Category Archives: Ponsonby Road Cafes

VOP: Cornwall Park Café – lovely food in a gorgeous setting

Poncentric’s winter hibernation has come to an end!

We’d been meaning to try the Cornwall Park Café for some time now and the opportunity presented itself for a family gathering on Sunday morning.

It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful setting than smack in the middle of the treasure that is Cornwall Park. As a family we have been regular visitors for many years – with our children back in the day and now with Oli and Milly. Spring is definitely in the air with the daffs starting to appear and calves and lambs afrollicking.

The driveDaffs

The sun was shining brightly on this ‘spring’ morning as we rolled up at 10-ish hoping that we would be early enough to score a table straightaway. No such luck I’m afraid but the gorgeous setting makes waiting almost a pleasure. Fifteen minutes later we were seated – pleasantly by wait staff who turned out to be attentive and helpful throughout – and the first flat white of the day was ordered while we perused the eclectic menu.

Lately I have been indulging my taste for kidneys and lambs fry so I was delighted to see that CPC has lamb kidneys on the menu. I hesitate to use the generic term for such delicacies. Yes ok then, the term is offal which conjures up a shudder and shaking of the head from most people. I prefer to use the euphemistic ‘variety meats’ as my google search for synonyms revealed.

I risk of course the opprobrium of readers for the juxtaposition of lamb kidneys for brunch while watching frolicking lambs. Don’t think I’ve really got an answer for that I’m sorry!

So, onto the ordering and not surprisingly I had the Lambs kidneys w Pedro Ximenez cream, shallot, pine needle oil and mustard leaf. It was fantastic. And as an aside the other two great spots for these rarely seen ‘variety meat’ dishes are Andiamo who do a wicked kidneys and bacon and Mary’s who serve a tasty lambs fry and bacon on potato cakes.

Kidneys2

Rebecca had the Eggs Benedict, blood orange hollandaise, watercress, toasted croissant w hand cut bacon and Deb had the Cornwall Park Potato Rosti [V], duck egg, wild mushroom, artichoke purée. Both were declared tasty and satisfying.

Oli had the pancakes and maple syrup from the kids’ menu which he devoured with great gusto. I do like it when cafes include what CPC amusingly describe as ‘For the kid in all of us’. Kids like simple stuff and while pancakes won on the day Oli could have had House baked beans, cheese melt or Hens egg and soldiers.

PancakesOli

Dan had bought the dog so he wasn’t allowed in! We did pass him a flat white and savoury scone through the gap in the glass paneling though – we were in the ‘outside’ seating area where the glass paneling and overhead heater kept us cosy and warm. Next time he said he’s not taking the dog.

CPC is in a fantastic setting, has a menu that is different enough to be interesting, excellent Allpress coffee and staff that are friendly, helpful and attentive.

I’m not surprised you’ve got to queue up at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning. The wait, in such a delightful setting, is worth it.

Thanks CPC.

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Amateur reviewers – Parasites or Propagators

Hello Poncentricsters. This is my June Column for Ponsonby News. I hope you enjoy reading it.

I am a serial reviewer of cafés and restaurants. Trip Advisor, Yelp, Zomato, Urbanspoon, Menus. You name them, I’ve posted reviews on them.

So I noted with some interest a number of articles and stories recently about the role of “amateur” restaurant reviewers. Yes that’s me, and anyone else who has dared to post a review online!

My columnist colleague Lauraine Jacobs got the ball rolling when she declined an invitation to speak at an event organised by online review site Zomato.

In an article by Simon Plumb in the Herald on Sunday titled ‘When it comes to reviews, the ability to eat is not enough’ Lauraine is quoted as saying “In all conscience I cannot attend as I do not agree with commercial sites like [Zomato] that rely on unqualified and unpaid restaurant reviewers.” Oops that’s me she’s talking about!

I wouldn’t say the article, and Lauraine’s reported comments, got my hackles up, but it did pique my interest and get me thinking about the roles and responsibilities around reviewing eateries in particular.

Well it wasn’t long before the subject erupted in the media again when Mt Eden restaurant Molten hit back at a group of disgruntled diners who had given Molten a very low rating.

Molten owner Sven Nielsen labeled the review “unfair, unjust and a little bit vindictive” and responded to the disgruntled group with a vehement review of their own suggesting that the diners were “rather rude to the people that worked at our restaurant”.

As if the Molten meltdown was not enough, lo and behold the next day Jonny Rudduck from favoured Ponsonby eatery Il Buco chucked a hot chilli into the pot. He said we were parasites. Ouch!  Well actually that comment might have been directed at the review site but ouch anyway.

