I have a weakness. Well OK, several, but this particular weakness relates to steak. If steak Béarnaise is on the menu, I will seldom go past it.
This probably makes me boring and unadventurous. I can feel the kitchen crew yawn as my order is called away. But I know what I like. I like a good steak and, verily, I adore Béarnaise sauce. Tarragon, surely, is something the Almighty created to compensate mankind for other things, like long winters, and bubonic plague.
That so many menus feature some variant on the steak and Béarnaise theme, and have done for so many years, tells me I am not alone.
Above: Venerable Wellington institution, the Boulcott Street Bistro, has featured Fillet Béarnaise on its menu for at least 20 years (left plate right above).
I like my steak rare. It’s an individual thing, a matter of taste. My mother blanches at the sight of pink juices. I, on the other hand, didn’t bother to order a steak for the close to 3 years of my life spent pregnant: if I was going to have to ruin a steak by having it well done, I could ruin it at home at far smaller cost. And if there wasn’t something on the menu that would eat better (to my tastes) than a well done steak, there was really no point dining out.
Nearly well done: but my mum would think twice about the slight blush and the pink juices.
I’m not a fanatic. I will tolerate anything from a very rare steak to one which is bordering on the medium rare. And that’s just as well, because for all their training and putative professionalism, despite the fact that this is what they cook service, after service, after service, many chefs in this country still struggle to get it right.
I realise that I split the town’s eateries into three camps.
There are the reliable – those places where the food is consistently good, you know your steak will arrive just the way you asked for it, and where, if you want to risk something new and don’t like it, you can be confident it’s because you just don’t like the new ingredient, not because it was poorly prepared. The service will be good, sometimes even excellent.
At Jacob Brown’s The Larder in Miramar (just around the corner from Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop) your steak will come just as you like it. The same is true of the Boulcott Street Bistro, where Jacob Brown used to cook and which, in my opinion, had it’s heyday in the hands of chef and former Wairoa boy, Chris Green, now at Abitrageur, and maitre d’ Stephen Morris, former owner of Copita and now of Avida. Likewise, Lyall Bay treasure Elements Cafe does an excellent scotch fillet with duck fat roasted potatoes, broccolini, almonds & bearnaise.
Above: at Arbitrageur; Chef Chris Green in Action. Below: The Browns outside Miramar’s Larder and Lyall Bay’s Elements: Go the Eastern Suburbs
Then there are the less-than-reliable, the places where you order your steak, giving very specific instructions and then hope for the best. Not the best places to try tripe for the first time, no matter how much you support the concept of nose to tail eating.
These are not your first choice for prime nosh, but you are still willing to go, because the service is good (or at least friendly), because overall the food is pleasing, the location is great, the kids like it, you need to meet friends there, or you and your friends are on a budget and the pricing means you are willing to overlook a bit.
A good example is SOI at Greta Point. Last time I went there my steak was over-cooked. They very willingly cooked me another, which, sadly, was just as over-cooked as the first. It was time to give up. I was with a big group, it was just before Christmas. the place was packed, I didn’t want a scene, and it was a “two for” night. The steak was a good size, and still tasty and juicy. I could still enjoy my meal. I smiled, paid up and would still go again. I will still suggest it as a place to meet with friends, because on balance it offers value to the diner, not least of all because of the location. You sit out over the water. I will never forget the evening we were there for a family birthday during an electrical storm with a pod of dolphins swimming past. Magic.
With views like this, you can forgive the odd overdone steak.
Then there are the establishments I will not visit again. On reflection, the fastest way to join this club is through bad service.
My third and final visit to Logan Brown was on a wedding anniversary. The food, as before, was wonderful, but the waiter serving it seemed to take the view that we should be grateful to be able to eat there.
On the previous two occasions (business lunches both) service was remarkably slow. On one of these we had been offered the option of a private space, but nobody mentioned the rather significant room fee until we were at the counter and paying the bill, our guests at our elbows.
