REVIEW: As unemployment and economic uncertainty worsen, restaurant diners appear to be retreating into well-worn cocoons.
How else might we explain the resurgence of the 1970s steakhouse?
Earlier this year, Queenstown's Botswana Butchery set up a satellite in Auckland, and now Simon Gault is about to riposte with a satellite Jervois Steakhouse in Queenstown.
Thankfully a fashion never returns in exactly the same form, and today's high-end steakhouses are a far cry from the likes of Big Tex and The Eatin' Post, where T-bones were plonked on oval plates with a dab of coleslaw and a foil-wrapped baked potato.
Leading the nouveau steakhouse pack is The Grill at Auckland's SkyCity Central, winner of Cuisine's 2012 Restaurant of the Year.
Here in Wellington, no fewer than three camp followers have popped up this year: Artisan steakhouse at the Bolton Hotel, the Portlander grill at Rydges Hotel and more recently Charlotte Steakhouse and Grill.
"Sire, pray savour the buttocke of beefe and serving harlots within", its quaint Gothic sign seems to imply.
Housed in an elegant 1922 mansion at 201 Cuba St (from 1958 to 1990 the legendary Orsini's) this ought to be a prime site.
In practice however, seven restaurants have come and gone since Orsini's closed; Kinara, the previous incumbent, lasted less than a year.
Each successive venture has left its mark.
From Orsini's, Charlotte inherits its best treasure, an enormous French-style gilt mirror. From Kayu Manis (2010-2011), Charlotte has acquired both its swish jacquard-upholstered dining chairs and a marble roti-making bench, now redundant.
Surprisingly, Charlotte allows BYO, which significantly offsets what might be an expensive night out. My bottle of Cloudy Bay Te Wahi Pinot Noir 2010 impressed our personable French waiter, almost as much as its intensity and complexity delighted me.
As with any steakhouse, Charlotte's menu is a paean to red meat; the range of specialty steaks now on the market - grass-fed, grain-fed and wagyu - is all reflected in the menu, but there's much else besides: seafood, fish, lamb, pork and duck.
The Charlotte Tasting Plate provided a reasonable cross section.
"Seared scallop, cauliflower puree & lemon beurre blanc; Grilled Wakanui grain-fed beef flap with salsa verde; Slow cooked pork belly, crackling & apple puree."
The scallops were fine. Having been cooked medium rare, the beef flap was predictably chewy (but I don't mind that - at least it was tasty) and the salsa verde had zing. The pork belly, too, was good, although the puffy crackling seemed like a commercial product - crunchy but tasteless and dry.
Considering the small portion sizes, $29 for this tasting plate seemed excessive.
Paying $55 for a 250 gram wagyu steak might sound outrageous too, but actually that is suspiciously cheap. There's a lot of extremely mediocre Australian wagyu on the market now.
To avoid disappointment, I steered my guest towards the $40 Wakanui sirloin, 90 day grain-finished and aged for three weeks.
I'd like to report that this was juicier and tastier than a standard (and far cheaper) grass-fed sirloin, only it arrived medium and hence verging on dry - despite having been ordered medium rare.
This being a steakhouse, I deducted a full star from Charlotte's rating.
Thankfully, the accompanying bearnaise sauce was correct, as was my main of braised duck leg, arancini, young carrot and shallots. Not wildly exiting, but hard to fault.
Apart from a dry vol au vent case (which I suspect had been bought in) the components of our shared Charlotte Dessert Tasting Plate - a tiny fruit crumble, a creme caramel, a vol au vent filled with apple puree - were also competent.
The surprising highlight of our meal was a bowl of chips.
Double cooking of chips is standard industry practice, but here you can order them triple-cooked. These mahogany monsters are most intriguing: unusually thick and crunchy on the outside, yet surprisingly, still moist in the middle.
Might this be the next level for hand-cut chips?
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Grilled Prawn with Sauce Vierge Sauce Vierge is an enduring legacy of 1980s nouvelle cuisine. Vierge is French for virgin, meaning the ingredients – peeled tomato concasse, fresh herbs, olive oil – are uncooked. It's the perfect accompaniment to the prawn skewers served here, lifting their flavour without overpowering.
CHARLOTTE STEAKHOUSE & GRILL
201 Cuba St Ph: 385 6869. Fully licensed and BYO. Open Tues-Sun, brunch and lunch 10am-5pm, dinner 5pm-late.
Price range of mains: $25-$55
Cost: $147.50 for two (excluding wine)
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