I don't take great trouble to disguise my identity when I eat out. The photo of me in Living magazine may suggest some coyness, but I am unmasked on the Herald's website. I book in an assumed name and the Professor usually takes the lead when we arrive. But that's it.
The idea of anonymity, of course, is to ensure I don't get special treatment, but see the restaurant as others see it. And the wisdom of such an approach is always demonstrated when my cover is blown.
It was just after the pasta landed that they sprang me at Poderi Crisci. The effect was electric. We became the object of darting and anxious glances from all over the place and our previously snooty waiter - people at nearby tables had been positively yoo-hooing for attention - suddenly became most animated and attentive. (I suspect that around this time he was reconsidering the wisdom of having told me that it was my mistake, not his, that they had prepared the wrong antipasto). If I'd asked for a shoeshine, they probably would have obliged.
I had to chuckle. I'd earlier left most of a carelessly assembled Caesar salad because the geriatric (and shredded) lettuce was hard and bitter and no one noticed; when I later pushed away a tiramisu (unwisely served in a champagne coupe, so that all the gloopy bits had sunk to the bottom and the cake was as dry as chalk) the waiter wrung his hands and earnestly inquired what was wrong.
On a boutique vineyard established in 2000 on the sparsely inhabited south coast of the island, owner Antonio Crisci, whose CV includes Non Solo Pizza and the rightly legendary Toto, started this restaurant in 2009. The site is beautiful, although the building's immediate surrounds could do with a more conscientious planting regime if the intention is to create a little slice of Tuscany Downunder; the front terrace is positively zen.
I have enjoyed chef Sal Grant's food very much at The Mulberry and the revived VBG in Parnell, so perhaps he was just having a bad day. That pasta was divine: ravioli filled with braised beef and a delicious brown sage butter sauce and some fantastically good gnocchi with a wickedly oily pesto in which the basil was joined by what tasted like roasted tomato. But the rest of the meal was spoiled by stumbles large and small.
The mozzarella in the insalata caprese was superbly creamy, but two of the slices of tomato had the grassy and metallic taste of the seriously overripe. The Professor's octopus carpaccio, plated with a chilli citrus salsa and broad beans, looked and tasted just as busy as it sounds - the delicate flavour of the octopus was indistinguishable.
I ordered a prosciutto of duck and received a beef carpaccio along with a condescending insistence that it was what I had asked for. When the right thing finally arrived, it tasted perfectly nice, but the serving idea was ill-judged: the crisp ciabatta slices were too big for a mouthful and the whole thing disintegrated when bitten into and ended up back on the plate.
For a place that takes the trouble to call to make sure you are coming, Poderi Crisci pays surprisingly little attention to detail. The absence of oil, salt or pepper from the table perhaps suggests that the chef wants you to try the food as he made it, but we had to ask for napkins and mine was liberally flecked with the tissue paper that had got mixed up in the wash.
Water is not provided (they want you to order the pricey stuff, presumably) and the background music was not loud enough to be audible as more than a bass beat but just loud enough to be irritating.
Judging by the three I tasted, this place does some excellent wine. But it was a long way to go - $35 a head return on the ferry and $100 in taxi fares - for a lunch that was barely half good.
Need to know
$ = $20-$40; $$ = 40-60; $$$ = $60+.
(Price guide reflects three courses for one person without drinks.)
My Waiheke dining experiences have been rather ill-starred. Viola was warmly recommended but has closed. A meal at Cable Bay Vineyards three years ago was perfection on every level.