Ali has had a birthday recently, and she's also retired, so as Wellington on a Plate was coming up, I asked her to choose wherever she'd like to be taken for a celebratory lunch (which would also be a thank-you to her for being such a wonderful friend). She chose Arbitrageur in Featherston Street, so I booked a few weeks ago for 1 pm today. Here's what happened.
12.55 I arrive. The restaurant looks pretty full. The waiter consults his bookings and crosses ours off.
W: "You're here for Wellington on a Plate?" A. "Yes."
Waiter leads me right through the long room and gestures to two high stools side by side in front of two place settings on the end of the bar.
A. (calmly and pleasantly) "We're getting on a bit, and this isn't what I had in mind. We'd like a proper table."
Waiter consults a colleague and leads me back to a perfectly satisfactory table for two at the first banquette, behind the cash register, alongside another table for two, where a couple are waiting for their order.
A. "That's lovely, thank you."
Ali arrives, and we chat happily. Beyond us stretches the long banquette, with every seat full. Beyond the bar and in the front, there are two more spaces with smaller tables, but I can't see whether they're all full too.
1.15 Waiter comes back to take our order. Though it wasn't mentioned in the WOAP programme, we're pleased to see there's both a two-course and a three-course option, as we plan to do this properly. So we order all three at the very reasonable price of $45, including a glass of (in our case) the Ata Rangi chardonnay: Castlepoint-caught blue warehou with crushed potatoes, fennel, tomato, capers and kalamata olives; roast pork belly with apple and fennel compote; meringue with Schekter's lemon curd, creme vanille and passonfruit. Yum.
1.20 Some little slices of bread arrive (there's already olive oil on the table) and water is poured.
1.25 Our wine arrives.
1.45 Our waiter passes by. Anne: "Might some food be arriving soon?" W. "We're very busy."
2.00 Our neighbours have finished their food, which arrived some time ago (they were clearly not having the Wellington on a Plate lunch). A different waiter clears their plates. I know I should not speak to the different waiter, but by this time I am feeling distinctly odd.
Anne: "Excuse me, we've been waiting for an hour." New W. (after short silence): "I'll ask." Neighbours: "Goodness, you still haven't had yours? That is a bit slow." Anne: "And we did book. " Neighbours: "We didn't!"
2.05 The large party starts to leave. They queue beside us to pay. This takes some time. Our waiter passes by. Anne: "Will our food be arriving soon? I'm thinking of collapsing in a dramatic faint." Waiter (who is not amused): "I'll check that it's being made."
2.10 Female waiter approaches with two plates of what look like our fish. Just as we start to perk up, she goes on past us to the front space.
2.13 Anne to Ali (who is, bless her, amused rather than embarrassed by my efforts, but is also getting very hungry): "If it doesn't arrive by 2.15, I think we'll go."
2.14 Our first course arrives. It is delicious and we polish it off reasonably fast. By this time the large party have all gone and the staff are resetting the long table. We may well be the last lunchers left.
2.25 Our second course arrives. We eat that a little more slowly. The pork belly is beautifully cooked and goes very well with the exquisite tiny morsels of apple, etc.
2.35 Waiter brings out our desserts, hesitates, takes them on past us and presumably puts them somewhere in the space out front to wait until we're ready for them. Fortunately, they're cold.
2.40 Our plates are cleared and the dessert is brought. The waiter also brings us two complimentary glasses of dessert wine, "because of the wait". I could be wrong, but I don't recollect hearing any actual words of apology. Still, we are suitably thankful.
We finish our desserts and wine slowly - perfect meringues with soft centres, like miniature pavlovas - follow them with coffee (promptly produced), pay (with nothing about our experience said on either side at the till), and leave about 3 pm.
Very good food, yes, and definitely a long lunch - but certainly not the relaxed experience I'd planned. Thank goodness Ali and I have been friends for such a long time.