It’s just a well that Hugo’s Bistro is open for all-day dining as the chairs here are so soft to sink into that it’s hard to muster up the will to leave. And why would you want to when the house-blend coffee is excellent, the food is good and the service is so warm.
Hugo’s is the sibling restaurant to Clare and Joost van den Berg’s Odettes, and there is a superficial similarity. Both have a keen sense of design and spaces that exude comfort, but Hugo’s is the more intimate of the two. The long, narrow space manages to twine the opulence of brass and green marble with pared-back cedar and tiling while the plush corduroy pillowing makes it homely and understated. It’s a cleverly thought-out space with a mix of options for larger tables, some bar seating and well-designed lighting. Consideration, too, has been spent on the crockery; the Hayley Bridgford ceramics are tonally in sync with the fit-out and, importantly, a joy to eat from.
Head chef, Emile Bennington, makes food that is delectably accessible with enough of a twist to keep things interesting. So while breakfast may see a three-grain porridge or smashed broad beans and chilli and seeded toast, the lunch and dinner menu gives us bistro food that is joyful and sings to the season.
A starter of spanner crab on soft polenta was delicious with the delicacy of the crab and creaminess of polenta enhanced with the light aniseed of cooked fennel and the spike of chilli. Perfect with a glass of cheeky grillo from Coco di Mama. Cumin and lamb is a combination I find hard to resist and here the ribs with their crisp exterior, and just-right amount of tender meat-to-fat ratio made for good eating. The finely balanced salsa roja with just enough vinegar and smokiness lifted the meat while the watercress salad provided a peppery foil.
There are few things more comforting than schnitzel, and on this occasion it was chicken with a crisp herb coating, a generous grating of parmesan topped with watercress and some radish. Sitting on a mash of bright and vibrant peas with the zing of grilled lemon, it made for a cosy dish. Grilled kingfish was cooked just so, with a welcome kick of a peppery salsa nudging the mellow coco-bean ragout.
Much has been made of the espresso semifreddo and it’s a winner. Caffeine-friendly, creamy yet with a delightful iciness and the pairing of burnt orange playing up the bitterness of the citrus. We liked, too, the crunchy topping of the sticky apple pudding and its tender crumb, a wonderfully homestyle dessert for a wintry day.
Day manager, Sarah Pepper, ably leads an enthusiastic staff and it’s a quietly efficient place with no pretension, just the knowledge that good food, wine and service is soon to follow. The wine list is small but cohesive, with tight pairings that enhance the food. The beer list is a little lacklustre which I found somewhat surprising given the care given to the other offerings.
Shortland Street is of course the bastion of law and finance firms and it’s the all-day aspect for meetings, coffee and food that is part of what makes it successful. That Hugo’s isn’t open on the weekends is testament to knowing its market very well. So it’s brilliant for lunches and early dinners during the week where you’ll be treated with care and respect, eat good food that nourishes without being overly demanding and generally makes you feel that all is right with the world.