The ambitious plan behind The Halcyon restaurant is paying off

by Leisha Jones / 21 December, 2017
Photography / Todd Eyre

In the pink

Saturated in colour and buzzing with life, The Halcyon marks an ambitious expansion for the trio who founded (and still own) Ponsonby Road Bistro. The good news? After decades in a notoriously tough business, they still get on.

Late last year, when Sarah Conway, Melissa Morrow and Blair Russell secured the lease on Jervois Road institution Andiamo, it felt like something of a homecoming. The three friends already own Ponsonby Road Bistro, and have established such an easy working relationship that opening a second restaurant – an all-day bistro in Herne Bay named The Halcyon – felt like a completely natural thing to do. “The day we actually got the keys and stepped over the threshold I have to say I felt completely at home,” says Morrow. “I didn’t feel like Goldilocks or any kind of interloper. I just felt completely and utterly like it was meant to be. It feels like we are in the right place.”

The restaurant industry is notoriously tough, but this trio have worked together long enough to make it look easy. Morrow and Russell first met working at The Sugar Club in London in the 1990s. He’s now married to Morrow’s sister; the three of them flatted around the corner from Andiamo when they first moved back to New Zealand in 1999. Conway and Morrow have now called this hood home for years, but always felt it lacked a restaurant like the new one they’ve created. “It deserves love, this place,” Conway explains as she looks around the sunny-hued space. “I would have loved to have been able to come somewhere like this.”

The Halcyon’s interior, designed by Allana Owen. “We wanted something different and we wanted colour,” says Morrow.

Their collective history reads like a guidebook to some of Ponsonby’s best eateries. Back in 2001, Russell and restaurateur Mark Wallbank opened Rocco (Morrow worked on the floor and Conway came on to run the kitchen in 2005). Now the site of  Wallbank’s Moo Chow Chow, Rocco is warmly remembered for being racy, rowdy and serving robust portions of Spanish-leaning cuisine such as sardines, squid ink spaghetti and smoky paprika-laden cazuela. “Everyone’s got very fond memories of Rocco,” says Conway. “I never thought I’d get misty-eyed about that kitchen because it was almost hellish, but when I think about it now, it was a highly efficient space for the amount of people that we fed. And it was a lot of fun.”

Russell, Wallbank and Morrow then went on to open Blake Street (a cafe that sold a surprising amount of champagne), and then Magnum, the restaurant that preceded Ponsonby Road Bistro at the same site. Russell says what they wanted Magnum to be and what it became were two different things. “We saw ourselves as being pretty casual, but it turned into a big booze barn. I’m all about food – I wanted to do restaurants and had no desire to be serving bourbon and coke.” After two years, Magnum was closed and Conway and Morrow joined Russell in relaunching the site as Ponsonby Road Bistro. Conway’s original menu offerings and Russell and Morrow’s front-of-house flair saw the restaurant pick up the Best City Fringe Bistro in this year’s Metro Restaurant of the Year awards.

A scattered sushi salad.

Over the years, the trio have comfortably fallen into their respective roles within the business. Morrow and Russell share the front-of-house responsibilities – she taking charge of the more creative aspects, while he takes on the admin work – and Conway leads the kitchen as head chef. Their casual three-year search for a second location was part of a natural evolution for the bistro, where the offering has always been largely dinner-focussed and the lunch trade has never really taken off. As a group who absolutely love lunching, they wanted their second restaurant to have more of an all-day offering, but Morrow says the thread of the bistro has been carried through to The Halcyon in terms of quality and variety. “You know you are going to get delicious food and interesting drinks to choose from, it’s going to be comfortable, and the staff will look after you – it’s casual, and not in any way stuffy.”

When they took over the Andiamo lease, they liked the location and the space, but were also determined to perk it up with the help of colour-lover Allana Owen, former owner of Queenies cafe in Freemans Bay. “It was proverbial shades of grey – dull – and we wanted to freshen it up and have some fun,” Morrow says. “We wanted something different and we wanted colour.” She says some locals were initially startled by the refreshed look of their beloved meeting place, but for the most part they were welcomed warmly by residents. “We love this space and how it looks now – revitalised and with a new lease on life. I think that so many people have come to Halcyon with Ponsonby Road Bistro in their minds, almost presuming that Andiamo would have had a bistro makeover and a similar look. But with the bistro being literally two minutes away, we really needed this one to be so different.” 

It might have been simpler to tweak the concept of Andiamo, the previous restaurant on the site, but the trio went for something completely different.

The move from Ponsonby to Herne Bay has also seen a shift away from formality: they have done away with linen napkins and are no longer setting tables, so people have the freedom to move around, depending on where the sun may be hitting, or how many friends might join them along the way. Conway says the change has been liberating, and that the menu has followed suit. She says over the years the dining public have become increasingly fickle, always asking to add this or remove that from a dish she has created. So, the menu at Halcyon is made up of small snack-sized dishes, substantial salads, some comfort classics and a grill section accompanied by a variety of sides so people can design their meal the way they want.

With a mix of nationalities working in the kitchen, the food is global and Conway – a huge fan of spice, exotic flavours and labouring over a curry – always wants the freedom to be creative, never boxed in by one cuisine. “We’ll cook what we want, how we want, when we want and hopefully people will like it. But I always want it to be fresh and interesting.” The result is dishes that match the strikingly vibrant interior: bright and bountiful, teeming with flavour and texture, no plate is left without a generous scatter of herbs, chilli or citrus. “Our food has a lovely balance,” says Morrow. “There is that crunch and seeds and herbs, but there is also butter and cream. You do feel good eating it because there’s a nice balance between the luxury and the richness and the health.”

A colourful bar snack matches the striking interior.

When they’re not at work, Morrow says they’re constantly talking about food, cooking at home, eating out and discussing what’s good. Russell’s ideal day off is spent behind the stove with the radio blaring, and Conway says she craves Morrow’s perfect roast chicken after a long week in the kitchen. The family dynamic between the three means there is a huge amount of respect and trust for what the others do, but the common denominator always comes back to the food. “We all love eating, and we love food service,” says Morrow. “We love looking after people, the buzz, the atmosphere, creating all of that. So, there’s a shared love. The vision is the same and everyone has their little departments which they occupy and take care of.”

The Halcyon is “casual, and not in any way stuffy”.

With work, home and family life so intertwined, it’s always going to be a struggle to keep them separate. But that’s not necessarily a problem, says Morrow, as the sun-splashed walls of Halcyon are becoming more homely the more time they spend within them. “On Sunday night when we were leaving I said to Sarah, ‘I would love nothing more than to sit by that blazing fire and order a couple of scotch steaks and a big Caesar salad, a little bowl of fries and a couple of glasses of that lovely Argentinian Malbec we have on the list, maybe a little bowl of tuatuas to start’. You know? That’s perfect. I don’t want to be anywhere else.” 

 

The Halcyon, 194 Jervois Rd, Herne Bay

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