The cray and chips. Photo / Babiche Martens

Jesse Mulligan Reviews The Cav In His Quest For Decent Pub Grub

Jesse Mulligan laments on the serious lack of great pub grub in Auckland after a visit to The Cav

Cuisine: Gastropub
Address: 68 College Hill, Ponsonby
Phone: (09) 376 4230
Drinks: Fully licensed
Reservations: Accepted
From the menu: Lettuce cups $19.95; Korean hawker roll $23.95; chicken corn waffles $27.5; cray and chips $39.95; green beans $7.95
Rating: 14/20
Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss. 13-15 Good, give it a go. 16-18 Great, plan a visit. 19-20 Outstanding, don’t delay.

As the torrent of new restaurant openings slows to a trickle through winter it’s a good time to look around at what we’ve got, and what we’re missing.

Auckland is well served with fine dining food: Clooney, French Cafe, Sidart, and Kazuya together provide more than enough choice for the decreasing number of people looking for a formal, precise night of culinary perfection. We have a genre-busting world-class restaurant in Pasture; then a number of great, great eateries in that one-step-down-from-white-tablecloths space: Masu, Cibo, Amano and about 20 others where you know things will be almost flawless.

READ: Jesse Mulligan Reviews A Ponsonby Classic 

We have a bunch of fun bistros and more casual setups: Coco’s Cantina, Cotto, Orphan’s Kitchen, Depot. A big heavy sackful of fantastic Asian-fusion options: Azabu and Hello Beasty are the best, but you’ll eat well at a dozen others.

The Cav is located on College Hill. Photo / Babiche Martens

As I scratch around looking for gaps it’s hard to point at anything in particular: perhaps an authentically wonderful Spanish restaurant in the style of London’s Moro or Melbourne’s MoVida? Or a ground-breaking indigenous project like Wellington’s Hiakai? Those would be great, but I reckon what we need most desperately is a pub where they take the food very seriously.

READ: Jesse Mulligan Reviews Sandringham's Most Loved Curry House

The Cav should be that pub but the menu is a bit slack. It was designed by ex-Euro chef Eugene Hamilton but Google tells me that was more than five years ago now and I think it needs more love. Too many chips, not enough clear direction, too few meals that make your mouth water. You can eat well here, but it’s not good enough to make it your first choice. That’s what a gastropub should be: a bar that cooks meals so delicious that you would regularly choose it for dinner ahead of a proper restaurant.

The chicken and waffles are tasty and this is one of the only places in Auckland that offers this soul food classic. It turns out that sweetness goes very well with fried chicken, and cooked batter is a great vehicle for savoury spice. Plus everything tastes better with a waffle texture (sorry but it’s science, I don’t make the rules).

The hawker roll. Photo / Babiche Martens

From the hard-to-stuff-up to the what-were-they-thinking: the cray and chips is bad. The batter is twice the size of the crayfish tail inside, which you can’t taste due to that oily coating.

There’s a “healthy food” insert paper-clipped to the front of the menu which only makes you think twice about the deep-fried stuff getting top billing. We ordered the iceberg lettuce cups, served with a serviceable spicy chicken mince but they hadn’t dried or drained the lettuce head after washing it so everything was wet.

The eating environment is very pleasant — you’d almost say it was a dining room first and a bar second — and the staff are lovely. The Cav could be something great but it’s not there yet.

The pub's menu was designed by ex-Euro chef Eugene Hamilton. Photos / Babiche Martens

If you read Kim Knight’s review in Canvas you probably know a lot of the above already. By chance we both ended up at The Cav on the same week and I don’t think you need two full reviews of a kitchen in the middle of the pack. So I decided to visit somewhere else too. Viva reader Cathy emailed me at the perfect moment to recommend The Horse and Trap, a pub with some history near the train tracks in Mt Eden.

READ: Jesse Mulligan Reviews Avondale's Newest Gastropub

“We find the food there so nice and think they deserve some publicity”, said Cathy, and she was right on both counts. I dropped in on a Sunday for their weekly roast, offered with a special deal where kids eat for free with an adult. They must have thought I was a real grifter when I walked in with three children but they didn’t flinch and showed me to a table with a puzzle page and a set of coloured pencils.

The dining room. Photos / Babiche Martens

The roast (lamb this time) was delish with root veges, a hot brown gravy and mint sauce. Meanwhile, the kids ate fish and chips (the battered gurnard tasting three times as good as the Cav’s poor cray) and I looked through the menu at what I might order next time. North Indian chicken masala! Thai red lamb curry! These were just the sort of random-but-makes-sense pan-Asian meals I used to most look forward to on a winter trip to the pub in London. I bet they taste great too. Check them out and let me know.

READ: Jese Mulligan Discovers The Spiciest Dish Ever In Parnell

In my quest for some decent pub grub I’ve also been recommended the Portland Public House in Kingsland and Auckland stalwart Galbraith’s, opposite the Power Station. But I still reckon there’s a gap in the market for a big name chef to open their own place. Until they do I reckon I’ll eat at the Horse and Trap.

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