There were a number of irritations during our visit to the Merchants of Venice, and the first was the most obvious. We couldn't find our way in.
It seems to me that providing a clear point of entry for a restaurant is basic. The evening we were there was cool but fine and the management had wisely decided to lower the plastic curtains to keep the breeze out.
Fair enough, but the curtains also obscured the front door. Undeterred, we wandered around to the side of the building, then to the back, and eventually spotted an arm beckoning us inside. We made our way through the exit passage to the restaurant proper, and easily found a free table. We were, after all, the only patrons.
The entrance performance was repeated when our guests arrived, accompanied by much arm-waving and pointing.
We hadn't seen Merima and George for some time, so there was a bit of catching-up to do. This was interrupted at short and frequent intervals by our anxious waiter, desperately casting about for something to justify his job. We decided that bruschetta to nibble on while we made further choices would be a good start.
Second irritation. There were clearly four at our table. Why, then, were there only three pieces of bruschetta? Surely, with all the time in the world to consider the needs of its patrons, the kitchen staff could have worked out a better system.
The bruschetta were fine, in fact, and the toppings tasty if rather messy by the time we had divvied them up.
Merima and I shared a margherita pizza for our starter and were underwhelmed. A thin pizza base is praiseworthy but this was so anorexic that it barely supported the flavourless topping.
The carpaccio shared by Bill and George lurked under a huge mound of rocket and the four tiny pieces of beef were stuck to the board they were offered on.
After these disappointments, we hoped that the main plates would improve our perception of the chefs' abilities. They didn't.
In summary, the polenta with George's boar ragout was far too salty while Bill's lamb rotolo tasted fine, but was only lukewarm and the potatoes were overcooked. The cream sauce with Merima's gnocchetti had separated and the sausage appeared to be not a stone's throw from the pork and fennel variety available at most supermarkets. My saltimbocca resembled a roulade gone wrong, with pasta attempting vainly to cling to the sloppy and rather tasteless filling.
At bill-paying time we made our feelings known, especially in regard to the ruined sauce, and Merima was offered a free coffee. By then it was too little and far too late.
This lack of care and/or ability is not acceptable in Auckland's highly competitive restaurant market, especially at this end of the price scale.
I wish the Merchants well, but fear for the worst.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $338 for a shared starter, two shared entrees, four mains, wine and beer.
Wine list: A short but interesting list, with mostly Italian inclusions, as you might expect, and several unusual local choices. The White Haven sauvignon blanc was fair, and the Yume Montepulciano was very good.
Verdict: Carelessly prepared and presented food in bland surroundings, and irritating over-attentive service. The Merchants could be in for a long, cold winter.