praised Takapuna steak house. An earlier question had been how would this area be doing on a wet and windy mid-week night after the excitement of the Rugby World Cup opening had faded and the big-screen attraction was one drab game between a pair of minnows.
The answer was, "very nicely, thank you". The place was alive and buzzing with a constant stream of customers keeping that kitchen staff hard at it.
Our admiration of the chefs mounted as the evening wore on, although we are not talking here of artfully plated little masterpieces. This is comparatively plain fare, where the ingredients and the basic cooking techniques leave little room for disguise. What you see is what you get - and that is mainly meat, of every cut and creature.
We did prepare for carnivore heaven with a vegetarian starter, zucchini fritters with creamed feta. These were good - crisp and light. I went for seafood with spicy grilled squid, although even here there was chorizo and potato to bulk out a substantial first course.
But then it was into the serious business of the evening. The key to a steak house is the quality of the meat and Marvel has its supply chain mastered. The eye fillet in my mixed grill, not always the most flavoursome cut, was nigh on perfect, the lamb cutlet was meltingly tender and pink and the pork hunter and venison sausages were similarly good. The hairy-chested accompaniments were large slabs of onion, a merlot sauce and half an entire garlic bulb.
The garlic made another appearance in the crowded supporting cast of spinach, grilled haloumi, roasted tomatoes and sherry jus, which came with our other main attraction, superb lamb rump.
If there is a criticism it is that, unless you are a very fast eater, by the end of the meal you are left with a small swamp, in which the individual elements have lost all distinction. Our side order of the agria fries were on the soggy side, although as tasty as that potato can be.
We should have called it a day at that point - the servings are so generous that there was no meat served in our household for several days afterwards - but the sight of the dessert chefs doing their more delicate work alongside the hero of the grill tempted us. The rhubarb creme brulee lived up to the standard of the main courses and my affogato was a good standard sample.
Our last visit to the North Shore Marvel Grill had been blighted by service difficulties and some of the early reaction to several eateries in this new area of town had suggested significant teething problems in service. But we were pleased with the efficiency and speed, being well looked after in a big restaurant and served with that informal charm which distinguishes the best New Zealand establishments.
I have no idea whether the overseas Cup fans will find this Marvel Grill a pleasant surprise but it certainly delivers something most locals will enjoy.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $174 for two first courses, two mains, two desserts and four glasses of wine.
Wine list: An enormous list with plenty of variety if you want to stray from regular territory and a good range by the glass.
Verdict: Big and bustling with robust, unpretentious food, professionally delivered.