The terms "iconic" and "institution" are bandied about loosely these days but the Angus Steak House truly does qualify as an Auckland institution - it's been serving up great hunks of grilled meat for over 40 years now. Located initially, and subterraneously, in Albert St, it now finds itself in the cool part of town - Fort Lane. Or, perhaps, that should be the hip part of town has found itself situated opposite the famed steak house. Either way, when I emerged from the cobbled coolness of Imperial Lane some weeks ago and spied the neon bull's head sign blinking at me, I promised myself I would return.
It was mid-week and the place was busy on the night we visited. A chirpy waitress led us past the sizzling, smoking grill, laden with the largest cuts of red meat I had seen in some time, and the self-service salad bar, sporting salads that looked exactly as I remembered them from 25 years ago.
The menu is simple: $38 gets you a steak - which you select and deliver to the grill chef who cooks it to your liking - and salads. Sides are extra. There's also a selection of entrees, and despite the fact that I knew we wouldn't need them, given the size of the steak portions, we ordered a shrimp cocktail as I'm a sucker for this relic of the 70s.
At least I was.
What we got was a plate with at least two dozen shrimps and a cursory drizzle of orange cocktail sauce. Popping the first in my mouth, I was alarmed. Soggy, limp, tasteless. We ate one and a half each. When our waitress came to clear our plate, still piled high obviously, I mentioned that they were watery. She looked shocked but, to their credit, they did not appear on our bill and for that I commend the management.
The marketing for Angus Steak House boasts the biggest and best steaks in town and we felt like Wilma and Betty from the Flintstones selecting ours. My favourite cut, for flavour, is rump but I simply couldn't bring myself to drag the large slab from the cabinet chiller to my metal plate. It just seemed wrong. The sirloin I chose was only slightly smaller. Meanwhile my friend was tossing up between the eye fillet and the scotch, again trying to make her selection based on which one was the least grotesquely large.
Handing over our meat to be cooked felt like a relief and, for once, I was praying for some shrinkage to occur during the cooking process.
Next, we approached the salad bar. Plain shredded carrot, tinned beetroot, mayonnaise smothered potato salad, washed and still wet iceberg lettuce ... you get the picture. These were salads from days gone by and the bulk dressings were the same. We took our seats and awaited the delivery of our steaks. These arrived on sizzling platters, still hissing and spitting and in true Pavlov fashion we salivated at the aroma of caramelised meat juices.
Both steaks were cooked well, tender, juicy and tasty but as we chewed we debated food snobbery. If they had been served on large stark white china plates, had the meat been half the size, had there been a smear of mustard or cute little jug of pinot jus on the side, would we be judging the experience differently?
Of course we would have, because as well as our steaks, we had paid for salads that were dreadful, dressings and sauces that came from bulk containers and, later, desserts, that were manufactured off-site and tasted synthetically sweet, served with fake, aerated cream.
But here's the rub - looking around at the packed out dining room, I was pretty sure that we were almost alone in our disapproval. I even inquired of the couple from England, who we'd met at the salad bar, how they were finding their meals; "Ooh aye luv, best steak we've 'ad and those salads, well Pat 'ere doesn't usually like salads but he's luvving them." I pushed them further for a rating. "Ooh aye, that's easy, 8 out of 10, no questions asked."
Auckland has a couple of decent upmarket steak houses and I'd been interested to see how this old-school one stacked up. To be honest, I'd rather hoped that I could deliver the news that the new breed are over-priced and that the "oldie-but-a-goodie" was just as decent, without the affectations. Sadly that's not the case. If you were to go to Angus Steak House and order steak and chips (which come out in Euro-like little wire baskets) only, you might just be able to imagine you were further uptown. But order outside of this, and you will find yourself in an unhappy time warp.
Cuisine: Steak house
From the menu: shrimps $11.50, prawn cutlets $11.50, steaks meal $38 each, pavlova $11.50, lemon tart $11.50.