Could I be a restaurant reviewer?
By late yesterday afternoon, after a day out (admittedly being pampered and then a long lunch with a friend) and perhaps more importantly after a restless night the night before that saw me spending several bleary-eyed hours in front of the computer in the wee small hours, I was feeling exhausted. So by 7 pm the last thing I felt like doing was going out. But my husband had booked a restaurant I had wanted to try for ages, and it was a special occasion, so I spruced myself up and prepared for the evening. Just minutes after the taxi dropped us in Marjoribanks (pronounced Marjh-banks) St, the champagne was being poured. I could smell it – the promise of another, more sophisticated, more exciting, and perhaps most importantly, more energetic world. We examined the colour (it was a rosé), and the size of the bubbles (c’est très important), and then, ahhh bliss, we sipped. Immediately I felt restored and ready for the evening, and for the gourmet treats about to be received. And what treats there were.
The restaurant has an excellent reputation. A tiny two-storey building, with quaint wooden window frames looking out onto a busy street, it has been the home of one of the country’s top restaurants before. But since the sad end of the Roxborough Bistro (sad for the patrons, not for the owners), we had not returned. How foolish we were to delay.
The maitre d’ recently won restaurant personality of the year, and we could see why. Equally, all his waiters were charming, quirky, individual, and utterly professional. We jumped at the suggestion that we leave the wine matching to them. After all, it was going to be impossible to choose a bottle when our entrees* were delicate scallops (me) and cured chorizo and salamis (him), and our main courses duck and chicken. And neither of us felt like making a decision. When my husband expressed surprise at the wine waiter’s suggestion of a glass of sherry with his appetiser of Spanish tapas, the waiter laughed, nodded, and said “when I started working here, I thought only my nana still drank sherry!” And he proceeded to pour an amontillado sherry that went perfectly with the tapas platter of chorizo, fennel salami, boquerones (fresh filleted anchovies in garlic, lemon and olive oil), olives, and shot glass of white almond soup. Considerately, they provided two shot glasses of soup – knowing that I would want to try it too. My favourite chardonnay producer, Man O’ War, provided the crisp, fresh pinot gris that went perfectly with my Whangamata scallops in a cauliflower purée. Then more delights – sage chicken wrapped in prosciutto (him) and a glass of tempranillo (his favourite after drinking it all around Spain a few years ago), and for me a buckwheat galette of slow cooked duck with grilled asparagus, a beetroot relish, and a glass of Bordeaux. The roast potatoes my husband insisted on ordering were so crispy and rich, they must have been cooked in duck fat. We didn’t ask, though, because the guilt of knowing about all that fat would have been overwhelming.
By then we were feeling rather full but, let’s face it, on a special occasion desserts are compulsory. Besides, I can usually manage to squeeze in a dessert, a little taste of something sweet to end a delicious meal. A cheese board would have been my undoing, but the small chocolate and hazelnut cannoli with ricotta sorbet and Marsala soaked figs was perfect. So was the raisiny, unctuous sticky red wine served with it. That first taste of the rich creamy chocolate saw my appetite return with a vengeance. Each mouthful was a delight, to be savoured, slowly, wishing that the taste and texture of the chocolate cream spreading over my tongue, the crunch of the cannoli, the richness of the fig, and the cold, tart, ricotta sorbet would never end. At the same time my husband drooled over his trio of chocolate truffles, and we each proclaimed ourselves the winners of the who-orders-best competition.
It took a long time for us to get to Ambeli, but it will not take us nearly so long to return. We just have to lose the weight and pay off the credit card.
* Note for Americans: Entrees are precisely that – the entry point or starter to the meal, not the main course.