That I'd been given vouchers to the famed O'Connell St Bistro only served to hasten my visit there. Sure I'd planned to go sometime, but one can only afford to dine finely as much as the pittance of a student's part-time wage can sustain. And as B was back from Sydney for the weekend, I had the perfect excuse to give this Auckland eating icon a try.
I'd become intrigued with this restaurant ever since walking past a few years back. Though the place was always filled with suits, they never seemed to be there on business, and looked to be truly enjoying gorging themselves on the gorgeous food.
O'Connell St Bistro has won the laudments of almost every Auckland food critic for its simple, elegant style, intimate dining experience, and especially for its deep and varied cellar, for which it has garnered several awards. The space is tastefully decorated without being overly romantic - wooden floors, chocolate walls and rich, red velvet curtains, with candle light on crisp white tablecloths (somewhat oddly covered in white glossy paper). There are mostly tables for 2, and a few for 4, with a separate private dining room at the back for larger parties. Several older couples and a group of business partners render the atmosphere relaxed though muted - 'Very Adult' as our voucher so plainly states.
I can't quite navigate the book-long wine list with much panache, so we opt for two mocktails (not on the menu). These arrive in martini glasses and are a combination of pineapple, cranberry and lime juices, topped off with what I think is ginger ale. Delicious and refreshing, and I suspect will be of use in cleansing the palate later on in the meal.
I feel I must make a mention of the complimentary breads - though not quite as fresh as, say, those at The French Cafe, they are superb little bites, dense and chewy and perfect for soaking up the Motutira (Te Arai Olive Estate Olive Oil - itself flavoursome, light and a little spicy.
Ordering is a la carte in the modern European Bistro style - notable for one of Auckland's top fine dining establishments is the lack of a degustation menu (which has almost become the norm), save the 5 course $250 pp Veuve Cliquot Set Menu. We'll save that for another time.. So without much further ado, we order:
Steak Tartare, Quail Egg Yolk, Matchstick Potatoes.
Not on the menu, this was one of several specials offered to us by the Maitre'd once we had been seated. Finely diced, premium eye fillet steak was marinated with capers, onions, parsely, gherkins, olive oil, cognac, mustard and egg yolk and pressed into a large disc. I was happy that the beef was not too finely ground nor too densely packed, as often steak tartare can come to resemble an uncooked burger patty. Instead, here the different ingredients in the dish were easily discernable and could even be tasted one by one.
The beef flavour was intensified by the tangy marinade, not saucy, but absorbed into the meat. The capers and onions provided a little crunch for textural contrast with the soft beef. The complexity of the marinade was perhaps overshadowed by a little too much salt from the pickled capers and gherkins, though it was not too salty for my taste. The raw quail egg yolk on top added a rich, fatty, eggy flavour that took the edge off the pickles and further highlighted the quality of the beef.
The fried potatoes on the side were well done, crispy, even something like McDonalds fries, and tasted great with the addition of the table sea salt.
This was a pretty sizeable starter for the price ($25) and I was surprised by the combination of different flavour and texture elements. Being a raw meat kind of a guy, I thoroughly enjoyed the full flavour of the fresh eye fillet and the simplicity of its preparation.
Seared South Island Salmon, Ruby Grapefruit, Snow Pea Shoots and Crispy Shallots.
A stark contrast in colours and flavours, this dish had it all. The salmon, wonderfully fresh, was seared til the skin was crispy, but melt-in-your-mouth tender on the inside. Salmon can often be hurt by overcooking, changing a soft, squishy mouth feel to flaky and dry. This, however, was exemplar.
Accompanying was a textural medley - fresh sweet grapefruit, bitter shoots and crispy fried shallot goodness. I think that fried shallots should be served with everything from now on, they are just SO good! The flavours of the salad complimented the salmon perfectly, adding a refreshing change to the taste, and lifting the fat, whilst providing a nice textural contrast.
Pappardelle of braised Bendigo Station Rabbit, Rimu Smoked Bacon, Walnut Watercress Pesto and Parmigiano Reggiano.
Not wanted to be stuck with the usual sirloin, scotch or lamb rump again, I opted for the rabbit for my main. I'd eaten rabbit in a casserole before, and very much enjoyed the wild flavour. Here again the gamy flavour of the meat really stood out, though unfortunately it was a little tough in places. I would have thought that a slow braise would take the stringiness out of the meat and leave it soft, but perhaps it had been too quick of a job here.
