Jesse Mulligan’s Auckland Restaurant Review: Ōrākei’s All-Day Eatery Ampersand Started Off Strong. Now There Are More Question Marks

By Jesse Mulligan
The duck pie with mustard, apple and parsnip puree on the new spring menu at Ampersand. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: Bistro

Address: 228 Orakei Rd, Auckland

Reservations: Accepted

Phone: 09 522 9503

Drinks: Fully licensed

From the menu: Appetiser special $79; market sashimi $28; spaghetti and prawns $31; smashburger $27; duck pie $39.

Rating: 14/20

Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give it a

I was looking forward to a return to Ampersand, five years after my last visit when it was one of the hottest openings in Auckland — an interesting new Ōrākei space from one of Auckland’s most exciting young chefs and his partner, who used to run the floor at Sidart where she set a benchmark standard of service by which you could measure all other restaurants.

Neither of these two good people were there when I arrived last week — they’ve subsequently given birth to two good people of their own, and have decided, not unreasonably, to spend their restaurant contact time on the day shift, leaving evenings in the hands of others.

But having the two principals at home for dinner service did seem to impact the experience — my first interaction with staff was when our server walked up to our table looking down at his notepad and stood there silently waiting for us to order — and it seemed to be pretty clear that this has become a restaurant where these days they are aiming lower, and mostly hitting that target.

The dining room at Ampersand. Photo / Babiche Martens
The dining room at Ampersand. Photo / Babiche Martens

This would all be very well if I hadn’t come (unannounced) at the invitation of their PR team, who were very keen for me to try their new “fresh new spring menu”.

What was new exactly?

“The cauliflower,” said our waiter. “And the duck pie.”

Given that neither of these dishes exactly screams green shoots and daffodils (the cauli is rubbed in spices with medjool dates, the duck pie is duck pie) I went back to the press release to try and work out exactly what element of spring was being celebrated. The answer is “fresh herbs … spring gives us the chance to welcome them back like long-lost friends”.

There were no herbs on my prawn cocktail and sadly no flavour either. The Mary Rose [sic] cream was detectable but had no tang; the prawns were pretty anonymous critters and I’d be shocked if they hadn’t come from a freezer bag. They were served with avocado puree and small cubes of something I eventually identified as apple. If that sounds good to you, you should order it.

The market fish sashimi, avocado, shiso and bonito dressing. Photo / Babiche Martens
The market fish sashimi, avocado, shiso and bonito dressing. Photo / Babiche Martens

My spaghetti and prawns were very salty — “inedible”, reckoned my dining partner, Mark — though I have a high tolerance for salt and could push through it. My fault for ordering prawn on prawn but I was craving a protein that looked like it wanted to be there. Mark won the entree battle with a pretty delightful salmon sashimi with a Japanese dressing and a surprise bird’s nest of soba noodles on top — enough that this would make a good light main if you were in the market for one.

The duck pie is an impressive structure — a beehive-shaped pastry in the middle of a plate with a little jug of jus you’re encouraged to pour through a hole in the top until it spills out over the rest of the pie. Interestingly, the filling is of the creamy style you tend to associate with chicken, and the pastry has a consistency more like bread when you cut into it. This is a nice enough dish.

The burger with truffle fries is a solid order too — a lovely brioche bun with pickles, mayo and a nicely cooked pattie — all held together with a nifty toothpick. I should say that all the food is nicely cooked really — they have some real skill in the kitchen, and it’s perhaps just having a little difficulty finding its best expression right now.

The signature wagyu smashburger. Photo / Babiche Martens
The signature wagyu smashburger. Photo / Babiche Martens

Probably our best eating was from a starter special — oysters, three choices from the starter menu and sourdough for $79. This might be a good way for you to dip your toe in the water at Ampersand along with a drink: they have enough beers to be interesting and a good wine list, including Pelorus for $13.50 a glass. Then you could move on to a main if you were still hungry and enjoying the vibe of the room (which I have in the past — it has an odd sort of topography being part of a much bigger building and wall-lessly adjacent to other businesses, but they do a fantastic job of making it feel cosy and special, especially once the sun has gone down).

There are some gems among the staff — service improved shortly after I complained to Mark at length over how long my beer was taking then realised the service manager was standing behind me, camouflaged by a plant. They are capable of very good things here — I’m hoping this was an unusual off-night.

From dining-out editor Jesse Mulligan.

Milenta, Victoria Park Market’s South American-Inspired Beacon, Has Never Been Better. This parkside restaurant is the ideal spot for a balmy summer evening.

At Riverhead’s The Landing, The Vibe Is Peaceful & The Chips Are Pure Gold. Arrive by car or boat to this historic tavern, where an ambitious menu comes with a view.

Helensville’s The Butcher Baker Is A Journey. It’s Also Completely Worth It. The destination restaurant is clever and imaginative, with a handsome courtyard and boldly hot crayfish.

At Birkenhead Bistro Moxie, Book Your Table & Then Book Your Beef. The Beef Wellington was a dish of such topographical singularity that I can’t forget it.

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