It was all years ago and very likely just bad luck, but when it’s a special occasion, I’ve sorted a sitter, spent the afternoon working out what to wear, painted the face, done the hair, changed the outfit, done the hair again, put on shoes designed in defiance of basic engineering principles and am going to be laying out good money, do I want to take a punt on finishing the evening wishing we’d gone for a curry down the street instead?
You don’t need me to answer that one.
This group is not large. On the one hand, there aren’t that many places that have really ticked me off, and on the other, the hospitality industry being nothing if not ruthlessly Darwinian, the ones that do have a habit of going out of business. Sooner rather than later.
Last week the Tinakori Bistro provided an unfortunate exception. This restaurant has been around since Escoffier was learning to dice onions. I’d been there with large work groups, and whilst the service was a little patchy, they coped well enough and the food was enjoyable. On top of that, this is one of the few restaurants of its type where you can order two courses for $30 if your table orders from a smaller “set” menu.
Last Wednesday I met three friends there for dinner. We all have mortgages, it was a casual weeknight meal and the $30 special seemed ideal.
The first problem arose when my companions all wanted main and dessert, while I wanted first course starter. Because there’s nothing worse than everyone having to wait while one or two eat their starter, I figured I could have my main with my friends and would have the squid for dessert, as it were. Not ideal, but it seemed like a reasonable solution.
It troubled our waiter. I explained the timing issue. Would I not rather eat the other way around? Yes I said, on reflection, I would indeed rather have my squid with their main, and my main with the others’ desserts. I hadn’t eaten all day, but reckoned the calamari would carry me through until the others were ready for their cheesecake. It was very early in the evening so it’s not as though they were going to have to keep the chargrill going just for my bit of beef.
Our waiter looked uncomfortable. That might be difficult for the kitchen, he said. Well why ask? As we all know, going out for a meal is all about making dinner easy for the kitchen and waiting staff. Nevermind, the company was sparkling, and a rare steak Béarnaise would soon be sitting right in front of me.
It was, kind of, not very soon, but the wait was reasonable. There was Béarnaise, though not a lot. There was also a steak, rather small. The first cut brought disappointment and a fairly flavourless mouthful. Grey fibers with touches of pink to the centre. Perhaps I had someone else’s medium well steak. Three steaks up on the pass – it’s easy enough to mix up the plates. But no, theirs looked just like mine.
Not the actual steak, but about the same shade towards the right.
I cut another piece to make sure (left on the plate – you don’t send it back after you’ve eaten half, and as noted, it was not a large steak), but no appreciable difference in colour scheme. The waiter brought the last of the vegetables. I was afraid the steak had been overdone, I said, as I handed the plate back to him. I relaxed back into the conversation, taking advantage of the chips whilst I waited patiently for my new, rare steak to come back. By the way, it was either 6 months or they were coming up on 10,000km mark, because the chip fat needed a change.)
Then it happened. The steak came back. The same one. Cut ruthlessly through the absolute middle and unceremoniously turned cut side uppermost, my second piece oddly now missing. Chef, I was told, said it was rare.
In fairness, the very centre was pinker, but still with the fibers fully opaque and cooked through. And, really, you don’t want to have to work your way through a third of the steak to get to the bits that are medium, or, at a push, possibly medium rare?
I should have taken a picture, but who can think rationally at a time like this? Chef, I said, needed to return to Chef school. Did I want the steak or not?, the waiter asked. Nothing like an ultimatum to make the guest feel better. If Chef thought that was rare, I was not going to persuade him otherwise. I told the waiter it wasn’t worth the fuss, set about my now rather cold meal, and vowed never to return again.
Not with the family, and certainly not with my 20 workmates. No, we’ll be eating somewhere else, if I have to cook myself.
And the irony? If I do cook myself, the meat will be very well done. Just the way my team like it.
Left: Steak, rare, the way I like it. Red, but fibers developing opacity. Right: Very rare or bleu (blue), what I often ask for to make sure I actually get it rare. If the waiter looks unsure, I describe it as seared and just heated through, it is distinctly raw in the middle. I only ask for it this way if I know the cut of beef will be beyond reproach.