The walnut watercress pesto, which I suppose was to bring a deeper earthier feeling to this dish, was slightly marred by the cumulative meat juices of the rabbit and bacon, which were dark, rich and very flavoursome, though obscuring the other flavours somewhat. I felt that this dish was one-dimensional where it didn't need to be. The pesto, tossed through the delicious fresh egg pasta, was lacking in punch, and light olive oil flavours didn't quite come through over the brawn of the smoked meat.
Milk fed Veal fillet wrapped in Prosciutto, Calvados caramelised Apples, Poached Baby Leeks and Truffle Jus.
I am always cautious to order veal, as I believe it takes a very skilled chef to be able to cook and garnish it well, and I am happy to say that this specimen was outstanding.
The fillet of rare-cooked veal was rolled in prosciutto and cut into medallions. The creamy, rosy pink veal was delicate and meltingly tender. The mild flavour - not as meaty as beef, nor as brazen - actually tasted like a baby cow. Mmm... baby cow...
The prosciutto was extraordinarily fatty and rich, and injected that much-needed salt and fat into every bite. Accompanying this meaty morsel was a dark sauce that tasted mostly of drippings, though I could just make out the earthy flavour of truffle hidden in there. Again, the rich oily flavours enhanced the meat's unique taste.
I couldn't at first make out what the caramelised apple was; it seemed to me like parsnip posing as something else. The light sweetness was refreshing. The leeks, sadly, were overdone and slightly tough on the outside - perhaps the outer layers should have been stripped first?
Overall, the meat here was the highlight - great flavour and garnished well to leave a comforting taste on the palate.
Roasted Beetroot with Chive Creme Fraiche.
The beetroot, a beautiful earthy red colour, smacked of quality seasonings and olive oil. The creme fraiche dressing provided a lightness and creamy sour lift that melted into the roasted flavour of the beetroot. Outstanding.
Baked Tahitian Vanilla Creme Brulee.
Look how big that is! Though it was in a shallow dish, this creme brulee was huge! I was a happy creme brulee fiend that night ^_^ (Last year I was obsessed with this dessert, making it batch upon batch until my friends and family were sick of it XD)
The top was browned to perfection by a kitchen torch (I still don't have one! Christmas present anyone?), burn marks and bubbles apparent in abundance. The crisp burnt sugar layer was of variable thickness, sometimes up to a millimetre and down to paper-thin. The flavour was intense, with a great, burnt caramel taste.
After cracking through the veneer, the soft yellowy custard creme was creamy and light - much lighter and less sweet that I am used to. There were subtle hints of vanilla flavour here and there, and the use of real vanilla bean was marked by the tiny black specks throughout. I thought it tasted much more like a custard than a caramel creme proper, and the texture was more of a light goo than a pudding. The combination of the crisp, sharp sugar skin and the soft custard was heavenly.
[As an aside, I read on KevinEats that the Tahitian Vanilla Creme Brulee is a Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) signature creation! Perhaps that dish was Stephen Ward's inspiration for this beautifully executed classic?]
Valrhona Chocolate, Pedro Ximenez Sherry and Hazelnut Trifle.
Hmm.. I am unsure what to make of this one. For sure it was a top class dish, using very quality ingredients and with just the right amount of pizzaz, but something about the quantities in there put it off-balance for me. It may just be that I am used to my mother's amazing custard/berry/sherry/sponge creations!
The trifle consisted of layers of sherry jelly, ladyfinger, coarse-chopped hazelnuts, chocolate mousse and cream, topped off with shaved chocolate. The jelly had a really strong, almost fruity flavour, and there was far too much of it, overpowering the delicious rich chocolate mousse. The ladyfinger and hazelnut didn't lend enough weight to the dish, almost no nut flavour coming through despite the generous layer. The sponge was also slightly dry, needing a good ratio of cream and jelly on the spoon to even it out.
Great individual flavours in this dish from the jelly and mousse were lost by the lack of balance here, and the hazelnut had yet to make its appearance known.
B was slightly disappointed when the nougat turned out to be of the crunchy variety than the soft and chewy French style she had anticipated. I, however, tucked in with gusto. The nougat was actually very crisp and airy, not too dense at all. I tasted pistachio and marzipan, with a hint of lemon.
Attention to detail runs at a very high standard in this class act restaurant. The waiter's were attentive, if not snappy, all evening, and the presentation was beautiful. To be completely honest, if I was picking a restaurant for an occassion, it wouldn't be here again, though I would most definitely rate it worth a try. It was not that the experience as a whole wasn't special fine dining, it was just not unforgettable. The exquisite opening dishes, executed with flair and precision, were muddled by the mains, and I was sorely let down by the trifle.
Value for Money: 8/10
O'Connell St Bistro
3 O'Connell St
+64 9 377 1884
O'Connell St Bistro
3 O'Connell St
+64 9 377 1884