Address: 3 O’Connell St, Auckland CBD
Phone: (09) 377 1884

By the time this much-loved city bistro, devastated by a kitchen fire in January, reopened in September, the street had undergone a facelift. It now has outdoor tables, which will be in heavy demand as the evenings lengthen.

The refit is as classy as the pre-fire decor: handsome dome lampshades; tabletops thoughtfully cushioned, so you can't hear an oyster fork drop; crisp, white tablecloths. A large mirror on one of the dark walls lends a sense of space to the small room.

As we took our seats, I felt glad to be back, comfortable in the knowledge that we were in safe hands. The Professor, poor dear, endures a lot of second-rate meals as my dining companion and I was looking forward to repaying her loyal service with one of the best. So it's slightly distressing to report that the experience was rather average.

In a restaurant long noted for peerless service, details jarred: tap water slopped unbidden into a glass half-full of $10-a-bottle sparkling; a wine list, declined once, delivered for a second time; they got one side dish wrong (and the one they delivered was of blanched greens so plain as to seem raw); we had to ask for a dessert menu after a 20-minute wait (although that is, admittedly, better than the industry standard, which is to menace you with it before the main-course dishes have been cleared).


There was an extraordinary performance over providing the Professor with a half-size glass of wine. The sommelier was summoned (only after we asked twice) and spent a lot of time telling her that "we don't do that, but I will". I know a 750ml bottle makes five glasses, but in a pricey, wine-focused establishment such as this, a 75ml pour should be available on at least some wines.

An amuse-bouche of deep-fried cauliflower bhaji was explosively delicious but nothing for the rest of the evening had anything approaching a wow factor, with the possible exception of a side dish of beetroot gratin with a cream of goat's cheese and chive, decorated with candied walnuts.

Beef tartare, ordered medium spicy, was so flavourless that I assume the mild version is an empty plate. A trio of pork, headlined by a cutlet, failed to answer my unspoken challenge that the meat can be succulent only when cooked long and slow.

Gnocchi filled with goat's cheese were nice enough, but the dish, with pickled and roasted carrots, was more coherent to look at than to eat. And I thought the $18 desserts quite unremarkable, although a green sugar shell on a granny smith sorbet was dexterous.

"You know what's missing here?" the Professor said at one point. "Flavour." And I think that's the size of it. I found myself aching for mustard, chilli sauce, salt, anything to get the taste buds bouncing. That's what the food needs to do to you in a bistro, modest or upmarket. I hope this great institution gets its mojo back soon.

VERDICT: An old favourite, reopened, is looking for its mojo.
Starters $23-$28; mains $35-$45; sides $10; desserts $18