Lauraine Jacobs

Food Writer and Author of Delicious Books


5 November 2014


I am just back from a glorious trip to France and Portugal where I ate loads of fantastic meals. So many, that there were occasional moments when I thought there was a possibility I might explode with all the gustatory delights. But eating is a serious occupation for me, and as my friend international food critic Ruth Reichl recently told me, “We are professionals and it is our job to eat.” Well. Yes. Maybe.

Apart from the highly organised week in Burgundy where we joined a group of eight other wine lovers to explore that region’s wines and food, and ate glorious breakfasts, lunches and dinners every day, we tried to limit ourselves to one good meal daily when on our own. Anyone who travels frequently will know that wandering the streets in the hope of finding a great restaurant is highly likely to end in a disappointing experience. Do the homework before leaving home and just as flights and hotels are booked in advance, think about finding good restaurants in advance. You will never regret making reservations via the internet or via one of the restaurant booking services before you go.

The best value, particularly in Paris, can usually be found at lunch time. Posh restaurants that hold those elusive Michelin stars, the large popular Parisian brasseries and even the tiny family run bistros all offer a fixed price menu at lunch, often at one third or one half of the price of the very same food that appears on the dinner menu. The lunch may be just two or three courses, with the added bonus of a carafe of house wine, but it is a great way to experience fine fare without breaking the bank. We ate so well!

So back in Auckland, where I can assure you we have plenty of restaurants that measure up to international standards, just why are we presented with the very same menu at lunch at the same cost as that offered at dinner? Those Parisian restaurants burst at their seams at lunch yet our fancy places here, on the whole, leave it to café owners to feed us.

Chris Upton, the suave and highly professional owner of one the city gems, O’Connell Street Bistro, has recognised this niche and has gone against the mainstream to offer a set price lunch each weekday (or pre-theatre if you vacate the table by 7.30pm) that is a true bargain, just like those French establishments.

We had only been back a week and I was straight back into my lunchtime touring habit to take advantage of this delicious well-crafted and well-priced food. But first, I was very happy to see that the busy little street has finally after months of s-l-o-w work been finally been re-shaped into a ‘shared space precinct.’ On fine days the food businesses there, including O’Connell Street Bistro, set up outdoor tables on the newly paved street with its lovely nikau palms. The whole area has a terrific feeling about it. You are looking good, central city.

The bistro ‘express menu’ as it is known offers a choice of two entrees, two mains and dessert or cheese. Two courses $39.50 or three for $45. Hey, this is definitely one of the bargains of our city.

A dish to start thrilled me; Northland smoked eel wrapped in pancetta with plump and juicy seared scampi, caramelised apple, black garlic puree & beurre blanc. I love it when chefs recognise good local ingredients and this one made me very proud to be Kiwi who was dining well. To follow, a thick nugget of moist skate with salt cod and agria mash, slow cooked fennel and fresh tomato and caper beurre blanc. It does not get much better than this. A glass of wine as an extra and I had feasted like a gourmet for less than $50.

With that main course Chef Alex Strobach demonstrated his innovation. The skate was terrific; a fish that is rarely if ever seen on menus, and it was perfect. Strobach has headed the kitchen at O’Connell Street for just over two years, and his menu recognises the traditions that are much loved by the local professional business community and a host of long term loyal customers who dine there frequently. Strobach add his own touches seamlessly to the bistro as for almost 17 years Upton has maintained some of the best service, food, and one of the finest wine selections in town.

The menu is fairly succinct, with round just five or six choices of entrée, main and dessert respectively, but every dish is well thought through, perfectly balanced and could be best described as innovative, delicious comfort food.

There was a pappardelle with rabbit on the menu for ever, and Strobach has made it his own by cooking it with wild hare, pancetta and walnuts. He cooks a lovely mushroom dish with three different mushrooms and serves it with celeriac and silverbeet enlivened with hazelnut butter and grated truffles, and his lamb rump with black olive gnocchi and beans and asparagus is almost faultless. Lots of lovely desserts feature too, along with an excellent cheese selection.

And just as there is that democratic ‘express’ menu that gives diners a chance to experience fine fare, Upton raises the stakes at the luxury end of fine dining. The house Champagne is Roederer, and a special Roederer Dinner can be ordered for a group of eight guests or more. (The restaurant boasts the city’s best private dining room that seats up to 20 in a secret space on the corner of O’Connell and Shortland Streets.) Accompanying this very special five course menu are glasses, no less, of four of the Roederer champagnes including the stunning Cristal and a fine red Bordeaux. The cost per head? A mere $230.

It would not be fair to write about O’Connell Street without mentioning the extensive wine list. It has been assembled over the years by Upton, who has an equalled passion amongst restaurateurs for fine wine. The selection of both local and imported wines is lengthy, thoughtful and admirable. And just like the leap from the express menu to the Roederer menu, there is something for everyone. It is a happy place that offers a rose wine at $42, a lovely chardonnay at $55 and a choice of many half bottles (375mls) of both red and white wine. At the other end of the budget a connoisseur might choose a $1400 magnum of exceptional Spanish red wine, or even celebrate with a $6500 bottle of Pomerol Petrus. Heaven forbid, the choice is yours!

Whether it is an intimate dinner, a celebratory occasion, a business lunch or just an opportunity to eat terrific food in a cosseting environment, O’Connell Street with its lovely bar and cosy dining room has it all. And on a hot summer‘s day, a table outside if you wish.

O’Connell Street Bistro, 3 O’Connell Street, Auckland City ph 09 377 1884