3b O'Connell Street
09 925 9000
WE SPENT: $202.50 for two
WE THOUGHT: 16.5 - Great
My dad used to say that if you couldn't put dinner in a sandwich it was probably not dinner.
He made an exception for casseroles (where the bread was more of a mop than a container) but for most of my childhood two slices of white-and-buttered were constant tea-time companions.
We didn't eat out much. When we did, I noticed the ham steak came with a pineapple ring, and the regular steak was stuck with blue-and-red plastic cows (my dad liked his meat medium rare). Also, at restaurants, the white, buttered bread was cut into triangles. Fancy.
Free bread used to be the norm. It still is, allegedly, in fine dining restaurants, but those degustation price points definitely account for the sourdough salted with the dehydrated tears of dead angels.
Hooray then, for DeBretts Kitchen. A lovely, bistro-priced restaurant, that begins its service with an unfashionably complimentary bread roll and continues to treat the customer's wallet with respect throughout the next three courses.
DeBretts is more than just a restaurant. It's a boutique, downtown hotel and, at its street-level, you'll encounter Corner Bar, a preferred destination for grown-up pre-drinks. On the night of our visit, I met people who were heading to the Book Awards. The week prior, my boss had popped in before a 10pm Comedy Festival show. It's a warm and welcoming bar - I was almost tempted to cancel my upstairs booking.
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In the end, my main regret was not ordering the goat cheese gnocchi entree ($14). Such gorgeous little autumnal pillows of oozy, cheesy, decadence. My prawns ($14) were more austere. Just three, elegantly positioned on a cucumber-and-avocado salsa that had a lovely green-tomato-ish sharp edge to it. The shellfish was tequila, ginger and chilli-spiked. Hot enough to be interesting, but not too overwhelming.
These days, it's almost old-fashioned to put vegetables on the same plate as your meat (or, in my case, monkfish) but I like a whole dish approach and I especially liked our waitperson who gave excellent advice about sides. Too often recently, I've ordered an extra salad or vegetables, only to discover the exact same greens on my actual main. It's annoying paying for the same thing twice.
I was so excited to order that monkfish, a pearly-white fleshed deepwater species we ate all the time when I was a kid who didn't know how lucky she was. The menu descriptor was a bit of a mid '90s throwback - semi-dried tomatoes, parsnip crisps, flaked almonds, et al - but so was the price. I thought $29 was extremely reasonable for a smallish, but perfectly succulent piece of fish, really crispy green beans and a silky butter bean puree.
Actually, said the waitperson, the lamb comes with potato. We ignored him, because the Perlas were crispy-roasted in duck fat and the ones on Rachel's plate had been gratined with anchovy. An entirely different kettle of delicious that came with a quite beautifully rare chargrilled lamb ($29). I feared the kitchen might be in a bit of a vegetable timewarp (steamed greens and roasted carrots) but a dollop of fresh and minty yoghurt whacked the flavours forward.
Dessert was a passionfruit and rewarewa honey semifreddo ($12) with a very honeyed "hokey pokey" that had not lasted the distance. Divine but extremely chewy. I feared for my fillings. Rachel's Black Doris frangipane plum tart ($12) made the most of the preserved whole fruit. Comfort food on a biscuity base.
DeBrett's exudes casual elegance. The dining chairs are semi-plush; there are brick walls, a coloured glass mosaic and a lot of atrium light by day. In the evening, the muted teals, purples and oranges feel a little bit opulent without overwhelming. It's not the buzziest, trendiest place in town by a long shot. The food is unlikely to take you anywhere you haven't been before. But for those nights when you don't want to share softshell crab and dumplings at the top of your voice (or, actually, even share), it's an excellent choice. I reckon my dad would love it.