A Ponsonby bistro opts for timelessness over trendiness.
Augustus Bistro, SPQR’s new Francophile sibling, occupies the heritage Post Office building in Three Lamps previously inhabited by the Belgian Beer Café. The building’s interior now reflects its grand outer, with a formal, white-tableclothed dining room full of fancy indoor plants, antique mirrors and wood panelling. There’s also a less-formal brasserie area with rows of almost-touching marble cafe tables, an outdoor courtyard and, apparently for the sheer novelty of it, a florist.
Ex-Clooney head chef Des Harris helms the kitchen. At Clooney, he was the king of smoky, sous-vide meats and rich reductions, smeared and dotted on dimly lit plates. Here it feels like he’s preparing for a test in French classics that no one has set him, the menu running the gamut of veal cordon bleu, escargots, tarte tatin and crab bisque. The bold orthodoxy of it flies in the face of more fashionable (v)-, (df)- and (gf)-littered menus, and requires an unconscious paradigm shift on the part of the diner. But fear not if you’re rusty on ordering from a list that isn’t divided into small and larger plates or by dietary requirement; the staff are well versed in the menu and will swoop in with recommendations.
On my first visit, this meant six juicy scampi grilled on the half shell to start, a vehicle for perfectly zingy mayonnaise. Next, vivid-crimson, hand-cut steak tartare served in a deconstruction with satellite garnishes of shallots, capers, gherkins, mustard and parsley: little piles of yes that made each primal bite more exciting than the last.
Because the service here is impeccable, we were given our next course within minutes, which meant I was almost sprung investigating whether the banquette I was sitting on was real leather. Of course it is, because Emma Richardson and Paul Izzard did the fit-out.
Understated on the plate, yellowbelly flounder fillet meunière and heirloom tomato salad turned out to be a winning dish, the acidity of garlicky tomatoes cutting through the richness of a brown butter sauce that coated every groove of the tender fish. Steak frites — angus eye fillet with Café de Paris butter, chartreuse jus and French fries — satisfied on every level, the caramelled fibres of the meat giving way with the slightest pressure of the knife.
We finished with madeleines and petits fours. Is there anything more satisfying at the end of a meal than a still-warm, chewy-sided madeleine? Paired with cream and a thick slug of lemon curd, it made no attempt to alkalize or detoxify, and by then I didn’t care.
Augustus’ halo was tarnished slightly on a subsequent visit on a Monday night. The service was a little less energetic and attentive. A classic king-prawn cocktail (doily and all) was a bit too old school; a bed of bland lettuce-spiked avocado purée did nothing to allay envy at my friend’s impossibly good scampi omelette, with its truly sweet sweetcorn, tarragon, beurre noisette and caviar salt. If you’re having the veal cordon bleu, order a side of colour-saturated green vegetables, as our waiter advised. I didn’t and the veal turned out to be a confrontingly large, rich slab, and the celeriac rémoulade served with it compounds rather than balances.
The extensive wine list is almost entirely French, and the knowledgeable staff are well able to recommend complementary varieties.
Like SPQR, Chris and Courtney Rupe’s second restaurant defies trendiness in favour of timelessness. To open a traditional French bistro in the face of a food scene increasingly defined by experimentation and cultural diversity seems like a populist throwback, and a touch indulgent. With near-technical perfection on the plate, flawless service and décor to match, Augustus passes the French test with flying couleurs. That said, it’s not a bistro I’m particularly eager to return to, its adherence to tradition frankly too stuffy for this millennial generation renter. But the packed dining room would suggest that, for locals at least, Augustus’ particular brand of stuffiness feels like a breath of fresh air.
1-3 St Marys Rd, Ponsonby,
Ph 950-4855, augustusbistro.co.nz
Hours: Open 7 days, noon-midnight
Dinner bill: Fruits de mer: $18-$33; charcuterie: $18.50-$22; entrées: $14.50-$25; plats: $28.50-$36.50; desserts: $10-$18.
This article is published in the March- April 2017 issue of Metro.