The New Zealand Herald joined in the act by running a poll in which it asked readers “Should restaurants have the right to fight back to online reviews?” Over 5,000 readers responded with a resounding 91% yes. Of course they should.

And just when I thought the matter was at an end Wellington’s Ekim Burger owner Mike Duffy as reported by Stuff’s Robert Kitchin “sparked a social media uproar with a vitriolic rant on the Wellington business’ Facebook page after a customer accused the burger bar of giving her son food poisoning”. A complete over reaction by Mike Duffy? I would have thought so.

But wait there’s more.

No sooner had we digested Mike Duffy’s burger bomb then respected reviewer Peter Calder joined the fray. Actually I think the burger bomb was more a case of indigestion! Anyway the Herald’s Calder, in a thoughtful story headlined “Waiter, these ‘parasites’ [are] not to my liking”, conducted a sympathetic symphony of support for restaurants in which he said it was “easy to feel for restaurants angered by bad reviews written by ill-informed diners in the safety of cyberspace”. Ouch again.

So what are we to make of all this?

Well to re-cap. Lauraine Jacobs suggested that ‘When it comes to reviews, the ability to eat is not enough’ and “I do not agree with commercial sites like [Zomato] that rely on unqualified and unpaid restaurant reviewers”.

Molten’s Sven Nielsen labeled a review “unfair, unjust and a little bit vindictive” and hit back with a stinging review of the disgruntled group.

Jonny Rudduck of Il Buco fame suggested “angry diners should boycott, not rant online”.

Ekim Burgers’ Mike Duffy had a death wish. Enough said.

And Peter Calder concluded by saying “it takes a good deal more curiosity and persistence than most casual browsers and surfers employ to separate the wheat from the chaff”. Fair point. Sort of.

Well I may well be an “unqualified” restaurant reviewer and I’m certainly unpaid but we amateurs have a role to play and are entitled to our (reasonable) opinion and to express it responsibly.

So how are we doing? Out of interest I checked on Zomato what customers are saying about Molten. Still averaging 4 out of 5. More interesting is Trip Advisor where 77 reviews yielded 82% excellent or very good and 1 terrible.

Interesting that the legendary Prego scores 4.3 out of 5 on Zomato and 245 reviews on Trip Advisor produce a score of 4.5, an 86% excellent or very good rating and there were 3 terribles. Quelle horreur!

So I checked out the big daddy of them all, The French Café, and found a Zomato rating of an excellent 4.7 and a Trip Advisor score of 4.5, with a 93.4% excellent or very good rating and 6 terribles. Sacre bleu!

My point?

You can’t please all of the punters all of the time. Not very original I know – but true nonetheless. Once in a while even the best are going to get it wrong. C’est la vie.

And negative reviews? See them in context; they represent less than 5% of opinion!

So what are the “professionals” getting all hot and bothered about? Beats me! But one things for sure, we “amateur” reviewers are here to stay.

Bon appetit. And by the way you can check out what Poncentric is up to at www.poncentric.com and https://www.facebook.com/poncentric

Good Old Fashioned Service

This is my column from the May Ponsonby News. Apologies in advance for the length of it and also for the lack of photos to break up the longish narrative!

I don’t know about you but I have this thing about service at cafes and restaurants I frequent. I have an expectation based on what I call “old fashioned service”. But it isn’t old fashioned at all and I’m not sure the “old fashioned” when it comes to customer service was better or worse than service today. Perhaps I have a yearning for what I perceived to be service in the good old days!

But the reality is, be it then or now, service quality can be very variable across all types of businesses even though with my writing I’m more inclined to focus on eateries of all shapes and sizes.

If I was to choose three words that summed up what I expect from service providers, and it’s not just at cafes and restaurants, they would be quality product, empathy and helpfulness. Actually there’s also courtesy, pleasantness and appreciation. Ok, six words – that add up to “customer satisfaction”!

That’s why we are drawn back to some cafes and restaurants and not others, in fact to any business. Self-evident it may well be but why do so many “retailers” not deliver the service we expect, let alone exceed our expectations. Why do they not get it?!

And because Poncentric is all about focusing on the positive I’m going to try and write this column without naming and shaming!

Actually in my experience, and talking about eateries, I’ve found the variability is often less about the food and more about the other elements – or their absence.

So what do we do if we have good or bad dining experiences? Well in the old days the only real avenue we had to praise or critique was word of mouth.

There was lots of research on how many people we tell about bad experiences versus good experiences – we tell many more about the bad than we do the good. Research by American Express revealed that on average we tell 15 people about positive experiences and 24 people about poor experiences. Granted this was research undertaken in 2012 in the US but it’s hard to imagine that kiwi customers will be any different, then and now.

