Eating out: Black Betty
I wanted to love Black Betty. There it sat, on a cold Wednesday night, a funky beacon of hope on one-way Madras St in a battered inner-city spot that's slowly coming back to life.
Black Betty opened as a new cafe and coffee roastery in a converted old warehouse just weeks before the February 22 earthquake. The building rode out the quake just fine, and the cafe was back up and running a couple of months later. Recently, Black Betty moved into the evening dining arena. It's a great back story and it felt right on the night.
The decor and atmosphere are studiously rough and ready. You get exposed beams, sacks of coffee beans along the walls, unmatched chairs, and wait staff in black Ts. The table was an old door with a glass top and coins scattered under the glass.
What I wanted was to be caught misjudging the humble background - expecting the average-amateur and wowed when I got outstanding. Unfortunately Black Betty had not read my script this night.
There were highlights, but too many disappointments suggested a lack of technique in the open-plan kitchen behind the coffee machine.
Good news first: great coffee. They are passionate about it and the atmosphere really lends itself to savouring a great brew so fresh you can walk 10 metres and see where the beans were roasted.
A salad of greens and crunchy pre- sprouted beans that appeared during the evening was excellent, with a lovely tangy dressing.
Our dessert was a shared chocolate mousse cake, served warm, with berry sauce and icecream. It was intense, moist and moreish and the whole dish showed lovely balance. "The highlight," we said in unison after one bite each.
But . . . a bacon-wrapped scallop entree fell flat. The four small scallops were each wrapped in a full length rasher of thick bacon that was so long it had to go around the scallop twice. This meant a crisp bacon outside layer, an inner layer of white flabby under- cooked bacon, and finally a barely warm, nearly raw scallop.
The heavy-coating approach reappeared with the fish of the day - blue cod fillets covered in a thick jacket of crumbs and herb flakes. Though the fish was cooked, the coating had not been cooked out so you got a sort of mushy crumb mouthful with each bite of fish.
A coffee-influenced tangy sauce with the huge entree of pork belly ribs was good, but the ribs were simply a pile of pallid bones joined together. The sauce and ribs had only met other at plating up stage. "Sticky ribs" should have the sauce and ribs cooked together in some way.
We tried the hot rocks gimmick. You cook the meat yourself on a super- heated brick brought to your table. It is the only way to get a steak meal. I asked the waiter if they would cook a steak in the kitchen for diners who did not want DIY. Yes, he said, but only on quiet nights.
We got the quattro hot rocks - a small piece each of rump steak, lamb rump, pork and chicken breast. It is suggested you cut and slice the meat as it sizzles away to cook it the way you like. But I did not like cutting into raw chicken and pork with the knife I also had to use to eat. The accompanying bearnaise and mushroom sauces lacked presence and flavour. However, the lovely green salad was back.
The enthusiastic young wait staff are excellent. We had a wonderful laugh at the till about making up a story to explain the Black Betty name (they get asked all the time and do not know why it is called that) and the prices are reasonable.
With the CPIT custom just over the road, Black Betty might need to pitch itself as a good-value dining spot.
But even at that price level, the kitchen needs to go up a gear to take the evening dining scene seriously.
Where: 165 Madras Street When: Evening dining to 9.30pm, Tues to Sat
Cost: Starters $9.50-$14.50; mains, $20-$29; desserts, $9.50
Upside: Great atmosphere
Downside: The bacon scallops
Go again? For coffee and brunch