From the outset O'Connell Street Bistro appears like something of a discreet members only restaurant. Though instead of needing a special handshake or a connection to the upper echelon to enter the building, making a reservation in good time will suffice. Run by proprietor Chris Upton, the restaurant has been in operation for eighteen years, over which it has perfected a seamless hybrid of fine dining and comforting bistro. The amalgamation also attracts a diverse spread of patrons: families, corporates, loved-up couples, and a dedicated brood of regulars.
In support of the modern European bistro vision the staff hover in floor-length white aprons; the slick dining lounge comes with just the right amount of frills - white linen, fresh walls, dim lighting, and the degustation is given the humble title of 'tasting menu'.
Our visit coincides with the arrival of new Head Chef Mark Southon, a UK-trained chef with roots in The Foodstore and The French Cafe. While he's kept classic O'Connell dishes like the rabbit pappardelle and steak tartare, Southon's influence can notably be seen across the tasting menu through refined portion sizes, a heavy focus on local flavours, and his effortless knack for food matching.
All dishes of the five-course dining experience could be a main event in their own dedicated restaurant. There's the indulgent start of the Galactic Gold cheese and potato ravioli; the fresh follow-up of cured salmon with charred pink grapefruit and wasabi crème fraiche; the pan-fried Hauraki snapper with corn puree, buttered prawns, leek and toasted almonds; the perfectly crispy pork belly with vanilla carrot puree and coconut poached celeriac; and the roasted duck breast served alongside caper gnocchi and the left-field addition of a confit duck leg toastie.
Those who opt for the set menu will also be happy to know that there are two desserts. TWO. The first is designed to cleanse the palate and prepare for the banging finish. In this instance it was a balanced combination of fennel sorbet with white chocolate mousse and crunchy caramelised brioche. The masterstroke followed in the form of a dark chocolate and hazelnut fondant, oozing chocolatey magma upon spoon pressure.
Alternatively, there are options like the grazing and express menus for those who would rather have complete control of the meal to be. No matter what the choice, you're in for a good time. Though I do suggest that leave your wine selection in the hands of the servers, they know what they're talking about.
Thanks to the transformation of the street and inclusion of open air pavement dining, O'Connell Street Bistro has finally reached its crest as a full-blown European bistro. And for those looking for that members-only appeal, you can always book out the private dining space.