What’s changed of course is the emergence of social media and review sites. These days it’s not just a dozen people we tell about good or bad experiences, it can be 100s or 1000s. Social media and its immediacy, its real-time impact if you will, has placed significant power, and responsibility, in the hands of the customer.

With instruments such as Instagram we now can, and I frequently do, post photos and comments on the spot, from the table. And of course an Instagram post will inevitably be “shared” on Facebook – well that’s what I do, but only if I’m having a pleasurable experience. This sort of reviewing on social media is a reality of our times.

There is much debate on this subject with both professional reviewers and restaurateurs joining the debate. There are those who would challenge the “new” critics as being unqualified to pass judgement. This may be so in some instances but it is a reality and it’s not going to go away.

There are those who would suggest that such reviewers can have a negative impact on these businesses. Well I regularly check out such sites as Trip Advisor, Yelp, Zomato, Menus.co.nz, Dine Out, Metro Eats to name but a few and by far the majority of reviews are positive. And many I take with a grain of salt. So I suggest that business owners embrace the new order and turn it to their advantage because it’s not going to go away.

Providing service that exceeds expectations and builds customer loyalty is a key component of the success of many establishments.

And isn’t it interesting that the most successful and long established eateries are, to me, the ones that not only have consistently excellent food but also consistently exceed my expectations in terms of service. I emphasis the word ‘consistently’ here.

To be honest if I have one gripe about restaurants generally it is with their “front of house” staff particularly with respect to the “maître d” or manager role. Call me old fashioned (there I go again!) but my best dining experiences have been those where the maître d has been “visible”; where they have acknowledged our presence and engaged with us in at least some modest form.

I don’t have high expectations but it would be nice if at least once during the meal the maître d would approach your table and enquire whether everything is ok. Not an unreasonable expectation I’d have thought. Common sense in terms of satisfying the customer and building loyalty don’t you think. And yet how often does it happen – not very, I hear you say.

A case in point. We dined for the first time at a local eatery recently. Food was good, service was reasonably attentive, but it bugged me that over the two hours we were there no one approached the table and asked us if everything was ok. The difference between coming close to meeting our expectations and exceeding them, of “delighting” us. Will I go back – maybe!

And on the subject of front-of- house, two stand-out maître ds in my experience are Brandon at Prego and Armando at Gusto Italiano in Three Lamps. I know there are others but in my experience these two stand out. They are “visible” and will almost certainly warmly “engage”. And yes there are more, but there are many who don’t. Ask yourself: when was the last time I was amazed and delighted by the service I received and pleasantly surprised that the maître d engaged my table?

Gusto Collage

 

A reader of my last column commented to illustrate the point: “I think exceptional hosts, and they’re often owner-operators, are a big part of ‘standing the test of time’ – people who make you feel special, and who are attentive”.

And it’s a two-way street – meaning it’s not only about the customers. Brandon Lela’ulu from Prego had this to say: “You know, there’s such a thing as a ‘professional customer’ too. Like any interaction/connection in life, having an understanding of other people and communication allows for everybody to walk away smiling….the guest and the host”. How true.

Prego Selection

 

So I’ll leave the final word on the subject to Brandon who won the prestigious 2014 Lewisham Award’s Best Maître d’ award.

Brandon says floor service comes down to enriching guests’ experience and caring about what you’re doing. “When I dine out, I want to be looked after by ‘real people’. I don’t want a robot handling my food,” he says.

“An average meal can be improved by a warm, genuine smile, and robots aren’t programmed to do that. If something goes wrong, the real test of quality is in the solution. Having someone who cares is a huge part of the dining experience for me. I will always feel ripped off without that.”

Interesting how Brandon bases his service philosophy on what he expects as a customer. No punches pulled here! Now if only we could get all businesses to adopt this philosophy.

Don’t you just love Ponsonby? And by the way you can check out what Poncentric is up to at www.poncentric.com and https://www.facebook.com/poncentric

Ponsonby Road Eateries: So much choice, so little time

I’ve starting writing a column for Ponsonby News so thought I would “post” my column on Poncentric. It’s quite long but worth the journey!

So much is written about the eating establishments in Ponsonby. There is so much choice, so little time!

There are at least 85, yes 85!, eateries on the strip alone catering for cheap(er!) and quick to finer dining. From Ponsonby Food Court to SIDART every taste and budget is catered for. And I love the way that the various eateries are really onto it. Just today I see that old favourite Prego is promoting a dozen bluff oysters for $22 served au naturelle – as they should be apparently – although I am rather partial to the tempura treatment!

