I read an article once about how the abundance of choice is a source of anxiety for consumers. Eating at Porcini shows how it causes problems for providers, too. Let me explain.
The Professor and I tootled into Helensville on a freezing evening, feeling warm as toast after a good soaking in the hot pools at nearby Parakai, and in the mood for a good meal. Well, as my mother was given to saying in the slightly reproving tone that mothers adopt, you can't have everything.
At this brightly lit restaurant in the main street, we were greeted, shown to a table and given a bottle of water. (The "do you want still or sparkling water, or are you a tightarse?" approach so popular in the city hasn't reached Helensville yet). But that was about as good as it got all night.
Perhaps I overstate the case. Porcini has its good points: the wine prices are very reasonable (and they let you bring your own wine for $7) and the old black-and-white Italian postcards are lovely to look at. I don't think I've forgotten anything. No, that's it.
I suppose it's not my place to say so, but I think I have an explanation as to why the meal here was as bad as it was. I have not - as some aggrieved restaurateurs have pointed out - ever run a restaurant, but I have singlehandedly cooked for two dozen (and, with a bit of help, for 80) and the way I managed it was by keeping things simple.
At Porcini the chef takes the opposite approach. The menu lists six entrees, eight mains, three pasta dishes, a dozen pizzas and half a dozen desserts. Specials boards added another 10 options at least.
If the choice was dazzling for the diner, it was plainly crippling for the chef who, as far as I could see, was operating alone.
He wasn't doing the pizzas for the steady stream of takeaway customers, but the pizza team seemed stretched thinner than a crusty base. A kitchen-hand ducked and weaved through the melee, reheating steamed veges in the microwave. If it was not chaos, it was a damn good imitation of it.
The effects out front were plain to see. One couple stared glumly into space, looking like they were wondering whether it would be better to order breakfast. One waitress kept apologising for delays and the other kept announcing in a tone on the edge of hysteria what she was about to do before doing it - "now I'll get your meal" - as if trying to steel herself for going back into the kitchen.
It took 40 minutes for our entrees - a slab of paté and a plain salad with duck meat - to arrive. The paté was nice enough, although the slabs of (nice, home-made) bread were a bad match, but the duck was god-awful.
Rather than the big pink slices one might have hoped for, it was chewy and fatty, curled and blackened by the balsamic syrup it had been cooked in, which made the small balls of flesh indistinguishable from the nuts chucked into the mix.
The Prof ordered an eggplant parmesan dish, keen to see whether the chef could do a better one than mine.
It was no contest.
The slices of crumbed eggplant (too thin and too few) protruded from the tomato sauce, as if to garnish it. The diner was left to distribute the strip of melted mozzarella and the sauce was unwisely bulked out with potato.
There were traces of parmesan on the rim of the ramekin but the evidence in the dish itself suggested that the cheese after which it is named had been sprinkled as sparingly as if it were shaved truffle.
I went for some slow-cooked pork shoulder which was tasty enough but not as pull-apart melting as this meat should be and served on a trencherman's helping of bland mash.
The best that might be said of the accompanying greens was that they were plentiful. We lacked the stomach - and the time - for dessert.
I fancy we'll be taking the waters at Parakai again before the winter's out. But if it's dinner time when we get out of the water, well ... it's only half an hour back to town isn't it?
Tries to do too much and does nothing very well.