118 Ponsonby Rd Auckland
(09) 378 7979
Menus can be depressing documents. A chap can take only so much salt and pepper squid, pork belly (crispy, naturally) and fish ("of the day" and cooked the same way no matter the species) before he wants to run into the traffic and throw himself under the wheels of a passing bus to ensure that the evening contains something of interest.
So you must forgive me if I wax a little rapturous about this new place that Josh Helm and Tom Hishon have opened on Ponsonby Rd. The food - hell, the whole experience - was so bright and fresh and out of the ordinary that I've even forgiven them for not having an apostrophe in "Orphans" (try as I might, I cannot parse the name in a way that allows it to be omitted).
The two men (Hishon, the chef, is ex-Clooney and the downtown summer pop-up The Hamptons), have revamped the premises previously occupied by Stella and Ella. The dark walls, which put me in mind of a library, are gone, in favour of sherbet pastels. Light shades (well, anti-shades, really) are cut-off glass jars. The wine list is on a hanging scroll of butcher's paper.
The tables - mostly communal; the smallest are for four - are large slabs of macrocarpa at which you perch on industrial stools topped with dinky little squares of sheepskin. It's a little oasis of delight in which I felt instantly at home.
Helm, who was prowling the room in a long blue-denim apron dispensing wine advice and urging diners to ask about his bin-end bargains, was a charming host, who seemed genuinely happy to see people. This is remarkably uncommon in the restaurant business; I get a cheerier greeting from my dentist than from most maitres d', though to be fair I give him about five times as much money as I give a restaurateur so he should be delighted.
But I digress. You'll be wondering about the food. Well, the technical term for it is bloody good. Let me explain.
There is nothing more calculated to ease a diner's anxieties than a short menu. The one we were offered had four items each in sections labelled "Smaller" and "Larger". There were three sides and two nibble plates, one of meat and one of cheese, if that's all you fancy.
You make your choice while munching on superb bread, fresh from the oven with a whipped burned butter (trust me; it's sensational) and if you are like me, you regret not having come in a group of four so you could have tried everything on the menu.
Choosing is a serious, even heartbreaking, challenge. We had to pass over smoked salmon (with celeriac, black rice, apple and horseradish) and tuna (with grapefruit, persimmon and radish). These were smart ideas, unusual but unfussy, that put me in mind of the excellent "new Nordic" food we enjoyed in Copenhagen in June.
But we had no complaints with what we did choose: a tortilla of gamey, high-country lamb, minced and combined with feijoa and tangy sheep's-milk yoghurt into a wrap to beat all wraps; and a dish of disassembled brussels sprouts leaves (they call them cups) filled with goat's curd and dotted with shallot jam and pine nuts. It is uncommon for me to fight with the Professor over a meatless dish, but I did so here, all the while suppressing the urge to bellow "Eureka!"
Mains were even better: a boil-up used a small chunk of smoky wild boar and a small slab of rissole-like pork terrine to make a genuinely fresh take on the classic of Maori tucker. These came with a big wodge of soft and pale kumara in a broth both hearty and delicate and topped with glisteningly fresh watercress. A real treat.
Meanwhile I loved the slow-cooked ox cheek which had something of the texture and taste of tongue and, on top of a medley of roast swede and barley, was excellent winter food.
We shared a divine dessert of a creamy ball of chocolate with pear poached in a cardamom syrup, the whole lapped with a sauce containing tiny nutty seeds called chia, which originate in Mexico. It was the perfect end to a fantastic meal. A day later, as I write this, I still have a big dumb grin over my face, and I can't wait to go back.
Verdict: A genuine original