By Sandy Myhre
It was an impulsive decision. On a miserably wet Sunday, what else could one do but go to lunch? And, since we were in historic Russell in the Bay of Islands, where else to go but the celebrated Duke of Marlborough Hotel that’s been refreshing rascals and reprobates since 1837?
We knew the rascals bit because the tee-shirts worn by all the wait staff said so on the back. In fact, the Duke of Marlborough Hotel sits where the old town’s original pub was, then known as Johnny’s Grog Shop, in what was then known as Kororāreka.
The original grog licence hangs in the bar today. It wasn’t issued until many years after the grog shop came into existence which gives a hint at the town’s bawdy past and why the ostensibly lawless seaside village was once known as the Hell Hole of the Pacific.
It’s not like that now of course, unless a gaggle of politicians are in town which they are apt to be from time to time, especially during an election. The hotel’s backdrop on the Russell foreshore makes a pretty picture if they win, and softens the blow if they don’t. In any event, here it was Sunday and the pleasant waiter welcomed us.
“Are you mother and son?” he asked. “Well, yes,” said the mother. “And if we weren’t, would we be a little more interesting?” she asked expectantly.
He laughed, fortunately, and said to the woman that he had already put her down as ‘Mummy’ on his table list. It was a good guess. It was, after all, Mother’s Day and there were quite a few mummies in the dining room, so to speak. But, bring on the food.
The new winter menu was only introduced a couple of days ago, explained the waiter, so he was keen to hear an opinion. It’s strong on seafood (as you’d expect) leans towards Asian fusion and with a few other eclectic choices thrown in, alongside specific Kiwiana like the kumara bread.
The kumara (a sweet potato native to NZ) bread comes from a bakery in Auckland and as we ordered that as a starter, wondered why it wasn’t baked locally. Why belabour it with a 250-kilometre trip northward?
That aside, we opted for three entree-sized meals to share. Mummy went for the Crispy Fried Peppered Sichuan Calamari, the off-spring opted for the South East Asian Pho and both choose the (raw and marinated) Trevally Grudo.
Whoever wrote the menu knows a thing or two about making dishes sound tasty before they’ve even emerged from the kitchen. So, mummy and son waited with high expectation and satisfied the necessary interval with the local Omata Estate pinot gris which had been sampled generously several times over the past year and declared very palatable indeed.
Without going into the considerable detail numerous restaurant reviews that originate in Auckland seem to contain, the food was great. It was fresh, artistically presented and cooked very nicely. The Duke has a well-earned reputation for high-standard cuisine and the new menu continues that tradition.
Over the past year the restaurant scene in Russell has been enhanced by another high-end eatery six kilometres out of town so local competition has hotted up a bit. The Duke dining experience has rallied like it has for the past 180 or so years and if it had not, it wouldn’t still be there for scoundrels and scallywags to frequent.
Although replete, Mummy and child opted to share an apple and blackcurrant crumble to round off the second Sunday in May and if you need an example of the salivating panache of menu description, try this:
Warmed apple compote/burnt apple puree/toasted oats/ toffee apple/blackcurrant sorbet/custard. It was too enticing not to try and didn’t disappoint.
Where the Duke’s dining room is different from other high-end eateries not just in Russell but anywhere, is in the casual approach by staff. All waiters were wearing those black tee-shirts mentioned above, one was wearing a leather cowboy hat and had what appeared to be a dodgy hip. One wondered whether he had fallen off his horse at some stage but, overall, none of the wait staff had the stuffy and potentially fawning “Madam” and “Sir” approach during their verbal interactions.
At the end of the day our waiter simply asked, “did you enjoy that Mummy?” The need to spell it out or award stars doesn’t exist. Fabulous sprang to mind, and that single word assessment was ample sufficiency for us all.