Lauraine Jacobs

Food Writer and Author of Delicious Books


1 March 2014


Everybody I know who has eaten at Ortolana has been pleased. Pleased with the lovely setting in the centre of the Britomart Square, pleased with the terrific fresh food, pleased with the wine list and drinks (especially the free sparkling water from the tap) and pleased to find a new friendly place to choose breakfast, lunch or dinner from a sensationally simple but excellent menu.

And well pleased they should be. Owners, Jackie Grant and Scott Brown operate at the cutting edge of food. Of all the places in this city to eat, Ortolana comes closest to the superb fresh food I found in many restaurants on my recent trip to San Francisco. Over there I noted that chefs aren’t mucking about in the kitchen, torturing the hell out of the ingredients and fashioning them into something that resembles a scientific experiment on the plate. Instead they take time to connect with artisan food producers and small farmers to find very special produce to work with and present as simply as possible. I spotted chefs trundling through the farmers’ market, buying up terrific farm grown seasonal vegetables and fruits for their restaurants, something I’ve rarely seen here.

Grant and Brown been quietly chipping away at the Auckland hospitality scene, concentrating on opening or revamping fairly casual cafés under their Hip Group brand to offer very good coffee, fabulous fresh food to match and a warm welcome. They have their own gardens out in the west to supply their growing empire with produce, an empire that includes such good places as Richmond Rd Café, Rosehip in Parnell, Takapuna Beach Café, and St Heliers Bistro.

(As an aside, it’s interesting to note the rise and rise of restaurant groups in Auckland. We had the Nourish Group first (Euro, Jervois Steak House, Fish etc) and then along came the Sky City group of restaurants (The Grill, Depot, and the soon to be opened Masu and Peter Gordon’s Sugar Club.) We also have the Pack Group (The Commons, Everybody’s) and we’ve got all those cafés and restaurants supported by Britomart and the Wynyard Wharf lot. All these almost ‘corporatised’ places make it difficult for small operators to be noticed without shouting their little heads off, sadly.)

Ortolana is also successful as it is such a gorgeous place to be. Half of the restaurant is inside in a well designed comfy room with an open kitchen and there’s a lovely courtyard for outdoor eating, complete with plenty of heaters, a soaring glass ceiling and the thoughtful touch of blankets for anyone feeling a little chilly.

The menu is concise and designed for all day eating. If you go for breakfast you will enjoy the best granola ever made with organic quinoa and nuts and accompanied by fresh pears and a yogurt mousse. There’s also ruby grapefruit with demerara sugar, a surprisingly interesting vanilla bean risotto with tamarillo, and a silky crema fritta with rhubarb and macadamia. And that’s just the fruit and cereal section. There’s also a section of five eggy things, including a comforting mushroom and poached egg with porcini polenta, and a romano cheese, brown onion and herb omelette. Breakfast in the suburbs is not like this!

The real strength of the menu is chef Jo Pearson’s stunningly simple creations. She combines ingredients very thoughtfully and everything on the plate looks light, interesting and appetising. One of my favourites is her burrata (very creamy mozzarella) with walnuts, golden raisins and new olive oil. I also love the beetroot lasagnotte with hazelnuts and feta, the market fish crudo and a light-as-air hand made pasta with mushroom, parmesan and topped by a gently cooked egg yolk and lovely microgreens. Most of all I love the way that at the end of the menu there’s a list of the vegetables, herbs and fruit from the Hip group’s farm. Right now that means such interesting stuff as lemon verbena, kohlrabi, savoy cabbage and their own cow’s feta which is creamy and light.

Does all this sound tempting? Too right! But there’s more. Not only does Ortolana set new high standards, the Hip group have an interest in Milse, right next door with frontage on Tyler St. There, talented patissier, Brian Campbell has opened a state-of-the-art dessert store and restaurant with mind-bogglingly beautiful cakes, gateaux, tarts, chocolates and fabulous macarons of every hue and flavour. If you want a sweet ending to your Ortolana experience, the full menu of treats is offered and the waiter just pops next door to pick it up.

Milse offers exclusive dessert dining in the evenings too and it’s the new thing to eat on Ponsonby Rd and then pop down to Britomart for sweet dreams or even a degustation of desserts. During the day (and through the evening) there’s take-out service from the stunning display. There’s even a glass-fronted freezer with an absolute knock-out selection of desserts like Baked Alaska and other gelato cakes. But what has really captured my imagination is the frozen gelato sticks; icy gelato covered in delicious chocolate. The vanilla, chocolate and berry jelly may be the best “jelly-tip” in the world.

So what are the drawbacks? None I can think of, although the policy of no bookings can make life difficult. On the upside, you can front up, put your name on the list, disappear to down a few drinks elsewhere in Britomart and they’ll call you on mobile when your table is ready. Very nice.

Ortolana, 31 Tyler St, Britomart Milse, 27 Tyler St, Britomart

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