Nov 13, 2013 Restaurants
By Jesse Mulligan.
Ahh, Ponsonby Rd. For a couple of years, New Zealand’s most stylish street fell deeply and, it seemed, irreversibly out of fashion. Lunching al fresco at a table near Craig Parker must have been exciting 15 years ago but, by 2011, Ponsonby dining options were hard to love. You could always find a park, but you didn’t always want one.
Then things picked up. Moochowchow opened with a waiting list some people are still on. Tin Soldier fed the spillover crowd before Blue Breeze Inn, Mekong Baby and Late Night Diner arrived. Ponsonby Road Bistro and Sidart sparkled anew. And now here is Orphans Kitchen, fresh, fun and friendly. The hill is alive with the sound of cutlery, and life is beautiful again.
Orphans is a first partnership between a chef and a waiter, Tom Hishon and Josh Helm respectively, who each dreamed of a restaurant where they made the decisions. They’re both pretty visible, as you’d expect, and their attitude is infectious; other staff members come across like friends helping out just for the sport of it. Britomart can do a lot but it can’t do small and exciting like this.
One of them told me they’d been nervous about the site, the old Ella. It really is on the strip and you can see why they’d fear becoming somewhere that rejects from Longroom dropped into for Frangelico shots. They needn’t have worried. Ponsonby won’t rub off on them; with any luck they’ll rub off on Ponsonby.
The low lighting, sparse furniture and pastel-painted timber do a good job of dialling up atmosphere while lowering expectations. The food is stripped back too, typically four or five ingredients — a first-class treatment of a secondary meat cut, maybe with an unusual vegetable or grain and a little fruit for flavour.
Then there are the specials — a seasonal find like truffles, or an unfamiliar fish to make famous (recently koheru, a fish I used to catch at midnight from a Northland wharf with a long bamboo pole and white wool on a hook).
Food is comforting but uplifting — easy on the butter and cream, and plenty of raw and fresh ingredients. But the chef’s not scared of fat — the boil-up comes with a tasty chunk of brined jowl that skinny Ponsonby girls must get nervous about even seeing on Instagram. Better not tell them that other dark hunk of deliciousness at the bottom of the bowl is pig’s head.
With just four small plates and four large, options are limited, but there’s more I want to eat on this menu than from many others twice as long. Likewise, there are only two desserts but they’re both spectacular — tamarillo and 70 per cent chocolate with chia gel, and a deconstructed banoffee pie with textured coconut three ways.
There are no bubbles by the glass but plenty of other great choices, including the first German riesling I’ve seen on a New Zealand list. Plus, if you’re buying by the bottle, you’ll find a lot of joy in the handwritten list of bin ends — orphans, I guess — that will keep things interesting for many happy returns.
So, spectacular. Fun and busy and almost perfect, with a couple of knowledge gaps among some of the younger staff which I don’t doubt the owners are working on as I type. You generally can’t book, you might have to share a table, and if you find a park within two blocks you’ll be doing well. But once inside, you’ll be rewarded with a level of excellence and warmth that’ll make you immediately start planning to come back. Ponsonby is dead; long live Ponsonby.