Review: The Engine Room, Northcote Point
Phone: (09) 480 9502
From the menu: Twice-baked goat cheese souffle $24, Ricotta & buckwheat gnocchi $22, Steak frites $26, Duck confit $36, Quince tart $16, Profiteroles $16
Drinks: Fully licensed
If I had to explain the concept of "going out for dinner" to someone who, for whatever reason, didn't have the slightest idea of what it involved, this is what I'd tell them:
It's one of the best things you can do. When you arrive at "the restaurant" someone greets you with such warmth and loveliness that you'll wonder if you know them from somewhere else.
Then they'll show you to your table and don't worry about feeling weird or worried that you don't know what to do, because they'll look after you every step of the way. Other diners, some in groups, some just two, occasionally even single diners at the counter if the restaurant has one, are likely to be beaming with happiness, or at the least, showing signs of quiet satisfaction.
Once you've sat down, a waiter will ask you what you'd like to drink and they won't make you feel at all bad for not ordering bottled water, and they'll happily help you out with choosing a wine to suit your tastes.
A menu will let you know what the chef is cooking tonight and it will be the most amazing food ever. Good, honest, uncomplicated food and you might even see some things on there that you like to cook at home, like steak and chips or schnitzel and slaw, but I guarantee it will be the finest version of the dish you've ever encountered.
The scotch steak will glisten with streaks of colour on the outside that will tang on your tongue with the flavour of dark caramel. The chef will have generously placed two discs of chilled maitre d'hotel butter on top of the juicy meat and by the time it arrives at your table, it'll have started to melt, running like a river over the perfectly cooked steak with its flecks of parsley and hints of lemon. And the chips, they call them "frites" here, will be incredibly crisp but without being dry or even a tiny bit greasy, if you know what I mean.
The menu will also with be peppered with less familiar dishes, ones you won't even have dreamed of. A duck leg may come with a salad of roasted pumpkin, couscous and olives bound together with a dollop of cool and creamy labne. Fresh mint leaves will be scattered over the top while a smooth cauliflower puree underpins it and every mouthful will have your taste buds darting all over the place in one happy frenzy of joy. Somehow, someone also knew it would be a good idea to add a splash of pomegranate vinegar over the dish to rescue you from any unnecessary fattiness from the duck.
Perhaps you'll begin with one of their classics, a twice-baked goat's cheese souffle, and the richness might knock you out, but, get back up again, because there are dishes of salmon tartare and ricotta and buckwheat gnocchi which mustn't be missed because they're littered with imagination; musky Jerusalem artichokes, pureed and crisped, brittle fried sage leaves, olives and a hit of shaved pecorino, or maybe parmesan, to sharpen it all up.
Are you starting to get the picture? You can't go wrong and you'll soon run out of superlatives talking to whoever you're dining with and that's when you'll fall silent and enjoy soaking it all in; the hubbub in the open kitchen, the way the wait staff move effortlessly around the dining room but seem to have eyes only for you, the music that's loud enough to mask your neighbours' words but not their tinkling laughter, the new arrivals who bustle in and break into a smile immediately because you can't help it in places like this.
Desserts may seem like a step too far after the magnificence of all that savoury cuisine but you won't be able to resist and, besides, going out for dinner is not a time to show restraint. Order whatever you like; profiteroles stuffed too full with icecream and too large to eat easily, but who cares; a quince tart so sweet you'll wonder how your teeth aren't aching by the end of it - perhaps the poached pear saved the situation.
It will be a place you'll want to linger in, clinging to the pleasantness of it all, revelling in the buzz and hum around you, whirling with the dance of dining out. And if I were to be asked where to find such a place, that would easy. The Engine Room. It's where you feel something very good just happened.