The Professor reckons I make the best coffee in Auckland, but she should thank Otto. Otto's not a man, but a stovetop system (see ottoespresso.com) that is as beautiful as it is functional.
The thing I love about my Otto (and I regret that I was neither paid nor given a free one to say this) is that it has a personality. You get to know its quirks and its feel. I dare say that if I tried to make coffee with someone else's Otto it wouldn't turn out right until I had got to know its idiosyncrasies.
It also takes about 15 minutes, go to whoa, including washing-up, so it becomes a meditative practice each morning, much like I imagine a Japanese tea-making ceremony must be, though with more gurgling and milk.
Occasionally, though, the Professor will head off to her favourite cafe called Mello, in the little block of shops halfway down Richmond Rd. She loves the atmosphere, she tells me, and the people and the brioche, although I'm not sure that it's strictly in that order.
She came home very excited one morning a few weeks ago to tell me that Mello was opening in the evenings, Thursday to Saturday, and that we had to go immediately so I could write something nice about them.
Now anyone who knows the Professor will tell you that you ignore her instructions at your peril, but I couldn't shake a nagging worry: what if I didn't like the place and said so in print? She would instantly become, by her association with me, persona non grata at Mello; all those brioches would go uneaten.
I leave you to imagine the relief I felt when I discovered that Mello is excellent, a neighbourhood eatery so simple, friendly and inexpensive that it is almost an anachronism. The woman behind the operation, Maria Tieni, lists several places on her CV whose names I do not recognise, although you might: they include Sourdough and Latin in Ponsonby and she started Bolero in Mission Bay and Lumbini in Williamson Ave, where Pane e Vino is now.
Mello's been going a couple of years in the daytime, and is opening in the evenings just to see whether there is any interest, says chef Simon Mason, an Adelaide native who worked at Dida's for several years. "We've not been pushing it," he said. They should. And if they don't, I will.
Barely half a kilometre from Ponsonby Rd, Mello might have been expected to try to compete with the flash joints on the strip. Wisely, it's done no such thing, instead offering the neighbourhood somewhere good to eat rather than somewhere fancy and pricey.
The menu is short, sweet and almost ludicrously cheap. There are oodles of options between $12.50 (spicy sausages with hung yoghurt) and $18 (confit duck salad; potato and brisket curry) and the only dishes above $20 are salmon and eye fillet. The prices may suggest tapas, but the servings are generous enough to make anything on the menu a meal and any two items a feast. It was quiet the night we went, so the Professor's inquiry about whether Luciana, Maria's daughter, had had her baby, drew a response from Mason (the proud dad), who poked his head round the corner of the servery to confirm the details of birth-weight and time of arrival. You don't get that on Ponsonby Rd.
The goat's cheese empanada with chilli jam was off the menu because the goat's cheese delivery hadn't happened (how many more upscale places would have nipped down to Countdown for some feta?) but there were plenty of other choices, delivered with homely warmth by a charming waitress.
I enjoyed some vegetable dumplings in a chilli-and-ginger infused broth and a meltingly soft piece of pork belly, stewed to an almost caramelised richness, rather than baked to crackling; the Prof was so single-minded in her attention to a curry of eggplant and tofu that I never got a look in, but she said it was superb. All up, with two glasses of wine and a side of greens, it cost $76.
In short, Mello is a place where they serve inventive, honest and tasty food at old-fashioned prices. It has instantly become my new local.
Need to know
$ = $20-$40; $$ = 40-60; $$$ = $60+.
(Price guide reflects three courses for one person without drinks)
This kind of simple, inexpensive eating is hard to find. Alejandro Escalante's newly opened Tango in Surrey Cres impresses.