The Grill by Sean Connelly has had some very positive press lately, and as well as a sold-out event showcasing the best of Federal St, their Auckland Restaurant Month set menu looked to be one of the best value. 3 courses and a glass of wine for $45 was on offer and it had been a long while since I’d had a bona fide dinner date. Dinner dates usually make for quite good blogging, so with the help of Jesse Mulligan and twitter, I found myself on a date at The Grill with Brendon.
Brendon is a comedian, and according to both my flatmate and whoever judged the NZ Comedy Festival Best Newcomer Award earlier this year, a very funny one. He does other things apart from comedy, and is clearly awesome because he said yes in the first place. The pre-date email banter was promising, as was The Grill’s menu.
As well as top honours in the latest Cuisine magazine, I had sampled Connelly’s treacle tart at the Auckland Restaurant Month media launch (which, after 10 courses and matched wines that night, was stunning). I had high hopes, but I was equal parts really excited and really nervous. And what do I do when I’m nervous? I talk too much. But more about that later.
We had aimed for Bellota for a drink first - one of the top 5 recipients of the coveted ‘best first drink on a first date’ in Metro back in 2010. But it was closed, so a much less celebrated bar would have to do. After downing my obligatory first date gin, we crossed over Federal St to The Grill.
An early observation was that Sean Connelly of The Grill by Sean Connelly was not at The Grill. However, we were seated in large lush brown leather seats and began with a wine while investigating the menu.
To start there was a choice of a pumpkin salad or a ‘suckling pig terrine’. Upon choosing the pumpkin, Brendon told me he couldn’t do terrine because it reminded him of cat food. ‘Chef’ to be exact. I thanked him for drawing that to my attention, laughed, and ordered it anyway.
This wasn’t a chunky pate like terrine I’d had before; it was softer shreds of pork encased in a crumbed patty. It was great with the celeriac slaw, but both entrees were absolutely doused in a mountain of either parmesan or pecorino cheese. They were great flavour combinations clearly, but someone was a little over-zealous with the microplane.
Although I’d asked him out under the guise of a blog post, panic set in slightly when he started telling me about his successful Comedy Festival hour long show, and the fact it had comprised of years of material, now all used up. It dawned on me that I was potentially comedy fodder for his part-time creative side-career, as he was to mine. I was nervous; first dates, and especially blind dates, really are just a judgey-sussing-each-other-out type situation. I tried to keep the rants to a minimum, and there ended up being lots of good conversation, covering all the usual suspects (music, films, Chinese character tattoos, travel, and food).
His face entirely lit up when the waitress accidentally brought desserts before the mains, and then showed obvious disappointment as she swiftly turned around realising her mistake. I had a self-confessed sweet tooth on my hands, which lead to a in-depth discussion of cakes and muffins and cupcakes and brownies. ‘What kind?’ I asked him, to which he replied ‘all chocolate’ extremely seriously. (I may or may not have been internalising ‘let me bake for you!’ at this point, but I digress).
Anyway, the steaks. They were great. But that’s all they were - a giant hunk of meat, on the bone, beautifully cooked and with a ramekin of horseradish on the side. And how good really can a big beautiful steak be? I mean, great. But we only ordered salad on the side, so dinner was simply meat and lettuce. Crisp cos (pronunciation was pondered: Cos? Coz?) and radish was our lone side. The duck fat potatoes probably would have been a good idea.
A bathroom breather break brought to my attention that this expensive, swanky, steak house - one of NZ’s best restaurants - requires you to leave the restaurant, make a long, brightly lit, tortured walk across a hotel lobby, and into a corner of the building, to use the bathroom. Granted, there’s some of my favourite contemporary NZ art gracing the walls on the journey. But in my humble opinion, you shouldn’t have to cross a large vacuous foyer to get to an impersonal bathroom at one of the country’s best restaurants. They do a lot of things really well though; the service was flawless, for example.
Sometimes on dates, chat about dating will come up, and my internal monologue started screaming “stop talking!” as I accidentally found myself halfway through a dating disaster story involving me pouring a glass of red wine down myself and the dinner table last year. He laughed politely though, and on the whole seemed to be enjoying himself. We found a mutual love of an obscure Scottish band, and there were similarities to our suburban childhoods. He told me about his love of film and how he quit his job and moved to Paris after watching Revolutionary Road a few years ago. We were each partial to a good burger, and the intricacies of scrambled eggs and mousetraps were dissected as we literally sawed through our enormous short rib steaks. The food took a backseat, and I could have kept yarning for hours.
And then came dessert. Even as a self-confessed optimist, Mr Positive showed disappointment. The raved-about treacle tart to him tasted like overcooked sugar, and my creme caramel, which I kindly donated to the sweet tooth disappointment cause, was in fact not set properly. The topping was a pool of liquid rather than a set caramel, so all in all just ok. Not bad, just not up to expectations. The eternal optimist who sees the positive in everything was even able to admit that the meal really did peak at the entree.
The Grill is, I’m sure, a very very good restaurant. A good friend rates their medley of meat dish as one of the best meals he’s had. They just didn’t quite take the opportunity to use a cheap set menu to showcase their best work and entice people back for the full shebang, and maybe they simply don’t need to.
It was a fun night though; good food, great banter, lots of laughs and wine which made it successfully from glass to mouth every time. On that basis alone, I’m calling it a success.