Friday, September 23, 2011

Metro review - Marvel Grill

The following review of mine appeared in Metro, April 2011. You can read my review of Simon Gault's new restaurant Fish in the latest issue, out Monday 26 September.

Well, I wanted to like it. Any new restaurant is exciting, but particularly one on the North Shore, demanding that you take a fun little road trip over the bridge, parking a block or two away but not really caring because it’s warm outside, you haven’t been to Takapuna in ages and happily it’s just how you remember it: the main street crawling with the bodies of tipsy, pliant young people falling out of bars and making out in doorways.

Yes, I had high hopes for Marvel Grill. The maître d’ had been encouraging on the phone as we booked, debooked then rebooked — each new whimper from our newborn prompting a parental summit meeting as to whether we could manage a night out. Restaurants don’t have an obligation to cater to neurotic mums and dads, but I’ve recently developed a deep appreciation for the ones that do.

The restaurant is a long, dog-leg left, with bar and open kitchen along one side and plenty of windows on the other. The only real view is of a carpark, but as darkness falls, the flashing headlights outside add to the cosiness within.

So what a pity the food is no good. A restaurant built around a grill should do steak very well, but my scotch fillet was dreadful — overcooked and tasteless, it was barely recognisable as scotch. The provenance of the meat is apparently good — Black Angus, aged 20 days — but the butchering had left it sub-Pak’n Save: over- trimmed and under-rolled, it was the right shape, but had gaps throughout where the fat should be.

The venison was overcooked too, which is bad news for such a lean meat. As with the scotch, the only solution was to smother everything with sauce, a suburban barbecue trick which is depressing to employ at any time, let alone when you’re paying restaurant prices.

There are 16 different meat and fish alternatives for the grill, served with your selection of 29 sauces and sides. That’s far too many options, even when you’re getting things right. Did I mention the “hot skillets”? There are 15 of those, too.

They’re a lovely idea actually, those skillets — hot little cast-iron pans available as entrées or a tapas-style main. But again, the cooking is too often artless — the tempura crab was massive handfuls of sea juice and flesh, battered and sauced like a chip-shop special; the pork belly was chewy, crunchless and very difficult to dissect, and the “grilled” squid was soggy — steamed-through, really — and sitting in a puddle of liquid.

Prices are very reasonable, but you’d pay a bit more if it helped improve the experience. That goes for the wine list too, which offers little beyond mid-range: just two rieslings, for example, both Australian and both about $8 a glass (one had turned quite nasty, such was the lack of interest). There was no gewürztraminer at all, and no red wine by the glass from outside Australasia.

Despite all of this, many people around us seemed happy. Not happy with what they were eating, necessarily, but happy to be sitting with friends in a warm, buzzy restaurant, the floor staff working hard to maintain a great vibe throughout. It reminded me that going out to dinner is never just about the food. Nonetheless, Marvel needs to sort out its kitchen issues or the goodwill may run out.