Be­come one of the reg­u­lars at this venue and share the kitchen dra­mas

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - RESTAURANT - Kim Knight

Ev­ery so of­ten, the in­ter­net throws up a list of food words peo­ple hate.

“Ar­ti­san” is al­ways there. So is “moist” and (go fig­ure) “foodie”. But the one that trips me up ev­ery time is “unc­tu­ous”.

You see it so of­ten. That pork belly was unc­tu­ous. That curated essence of de­con­structed salmon was unc­tu­ous. But go to a dic­tionary and dis­cover that syn­onyms for unc­tu­ous in­clude syco­phan­tic, ob­se­quious, fawn­ing and servile. Unc­tu­ous means “oily” in the most in­gra­ti­at­ing and in­sin­cere sense of the word — and we should prob­a­bly stop us­ing it to de­scribe food.

This is a shame. Morell’s slow-cooked egg­plant with pis­ta­chios and crumbed pea beignets ($17) starter was so de­li­ciously, melt­ingly unc­tu­ous that I would like some more RIGHT NOW. “Too oily,” said James. We did, how­ever, agree on the zuc­chini flow­ers ($16). Al­legedly stuffed with ri­cotta, all I could taste was bland and slightly grainy bechamel in­side a sad and soggy bat­ter. Aw­ful.

Morell has taken over the for­mer Maple Room and the shop be­side it. It has an el­e­gant deco aes­thetic (gleam­ing gold lines and teal vel­vet seats) but the lay­out must have been a chal­lenge.

The main din­ing area is dom­i­nated by a long wall of ban­quette seat­ing that re­quires pa­trons to keep their el­bows in and pre­tend they can’t hear ev­ery sin­gle con­ver­sa­tion at the next ta­ble. It’s a neigh­bour­hood bistro, but, in my opin­ion, neigh­bours are for putting your bins out while you’re away, not pass­ing the salt.

We even­tu­ally found some room of our own. “Do we like seafood?” asked a wait­per­son and I felt the small mus­cles be­hind my eyes tighten be­cause, de­spite the cosy seat­ing ar­range­ments, I had not re­alised she would be join­ing us for din­ner.

I loathe the royal “we”. But I couldn’t sus­tain my grumpi­ness when she flaw­lessly re­cited all the spe­cials, plus the prices (why don’t all res­tau­rants do this?) and didn’t have to check be­fore telling us the Pa­cific raw fish ($19) was snap­per.

The drinks list is long and sus­tain­ably priced. If I lived lo­cally, Morell would tick all the boxes for a smart and easy week­night wine and food out­ing with friends. We were in­ter­lop­ers from the other side of town and I did fear we were un­der­dressed when a woman wear­ing a se­quinned fas­ci­na­tor ar­rived (it was Auck­land Cup Day and some­body from Re­muera was clearly on the home straight).

We re­ally en­joyed a plate of smoked beef carpac­cio ($18) even if we didn’t ini­tially recog­nise the crispy bits on top as the crispy mush­room men­tioned on the menu. This is an ex­cel­lent date night dish. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously hearty and light — or­der it when you want the steak but think a salad would make a bet­ter im­pres­sion.

Screw that. It’s 2018. Or­der what­ever you want. I wanted the beef short-rib ($39). The meat was soft, ge­lati­nous and maybe a word-for­merly-known-asunc­tu­ous. I felt a bit robbed by the ab­sence of bone, but the beef re­ally was gor­geous. Lucky, be­cause an ac­com­pa­ny­ing quenelle of mus­tard cus­tard was freez­ing cold and very firm — an in­ter­est­ing idea that needs more thought­ful ex­e­cu­tion.

Crispy pork belly ($34) was very crispy and very porky. This is the kind of ba­sic by which you can bench­mark a bistro, and Morell de­liv­ered.

The chef is ex-SPQR and the restau­rant man­ager comes via Prego. They have ex­pe­ri­ence in treat­ing reg­u­lars like reg­u­lars and ev­ery­body else like they should be­come one. The vibe is bub­bly, the trans­porta­tion of es­presso mar­ti­nis akin to a free floor show. I felt like a to­tal in­sider when the man­ager came run­ning to our ta­ble and an­nounced, “We’ve just had a shock-hor­ror in the kitchen!”

As it tran­spired, an ab­sence of green beans would not be the night’s big­gest shock hor­ror. We fin­ished with a choco­late mousse and sum­mer berries ($15). Good flavours, but I can never un­see that plate. The mousse was a squashed splodge; a plop of choco­late that looked like some­one had stood in some­thing they shouldn’t have. I had no words.

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