Ponsonby Road Bistro a trademark in sophisticated informality
The central location of 165 Ponsonby Road has seen numerous restaurants come and go, but ever since the award-winning Ponsonby Road Bistro launched on the site, it’s as if nothing else ever existed there. Lauded by Metro magazine as “not just one of the leading signature restaurants of the Ponsonby strip, but a restaurant that showcases the sophisticated informality we like to think of as a trademark for the whole city”, proprietors Melissa Morrow and Blair Russell have found a formula that really works. In the second of our restaurant columns, we ask Melissa (pictured here, on left, with partner and head chef at the Bistro, Sarah Conway) how it all began, and what continues to make the bistro thrive.
Was it always your dream to own your own restaurant?
Yes, I was offering canapes around and designing place name cards at family parties from a very young age!
How did Ponsonby Road Bistro come about?
My brother in law Blair Russell and his then business partner Mark Wallbank and I had run our fabulous little café, Blake Street, for about a year when the Ponsonby Road site became available. Blake Street was sold, I became restaurant manager at Rocco (further up Ponsonby Road) and the boys opened Magnum. About a year or so later, the GFC hit and so the bistro format was launched to counter the downturn in business ... and that was nearly seven years ago!
Describe the essence of the restaurant for us.
Ponsonby Road Bistro is a restaurant situated in the heart of Ponsonby Road offering modern, global bistro fare in a stylish, relaxed environment, and offering warm, knowledgeable service.
Running a restaurant is a tough job. What makes it all worthwhile?
When all the elements (the food, the drinks, the people, the atmosphere and – most importantly – the actual flow of service) come together absolutely perfectly and harmonise into a kind of ‘buzz’. That’s what makes it worthwhile!
What constitutes a good wine list to you?
It really is all about balance – a good mix of the known and the unknown and a good cross-section of price points with good value at both ends of the spectrum. And it must be proofread and totally up to date in terms of vintages and availability.
What is your personal favourite food and wine match?
As we change our menu every three to four weeks, we are always coming across new fabulous flavour combinations. I love dry, white aromatics, and a wine such as the Secateurs Chenin Blanc sits so well with many dishes on our menu. But if I had to pick one varietal – chardonnay every time!
What is the Bistro’s signature dish and what is your perfect wine match for it?
We are probably best known for our ever-popular chargrilled scotch with hand cut chunky chips, garlic-parsley butter and watercress. A bistro classic! A new wine in Martin's portfolio, the Marietta Cellars Lot#1 – a Californian Bordeaux blend – has been such a hit with our customers that it has just sold out! But the next vintage, the Lot #2, has just landed, and is just as rich, plummy, concentrated and generous. It really is a match made in heaven!
Can we ask you to match two wines supplied by Planet Wine to two dishes on your menu?
French goats cheese salad with endive, walnuts, matched with a glass of Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc.
Mozzarella, gorgonzola, sweet slow-cooked onion, salami, rocket and chilli oil pizza, matched with a glass of Anwilka Petit Frere (a syrah, cabernet, petit verdot blend)
What are currently the most popular drinks at the Bistro?
We are just starting to head into warmer weather, so there has been a shift from red towards white, and we sell lots of interesting varietals by the glass – chenin blanc, godello, marsanne/ roussane blends, to name a few. Cider is certainly gaining popularity. And I love to see how sherry and vermouth are becoming part of everyone's vocabulary … I am all for an aperitif to kick things off!
How did your relationship with Martin and Planet Wine begin?
I met Martin at his very first wine tasting back in about 2004! He and I had an immediate connection because of our South African roots (I grew up in Cape Town), and have kept in touch since then, with a lovely friendship developing over this time. He’s an absolute pleasure to deal with. His immense wine knowledge coupled with professionalism and his warm, laid back nature really makes him stand out in his field. He really understands our industry and has on more than one occasion politely put up with all sorts of interruptions as we try and taste wine – he has the patience of a saint! I also really appreciate that Martin considers what wine might suit our list, and always selects wines to show me bearing this in mind.