The unfamiliar yet comforting smell of wood smoke is the first thing you notice when you step inside Pony Dining at Eagle Street Pier. That, the buzz of conversation, the clink of glasses, the vast cavernous interior with an open kitchen at its heart. It's a beautiful space, with blonde floors, leather furniture, animal skins (faux I hope), a well-stocked bar and exposed brick, steel and timber on show.
We'd been lured through the doors by an email campaign promising revamped 'express' lunch options. 'Don't queue at fast food outlets ... sit, relax and enjoy the view, all accompanied with Pony's signature wood-fired express menu items,' the teaser read.
So it was with a mix of hunger and excitement that we took seats at the bar and waited for our table. Close to a gin and tonic and a glass of sauvignon blanc later, we were still waiting. Tapping our fingers, tapping our toes. The Pony Express, it seemed, had thrown a shoe.
It was only after nudging the maitre d' that we were ushered to our table on the terrace. Gorgeous, uninterrupted views of the Brisbane River. A perfect precipice for people-watching. We settled back to survey the lunch menu.
Small plates' ranging from $4.90 to $25 included the usual suspects (olives, breads, ribs, arancini, charcuterie) as well as some more unusual options (scallop ceviche, wood fired octopus). They sat alongside 'big plates' priced from $26 to $44 (such as beer battered whiting, risotto, seafood and steak). There were also refreshingly innovative 'Pony on a Bun Burgers' ($16.50 to $24.00) which featured inclusions such as pork belly (with brioche, jalapeno aioli and cos lettuce) and wagyu beef (with cheddar, pickles and mustard). Three salads, showcasing smoked duck ($19.50), iron bark roasted quail ($21.50) and wood fired lamb ($22.50) also graced the menu. So far, so good.
When we had to flag down a waiter to take our order, I felt a flicker of irritation. Though I'd blocked out two appointment-free hours for this treat, the leisurely lunch I'd been anticipating was disappearing at a gallop. I ordered the soft shell crab burger with 'wasabi aioli, pickled radish and beetle (sic) leaves' on focaccia ($19), served with french fries. Having a more substantial appetite, my partner opted for one of the 'big plates' - namely wood grilled salmon ($36).
Soft shell crab burger at Pony Dining. Author image.
I wish I could say I was blown away by the food, but I simply wasn't. The soft shell crab was short on flavour so if it weren't for the wasabi aioli and the pickled radish, it would have been a washout. As for my partner's salmon, yes, it was served on a 'big plate', but this could in no way be described as a big dish. The accompanying endive salad was more substantial than garnish, but not by much. The smokiness of the salmon was great, but was it $36 worth of great? Not even close.
I would have liked to have tried the 'sweet plates' such as 'milk and cookies' (peanut butter, jam jelly, cookie, malted milkshake), elderflower cheesecake, rice pudding, affogato, or petit fours. But we were, sadly, out of time and out of patience. I flagged a waiter down to request the bill.
It was at this point I began to wish I'd brought along a riding crop, just so I could hurry things along. We waited and waited. A staff member finally came hustling our way with a great sense of purpose - only to refill our water glasses. Exasperated, we headed to the register to pay.
Pony Dining has garnered some rave reviews from mainstream media, suggesting there was a lavish launch party at some point which generated lots of buzz. But for the average punter footing the bill, there's a whole lot less to be excited about.
Maybe we rode into Pony Dining on a day when staff rhythms were out of whack - it was a full moon that night after all. Perhaps we made the wrong selections from the menu. It's possible our expectations were too high. But when you're dropping $100 (with drinks) on an 'express' lunch, you don't expect to be chasing staff every step of the way. And as for the food? It should dazzle, not disappoint.
I'm willing to concede that if I chose a different day, a different meal, a different table, I might have a more satisfactory experience. But given the steep prices, I'll be saving my pennies for a return visit for quite some time.