Sunday, February 28, 2010

Auckland's best-catered bus stop

Two Fifteen isn't a marquee name on the Auckland restaurant scene, but after seeing it in the Metro Top 50 last year, and hearing Dine's senior chef name it among her top three favourite restaurants in the city, I was most looking forward to trying it out last night. The restaurant is named after its street number on Dominion Road, a part of town where the competition for upmarket dining comes from Pizza Hutt, Burger Fuel, and a suspicious looking noodle house called Two Monkeys.

We arrived a little early, and with all the attention the restaurant has been getting lately in the media, I almost assumed the crowd outside the front door were queuing for a table. In fact, it turns out Two Fifteen is right on a bus stop, and those particular people were simply waiting for the 7.19 from Lynfield.

Interestingly, a shortage of waiting staff meant the crowd inside the restaurant looked as though they might also have been waiting for a bus, and this was aided by the fact that you could see the Maxx electronic timetable display through the window from our table. If the LCD had been a little brighter you might have even been able to make out the food in my appallingly dim photos above, sorry.

Two Fifteen is the brain child of a respected and well travelled chef, which made me wonder why all the main course options were so bland. Not being funny, but if you were a chef starting from scratch creating your dream menu, would your final choices include eye fillet, snapper and chicken? 

Eye fillet! It's the Manchester United of meat.

The chef allegedly makes his own cured meats and sausages on site, but if they featured in any of the mains I didn't see them. The entrees had one 'air dried beef', but it came served with a poached egg. Crikey dick.

Entrees overall were much more imaginative. The girlfriend had an excellent goats cheese salad with apricot 'swipe', walnuts and rocket, while I had a delicious smoked salmon with sweet apple drizzled in a mango and adzuki bean dressing.

Unfortunately mum lucked out with her entree. Listen to this description from the menu: “Crab + masa doughnuts | pineapple +chili salsa | leek straw | micro salad”. Now doesn't that sound like a fresh, zinging dish to you? In fact it was two or three pretty stodgy deep fried crabby pastry balls that made you wonder what was wrong with the crab that they needed to batter it up and blast it in hot oil. (Sidenote: using those unusual vertical | bars throughout the menu did solve the conjunction overdose problem, but it also made it virtually impossible to tell whether the dish cost 6.90 or 16.90. And before you exclaim to me that you don't get anything for $6.90 in an Auckland restaurant, I suggest you check out the menu at Dida's on Jervois Road).

Mum might have been better off plumping for the squid and aioli our waiter was hard trying to peddle, but it's description sounded very similar to the calamari rings at Prego, which are so perfectly done that any imitation would disappoint.

Mains were pretty good. I had the confit duck, which tasted like it does in any decent French restaurant, although it was accompanied by a good kumara mash and a (possibly intentionally) fridge-cold apple compote. The girlfriend had tuna steak, which is a dish that can be wrong in many ways but right in only one. The waiter promised it would be seared, but it wasn't really. For me, seared tuna needs to be done for mere seconds on an extremely hot pan, but this had been done on too low a heat for too long: it was still rare inside but the outside looked pan fried and the edges were too well cooked.

Our lovely and well meaning waiter was a little overstretched and underinformed, on the wine list in particular. I went for an excellent Piedmontese Valpolicella despite him not being able to tell me much about it aside from that it was “Strong! The strongest wine on our whole list! I haven't tried it”. (By the way, don't let anyone sell you that stupid provincial argument that you should support New Zealand producers by ordering local wines. Nineteen out of twenty people at a Kiwi restaurant will buy local every time – you're better to buy Spanish or Italian and support the merchants who are brave and interesting enough to import from the Old World.)

So, a bit of a grumpy review given that the food really did taste pretty good. The place is obviously popular – every table was full and the girl at the front counter told us they could have filled the restaurant twice over, so someone must be enjoying that chicken schnitzel.

When we asked, she said that they occasionally changed parts of the menu, but that there'd be an outcry from regulars if they ever removed favourites like the fish and herb risotto. As I recall, Prego has offered pretty much that exact dish for years, and if they have, the chef at Two Fifteen must know about it. Maybe one night we could ask someone at the ARTA control room to help nudge him into excellence, by beaming a special message onto Dominion Road bus stop displays that reads “Must | try | harder”.