"Are you guests in the hotel?" asked the maitre d' at the Portlander.
It's a pertinent question, because I can't see that anyone other than a tourist would eat here. Firstly because this steak house is hidden away in the obscurely located Rydges hotel, and secondly because most locals would baulk at these eye-watering prices. A steak here costs anything up to $52.50 – and that's just for the bare piece of meat. Add the cost of your spuds and greens and your main course could set you back more than $70.
Compare this with the top-priced mains at Logan Brown ($45.50), Whitebait ($39) and Hippopotamus ($48), and the conclusion is that Portlander is expensive.
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My $19 beef carpaccio was more the ghost version, in that it was barely there. Yes, carpaccio should be sliced thinly, but these were almost translucent – and unpleasantly grey around the rim. There were a few tiny dots of the promised truffle cream, but no sign of any peppery horopito. A couple of forkfuls and it was gone.
"I don't think I'd have ordered this entree if I'd realised you only get two scallops," said my guest of the pork and scallops ($21). The pork was stringy, the crackling didn't crackle and the pear puree was another token dot.
The lamb on this menu, we are told, is raised on Palliser Bay Station – "and each lamb is hand selected by our chef". Really? He must lead a hectic life, rushing between kitchen and stock yard, fondling each beast to assess muscle conformation. But he still didn't manage to pick a particularly tender back strap for me, despite cooking it sous vide. Then it was served cold, with random strands of hay I eventually learned were the desiccated shoots of baby green and yellow carrots. These roots had been roasted so long they tasted of nothing much, so I had to ask a passing waiter what I was eating.
For all the hype, the Wakanui eye fillet "90 day grain finished, Angus and Hereford free range Canterbury cattle" wasn't up to much. I've had tastier steak at the Petone RSA/Workingmen's Club, for a quarter of the price. But I will say the port jus was concentrated and the side of hand-cut chips had been competently parboiled and then had their edges roughed up prior to deep-frying. The other side dish, brussels sprouts (which nudged up the cost of this main to $55) was overwhelmed by bacon.
Desserts were being prepared by a chef out in the dining room. The old school icecream sundae sounded just that, and while a huge slab of chocolate cake standing uncovered on a bench looked vaguely disconcerting, we were even more discouraged from ordering the creme brulee by the columns of smoke arising from the chef's blowtorch.
So if the food is more three star than five star, how else might such prices be justified? Certainly not by the faceless decor, which is how you'd expect a corporate hotel restaurant to look – although it has to said that in recent years they've improved the outlook onto the pig-ugly traffic lanes of Whitmore St by blocking the view with foliage.
The professional service is another saving grace, and the wine list is impressive, ranking among the best in Wellington. While the 200-strong selection is commendably democratic (by the glass starts at $8.50) perhaps a more appropriate accompaniment to the $55 venison short loin might be a bottle of Penfolds Bin 62 2008, at $1720.
Rydges Hotel, cnr Whitmore & Featherston Sts
Ph: 498 3762
Open 7 days for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Price range of mains: $35-$55
Cost: $160 for two (excluding wine)
Wine list: ★★★★★
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