A little birdy told me some time ago, “Next time you’re in Auckland, you gotta check out Bambina Cafe on Ponsonby Road”. Being accustomed to folks giving me there top geographical restaurant picks, I didn’t think too far into it at this point.
It wasn’t until i caught a snigger on the bluebirds beak that the inqusitive side of me delved deeper, ” Is it pretty good?” I baited my birdie.
“Let’s just say, it’ll be a trip down memory lane.” Hmmm, another cheeky grin and I begin to imagine myself walking into this popular Ponsonby eatery and been confronted by skeletons of kitchens past as 15 of my 20 years of cheffing had been undertaken in the bellies of Auckland kitchens.
“Trust me, just give it a try.” Never one to turn down a challenge, I filed Bambina away as a curious must try.
Fast forward 6 months and I find myself on a Chilly Auckland morning driving down Ponsonby Road on a recent trip home to New Zealand. With rumblings of bellies coming from the back seat of the car proving too hard to ignore, we secure a main road car-park and make our way to Bambina cafe.
Our attempts to sit outside and partake in the Ponsonby Road sport of people watching are dashed thanks to a bone chilling wind that is presently sweeping down the road. We set up camp inside the cafe to the relief of those in our party that weren’t dressed for the wintry blast and take over a couple of tables along the banquet mirrored wall.
A large blackboard on the opposing wall contains the menu and a huge communal table hosts newspapers and diners alike.
Hmmmm, that communal table in birch coloured wood looks awfully familiar…
We are quickly offered table service, to which I announce that coffees are required as medicinal necessities. Within a few minutes welcoming cups of steaming brew are placed in front of us which are deliciously good.
The crema and steamed milk is voluptuous, creamy and float almost suspended within its crockery confines. The taste of the coffee is smooth and elegant and a shining example of boutique coffee roasters Allpress Espresso’s commitment to producing a superior accessible and consistent product.
I scan the blackboard menu to get a snapshot of the kitchen’s style and food ethos. Toast and preserves, muesli, scrambled eggs and your choice of sides ~ The dishes don’t strike me as anything out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until my attention drifted past the obligatory offerings that I got that funny, familiar forgotten feeling.
Ricotta hotcakes, Corn fritters with bacon and roast tomato…?
They say that imitation is the hugest form of flattery and looks like Bambina has taken some advice in this area.
Having worked as head chef for Bill Granger for a couple of years in his iconic Sydney establishment ‘Bills’, I can spot a Bills take on a menu a mile away, and from the looks of the communal table and several menu arrangements, the team behind Bambina are just smitten with Bills.
I had to chuckle to myself as we placed our order for scrambled eggs with bacon, Ricotta hotcakes and Corn fritters. Three Bills classics coming straight up to which my dining companions being only more than too happy to oblige.
The food was quickly dispatched to our table, and we dug in after snapping a few photos for prosperity.
The scrambled eggs looked sensational! The sunshine yellow eggs were piled mountain high a top a couple of thick slices of granary bread.
Now I’m not about to say that Bills invented scrambled eggs, as almost every breakfast menu in the Western world probably has scrambled eggs in some way, shape or form. It is within the confines of Bambina and its obvious adoration for things “bills” that I order the eggs as a worthy comparison.
Bills scrambled eggs are so famous, they have been described in the New York Times as being ‘as gentle as the breath of an angel’, and folks flock from all around the world for a plate of them.
I loved the scrambled presentation at Bambina, as when I was plating up this dish whilst at Bills, it was blasphemy to serve the eggs on top of the toast for risk of the toast becoming soggy.
We always served the eggs on the plate followed by slices of sourdough off to the side to prevent potential liquid cross-contamination. The kitchen at Bambina throws caution to the wind and in a gutsy move serves the scrambled like Everest. Works for me!
Like the pristine waters of Lake Tekapo in New Zealand’s South Island, looks incredible from the outside, but stick your toe in the water and your liable to get frost bite ~ My scrambled Himalayas did not deliver on taste. The generous serving could have done with a sprinkling of salt flakes during the cooking process and the egg mixture needed some additional substance and less stove time to achieve Scrambled perfection.
Call me a scrambled egg purist, but after cooking 200+ servings a day for a couple of years, I have become somewhat knowledgeable on this breakfast egg cooking technique.
The hotcakes with yogurt and fruit were placed in front of Mr5 who oooohed with anticipation. I was glad that he had wanted them, as they were child-like in portion despite the hefty NZD$14.50 price tag. Three thin pancakes sat piled on the plate, topped with a dollop of yogurt and few pieces of fresh fruit. Some of the fruit in question were oranges with skin still attached, not the most appropriate way to serve a fruit salad, nor were they seasonally sweet either.
I was unable to detect any ricotta in the hotcakes but they were a good example of a pancake none the less. They had a delectable crisp exterior and had they been fluffier and the portion more acceptable for the price they would have been a great dish. Bambinas take on the hotcakes with fresh fruit and yogurt a nice healthier alternative to Bills butter and honeycomb soaked gems.
The corn fritters with bacon, roast tomato and spinach was a near mirror image of this famous Bills dish, with the flavor being similar all but a tad doughy. At Bills, we would try to jam as much freshly shucked corn into each fritter as humanly possible. It should only have the lacy whisper of paprika spiced batter holding all that corn together ~ making it a veggie packed early morning treat.
So it is with a full belly and a table of content diners that I mull over my findings. Yes, there are some very blatant and obvious copies of some Bills classics, like the corn fritters, hotcakes and communal table. But it is within the execution that differentiates these two establishments.
Bambina is an icon of the cafe scene in Auckland and has been serving the inner city faithful for many years in its current location. For that alone, it gets a well deserved medal for longevity in the fickle New Zealand market. Their food requires polish and is somewhat lacking in x factor but the coffee, service and surrounds make up for its short comings.
With food we are all imitators of some kind. Taking inspiration from a meal we ate, a recipe we read or a restaurant we admire. Bill Granger himself takes inspiration for his cookbooks and restaurants from his peers and multiple dining opportunities that present themselves when you carry celebrity clout.
It is within the execution that our individuality speaks volumes and the little subtle touches that makes a dining experience memorable.