It's a bit of a hoot that the word "delicatessen" comes from the German. I hasten to add that I can't live without a nice plate of bratwurst and sauerkraut every 10 years or so, but the one thing German food can never be accused of is being delicate. Even the cheesecake, which the Professor said was an excellent reason to stay in Berlin for the rest of her life, is more hearty than refined.
As it happens, the Germans borrowed the word from the French, which makes more sense since that's the language of food. Not for nothing do we use French words to talk about food - roux, bisque, hors d'oeuvre, gratin, even cuisine, which is their word for kitchen and, well, cuisine. German, by contrast, gives us food words for things we don't really want to name: "pumpernickel" comes from the words for devil and fart.
Generally speaking, then, I am more drawn to a deli when it has the word "French" in its name and Pyrenees has always been a benchmark deli for me. I first found it in Cheltenham, near where the Professor's mother used to live, which ensured I visited her often. Now there's a branch near the Rocket Park in Mt Albert where the women behind the counter say "bonjour" so winsomely that I instantly feel like buying a tarte citron along with a crunchy baguette and a slab of terrine.
A reader, who plainly shared my enthusiasm for the deli, emailed to tell me that, from Wednesday to Saturday, the Remuera branch transforms into a wine bar and restaurant. I reserved without delay and it was soon plain that my correspondent was not alone in liking the place. When my mate Andrew and I ate there, it was full of cheery diners, some of whom plainly regarded it as a second home.
Pyrenees' menu declares its mission statement as "taste and tradition" and traditional taste is what chef Jerome Deffes deals in. This is not cutting-edge fine dining but the kind of bonne cuisine that the French can do with their eyes closed. Terrine and fromage; poulet roti (which sounds so much more alluring than "roast chicken"); ratatouille in the style of the country that gave us the word. How could you not love a language that calls the humble spud "an apple of the earth"?
We never got to taste the ratatouille in the end, because the young waitress forgot to tell anyone we had ordered it. But it was just as well because it meant we had room for the rack of lamb, which had been marinated before being cooked medium, though still extremely juicy and tasty, which made a change from the fashion for making it pink and bloody. It came with a faintly spiced couscous that lent it a lovely scent of the Med and points further south.
Beforehand we had ordered small portions - almost everything on the menu comes in entree and main sizes - so as to sample widely. It was a wise choice: the beef tartare, which I cannot resist in any French restaurant, was pinker and more piquant than the Parisian version, perhaps because we have better beef here; a slab of pork belly, perhaps not quite as crisp-skinned as the menu had encouraged me to hope, came with a delicious puree of caramelised onion; a squid-ink risotto (why should the Venetians have all the fun?) was Bible-black and studded with some very tender chunks of flesh (we also had some deep-fried squid which avoided the depressing rings in favour of the crunchy tentacles and were thoughtfully paired with a dipping sauce in which roasted capsicum predominated).
I have to say I thought the terrine rather bland - some cornichons or similar might have livened things up a bit - but the house-made sourdough bread it came with was sensational. In New Zealand, we are not used to chefs making their own bread, except in the finest restaurants, and it's nice to eat in a place where it goes without saying. The desserts included a blackberry clafoutis, a nice variation on the cherry standard.
In the decade or so since Alex Roux opened Bouchon in Kingsland, Auckland has been increasingly well-served by simple and satisfying French restaurants. Pyrenees is a worthwhile addition to the club.
Need to know
$ = $20-$40; $$ = 40-60; $$$ = $60+.
(Price guide reflects three courses for one person without drinks.)
Ile de France in Newmarket is a class act. Pastis in the city is a classic Paris-style brasserie.