Prego Oysters

Prego Oysters

So, of the 85 eateries, 15 have been reincarnated in the last 2 years – that’s almost a 20% churn. Not an easy business to be in with more competition than any other business I would think. And I’ve been to 51 of them!! And did you know that starting with Bird & Boy and heading towards Three Lamps there are 14 establishments in a row that sell food. Ok so I included the butchers next to Prego and the Lucky Taco truck that is parked on the other side of Prego but you take my point I’m sure!

And speaking of Prego it is one of two restaurants that have really stood the test of time – SPQR is the other. Prego will turn 30 next year and SPQR has cracked 22 years – a remarkable achievement and testament to the vision, imagination and fortitude of their owners – Kelvin Gibson and Chris Rupe respectively.

If you look for common factors between these two hugely popular restaurants you’ll find it, I think, in their underlying philosophies – imaginative dishes using fresh and seasonal ingredients, simply and beautifully cooked by staff that have been their forever. Consistent high standards of food and service creating a memorable experience and an emotional connection. And of course their longevity has created a loyal constituency that now spans generations.

Whenever I visit these restaurants I’m always torn between the old favourites and the newer dishes and while I have tried the newer dishes on occasion, I’m somewhat inevitably drawn to the old favs. Isn’t that why we go back, again, and again?

Another contributing factor to their success I suspect is the extent to which they have embraced social media. Many of the eateries on the strip have an active social media strategy where we are bombarded, and pleasurably so, with photos of the delectable and the divine; enticing us to try them. Here’s a selection! Clockwise from left: Dizengoff plum cake, Mekong Baby curry, Ponsonby Road Bistro steak and yummy potatoes, Gusto Italiano bruschette (the best) & calamari.

Collage 2

And I wanted to comment on another aspect of the dining options on the strip. There are two, what I would call, food halls on Ponsonby Road – not wishing, of course, to denigrate either by calling them food halls. The Ponsonby International Food Court, to give it its full title, is, in my experience, a most satisfactory destination for a quick meal. Granted it is an older style “food hall” but the eclectic range of high quality food on offer surprises and satisfies. I’ve never had a bad dining experience there and we would go at least once a fortnight.

And weren’t we all pleased to see that grotty old building on the corner of Richmond Road morph into the fabulous Ponsonby Central with its wonderful array of fine eateries – Blue Breeze Inn, Burger Burger, Dantes Pizzeria, Tokyo Club, Toru, Chop Chop, Foxtrot Parlour, Bedford Soda & Liquor, El Sizzling Chorizo and Maldito Mendez. I love them all.

And here’s a selection of treats (from top clockwise): Gorgeous assortment from Blue Breeze Inn, Foxtrot Parlour best pies (sorry about the photo but I only remembered to take it after I started haha), Burger Burger but of course.

Collage 3 PC

And now for a bit of history. If my memory serves me well, an early trip to Ponsonby Road for us was to dine at the famous Ivan’s.

Ivan’s was a casual restaurant, located where Chapel Bar & Bistro now is, which operated between 1964 and 1995. It offered simple, affordable food like sausages, steak and chips, eggs and buttered white bread right up until it closed in 1995. I can still taste the half a dozen battered oysters I had as a side dish with my steak, eggs and chips!

Yes some of you might remember Ivan’s but do you recall what came next before Luke Dallow opened Chapel in 2005! Well let me help. Ivan’s closed in 1995 and up popped the Anglesea Grill which had an 8 year run before being replaced by Charlie White’s for a short time and then it was transformed into Chapel.

So I got a bit interested in the history of Ponsonby Road restaurants and in researching this topic I came across a fantastic post by Jesse Mulligan on his Auckland Food Blog from June 2011 titled Auckland’s Best Restaurants, August 1980. Jesse’s post was based on a list of Auckland restaurants provided to him by an old corporate colleague.  The list was dated August 1980. I’m not sure if the list was conclusive; perhaps it only included the top end as it was compiled to inform the corporate lunch set back then! Notwithstanding that caveat, according to the list there were only 11 restaurants on Ponsonby Road.

Goodness me hasn’t the landscape changed. The names are very evocative of the era and include some very (in)famous eateries – Toad Hall where Prego is, Bronze Goat where Mad Mex currently is on the corner of Pollen St, Carthews where Tin Soldier now is, Deerstalker on the site currently occupied by the recently opened Ponsonby Workingmen’s Club, Oblios where Bolliwood is now, Orsinis in the now beautifully restored Allendale House on the corner of Crummer Street (now home to the ASB Community Trust) and Wheelers at the current Freeman & Grey address. And not to mention Bistro 260, Café 161, L’Escargot D’Or and Pabulum rounding out the 1st Eleven. Just writing this I am slightly overwhelmed by the memories of what were iconic restaurants of their time.

Don’t you just love Ponsonby. And by the way you can check out what Poncentric is up to at www.poncentric.com and https://www.facebook.com/poncentric