Taking over the space of that used to be the historic Ponsonby post office is Augustus Bistro— the new culinary venture of Chris Rupe (of SPQR notoriety) with his daughter Courtney. The eatery has elegantly entered the Ponsonby food scene, quickly establishing itself as a bastion of 'cool'. Paying homage to its historic roots, Augustus was named after 1920 postmaster Augustus Braithwaite and hints of that decade's art-deco glamour permeate the restaurant's calming, minimalistic, fit-out and vibe.
Interior designer Emma Richardson has expanded the space with a generous use of mirrors and natural light, also utilizing a subtle, almost eggshell grey/blue on the walls. Simultaneously, the space is grounded and luxurious, with the floors and bar lined in a dark wood, allowing for intimacy and warmth within the restaurant. Even on a busy evening, each table feels separate from the others, allowing a dining experience where your focus can be entirely on your own party (and not on worrying about the woman with the loud laugh on another table).
The interior flows seamlessly to the exterior garden dining area, landscaped by Andy Hamilton. This is a space where you can make the most of a warm afternoon or enjoy a romantic moonlit dinner in front of the large outdoor fireplace. That indoor-outdoor relationship creates the sense that Augustus is a separate world, and once you step inside, you are cut off from reality for a period, existing in a kind of timelessness.
After sitting down for our lunch service on a relatively quiet mid-week afternoon, I perused the menu. Rupe's penchant for French and Italian food was immediately evident and the dishes appeared decadent but relatively simple. Options include steak tartare and French onion soup as entrees, and variations on standard main dishes, including lamb, risotto and duck. Overall the menu came across well-rounded and diverse, mixing traditional French and Italian elements with interesting, fresh twists. Any questions we had on the various courses were quickly and helpfully dealt with by our waitress, who was efficient and carried out her job with an elegance and calm, befitting the space.
Despite the fact that the menu was designed in consultation with Clooney chef Des Harris, Augustus' food seems to pride itself on its simplicity and heartiness. The tartare was delicate and light, with a beautifully balanced palate of flavours; and after a stolen spoonful of the onion soup, I was transported back to living in Paris. We left the entrees feeling tickled in anticipation for the mains to come.
Our main courses were presented beautifully. The plates were full but cleanly constructed, and the colour combinations used seemed to be as important as the flavour ones. I had the lamb rack, and my meat had obviously been expertly handled by french chef Christophe Carissan. It was tender and flavoursome, and the natural taste of the meat was allowed to shine through as the star. I was left feeling overwhelmed by the amount of sauce drenched around each element on my plate. Toward the end of the meal I could only taste the sauce, and I was left wishing there had been less. My duck-eating friend expressed a similar sentiment, both of us lamenting that it felt a little too much. In contrast, the fish and the risotto were both lighter dishes and seemed to be the better choice for a light lunch meal option.
Augustus has a really good thing going. It is the perfect kind of restaurant for anything from a casual catch-up to a more formal occasion meal. It is a versatile and effortlessly sophisticated restaurant and a truly pleasurable environment to be in. Even a slightly too-rich dish wouldn't be enough to deter me from visiting again. Rupe and his daughter Courtney are clearly a formidable power, and what they've created here is a testament to their understanding of Aucklanders' wants and needs, and how to fulfill those gracefully. I look forward to my next visit.