Andiamo
194 Jervois Rd, Herne Bay
Ph: (09) 378 7811

WE THOUGHT: 14.5 - Good
WE SPENT: $372 for four

If it wasn't for the couple having sex in the toilets, my visit to Andiamo might have blurred to bland.

To clarify, I can't guarantee that's exactly what they were doing. Maybe they just needed to take a really, really private phone call? Whatever the reason, when two people exited a single stall, the ensuing speculation was the spiciest part of our restaurant experience.

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The thing about Andiamo is that it's fine. Fine like a good hotel with all the power points in working order and nothing offensive on the walls; fine like that blue suit an Australian news anchor wore every day for an entire year but nobody noticed. Andiamo is the restaurant equivalent of a house that has been carefully staged for resale. It relies on you - its customer - to bring it to life. But I was having dinner with my boss and her husband, so sex in the bathroom was probably out of the question for our table.

Andiamo was an Auckland institution and then it became Halcyon and now it's Andiamo again. They've repainted in pleasing skin tones of Herne Bay. The evening menu is described as "trattoria". Read: pasta, meatballs and the use of the word "nonna". I'm actually quite partial to meatloaf and gravy (grandmother's or otherwise) but my dining companions have recently gone meat-free so I ordered the barbecued octopus instead.

I thought we might share but then my boss' husband said they were avoiding anything with legs. Octopuses are the complete opposite of this. I was on my own.

It tasted ... fine. A little more scorch and citrus would have amped the excitement levels, but you also eat with your eyes and - how best to put this - it was too TIDY. I expected a tumultuous tangle and what landed was a matronly perm, a perfect little pyramid of smooth and meaty tentacles on top of a couple of halves of baby potatoes and a perfect circle of green emulsion, which might have been the "wild" thyme component. If this dish was a person it would be going to the bathroom solo and washing its hands properly afterwards.

Barbecued octopus at Andiamo. Photo / Getty
Barbecued octopus at Andiamo. Photo / Getty

That degree of restraint extended to the service - utterly professional, but oddly detached - and continued throughout the meal. Bagna cauda should be oil, butter, anchovies and garlic bubbling sinfully over a low and carnal flame. Andiamo serves the sexpot of the dip world as a cold, piped emulsion. It comes with tender calamari and a clever little pool of chorizo oil ($19) but I just wanted the kitchen to let its hair down. Go wild. Turn up the heat. Crystal bay prawn pappardelle ($34) came with a generous pile of perfectly cooked seafood but the promised chilli was barely noticeable.

Across the table, a $37 wagyu bavette (which, for the record is French, not Italian, for flank) arrived pre-sliced, presumably to 100 per cent ensure the diner tackles it across the grain. Your teeth have to work a bit harder on this cut but it's flavoursome and there were pickled walnuts, which sing of old school, homemade charm (even if a salsa verde had a minty profile that I associate with lamb, not beef).

The "market catch" ($38) was john dory on a green "minestrone". A literally healthy serve of a premium fish with a broth that sounded interesting but will not push anyone out of their light and lovely lunchtime comfort zone.

It's a tricky business scoring restaurants. One person's good is another's great. Andiamo does what it does very well, but there is something to be said for playing with fire. If one of our dishes was not like any of the others, it was the whole baked eggplant ($19). Bravo for that aubergine that needed a bit more salt but was otherwise creamy and cumin-spiked inside, and burnt to a bitter-black on the outside. This was gutsy. This was food to properly inspire passion.