Ask anyone from Auckland, and they'll no doubt proclaim that Ponsonby Road is where you'll find the city's swankiest European eateries.
Whether you have a penchant for antipasti or like your side of caprese salad with a glass of pinot gris, it takes something special to lure the Ponsonby crowd away from their shared plates and back to the suburbs.
It's impressive then to learn that Morell, the latest endeavour from SPQR-vetted husband-and-wife duo Sarah and head chef Dan Morini, are doing just that.
Occupying the space once held by The Maple Room – a grand old dame favoured by many Remuera locals – stands this gorgeously crisp, Gatsby-inspired European bar and bistro. Upon entry, the expansive brass bar and plush deco-style furniture suggestively hints "it's definitely time for a Negroni" while the indoor-outdoor flow offers the neighbourhood a much-needed sense of contemporary cool.
"We wanted to make sure the locals were taken care of, first and foremost," says owner Sarah Morini, who admits getting a project like Morell off the ground was no easy feat.
Morell, a variety of mushroom, also serves as a mash-up of both Sarah's maiden name (Cornell) and husband Dan's surname. The restaurant is a joint adventure they've both fully relished, with big plans to introduce The Morell Risotto to their already plentiful menu.
The recipe for success here is a fool-proof one – front-of-house Gemma, is a face many may recognise from the much-loved Prego, while the menu rivals the very best of our favourite Italian eateries.
During our visit on a balmy Saturday night, the atmosphere is lively, spilling out on to the roadside, as a handful of locals enjoy a classic cocktail and early dinner outdoors. Sarah and Dan acquired the neighbouring gift shop, to ensure that Morell could stretch its legs and wrap around the popular corner, sitting directly across the road to Benson Road Deli.
"We always looked at The Maple Room and thought 'wow, this corner could be something' – and that was over 10 years ago. When the site came up for sale, we thought we've got to get in there.
I lived in Sydney for years, we were inspired by some of the eateries in Woollahra (in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs), with the leaves and the streets. People can come down here with their dogs, they can bring their kids, and have a great meal."
What starts with a crisp and equally punchy Negroni, sets the tone for an Italian feast of indulgent Crayfish Ravioli and seafood Tagliatelle – a melange of steamed mussels, clams and prawns in a tomato, chilli and white wine sauce.
Our personal favourite – the Rare Seared Tuna – serves as a fresh, updated rendition of a classic Niçoise Salad, before we devour the meltingly-tender, crispy skin Duck Confit on a bed of carrot puree, a flavoursome finish to a well-balanced and refined European menu.
Let it be known, Morell is good news for a neighbourhood that's become accustom to crossing town for a contemporary European meal.
"Honestly, we've been really lucky, the response has been great – we wanted to look after the locals first. We have had a few Ponsonby-siders come over, which is a good thing. You'd be amazed how many Remuera locals were travelling to Ponsonby for dinner, I didn't realise. If you want a certain style of food, there's not a lot in the Eastern Bays. This area needed it."
With a line-up that now includes the likes of Spacca, The Corner and Morell – this neighbourhood is in the midst of a revamp.
The next time you find you're craving a seriously well-made cocktail or an al fresco catch-up with friends, avoid the traffic and make your way to Morell instead. The suburbs have never looked better.
91–95 Upland Road,
Tuesday – Wednesday: 5pm – 11pm
Thursday – Sunday: 12pm – 11pm