Our first impression of Ella Cafe and Lounge was sheer delight. Gone was the rather folksy decor of our last visit, instead we found a seriously cool yet tranquil fit-out complete with mellow wooden shelving stacked with books and other interesting stuff, all mood-lit with quirky antique lamps and decorated downlights.
It was only when we studied the menu that we felt the first wave of disappointment. The choices were relatively plain. There were no specials, save the fish of the day (snapper) and, of all things, carrots. Plus, our waiter who was young, groovy and enthusiastic, had little idea about the food.
For example, when we asked about the "surf clams", hoping it meant the large, juicy, sand-free variety, he seemed to think clams were the same as mussels. Only after the first of many trips to the kitchen did he realise the surfing description was just a bit of fun. And although the clams turned out to be big ones, they were over-cooked to the point where they'd become rubbery. Nor was there a spoon to drink their delicious wine broth. Eugene managed the task with a clam shell.
My truffled duck cannelloni with mushrooms arrived in lonely splendour on the plate. Just one long piece of delectable duck-stuffed pasta, drizzled with chopped herbs - and I could taste the truffle oil.
Suzanne enjoyed her chicken and ham croquettes despite a slightly stale taste from the oil they'd been deep-fried in. Meanwhile Brian, who can't take the heat of chorizo, was giving away half of his charcuterie plate to the rest of us.
Our main courses arrived in good time, leaving us plenty of time to soak up the Ponsonby buzz. Ella's owners describe this as a cafe and lounge, and the turnover of tables is fast. During the couple of hours we were there we had three different sets of neighbours.
My veal schnitzel with German potato salad looked pretty generous but I soon realised either it was a seriously skinny piece of meat or it had been overcooked. After I'd given up on it, the portion left on my plate was as stiff and dry as a piece of cardboard. There was no sauce, save a wedge of lemon, no sprinkle of herbs or even a smear of gravy to pep up the flavour. The only things different about the salad were the chopped gherkins in the mayonnaise and that it was served warm.
Brian, our pork belly specialist, dealt to his confit version with caramelised apples, all sitting on a pile of creamy mash. His verdict: by no means outstanding.
Suzanne's snapper, which was perfectly cooked, came with a gritty squid ink paella. But Eugene complained for the first time ever. His homemade tagiatelle with pumpkin, pine nuts and spinach, was, he said, boring. I tried a forkful and actually rather liked its creamy texture, but it was definitely on the bland side.
It says a lot when an oven-baked carrot special is the high-point of the meal.
Things did not improve. While the creme brulee was large and interesting with its layer of feijoas, it could have done with a reheat under the grill. My apple crumble was tooth-shatteringly crunchy on top, raw underneath and not sweet enough. And the scoop of accompanying icecream was tiny.
The pavlova was a flat meringue sandwiched with a thin smear of cream and even the hot chocolate pudding did not meet Brian's approval.
Our meals could have been vastly improved by simply arranging them more artfully on our plates.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $336.70 for four entrees, main courses and desserts, plus one bottle and two glasses of wine, a coffee and two cups of tea.
Wine list: Although not as extensive as their online list, the tired paper version ticked all the bases with a few surprises.
Verdict: Eastern-leaning European cuisine, with a few distinct notes from Germany, served in a beautiful and relaxing space so near and yet so far from the madding crowds. Probably best on week-nights.