Totara, Albany

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WHERE: 249 State Highway 17, Albany Village. (09) 415 6286
OUR MEAL: $199.80 for two entrees, two mains, two desserts, and five glasses of wine.
OUR WINE: By the generous glass from a good list. Mud House sauvignon blanc ($11.50), West Brook chardonnay ($13.50), Geoff Merrill cabernet sauvignon ($13.30).
VERDICT: Old-fashioned restaurant virtues, without being stuck in a time warp, provide a good all-round experience.
OUT OF 10
FOOD: 8
SERVICE: 8
VALUE: 8
AMBIENCE: 7

What with hit squads slaughtering the local chooks, the local council and government being unable to sort out the simple matter of siting a school, massive new shopping complexes, and ever more development, it's hard to keep up with Albany.

As it grows, relentlessly, more and more eating places - many catering to the workers trapped in its light industrial wasteland - bravely set sail into the harsh reality that the average lifespan of such ventures is 18 months.

There are as many new faces as in Graham Henry's All Blacks and few will make it past the first test. Meanwhile, in the heart of the old village, Totara serenely survives, having notched up its 10th anniversary this year.

In that time it has not changed the formula, although looking back at our previous visits, it has certainly changed the menu. The formula is, of course, that blindingly obvious aim which underpins all successful restaurants but seems to come as a mystery to too many: good food and good service.

In Peter Jackson, who has been chef and co-owner since the business started, Totara has a practitioner grounded in the basics. Although the trimmings are uniformly imaginative and varied and there's always something which prompts the response, "that's novel".

It's the respect with which he treats the core ingredients that distinguishes his cooking. The restaurant has held the Beef and Lamb Hallmark award for every one of its 10 years and this year Jackson has been named as a Beef and Lamb Ambassador, an even more exclusive distinction.

So for those who like their meat - and despite the inexorable rise of the veggie persuasion, evidence suggests this is the majority of people who like eating out - Totara is a very safe bet. In keeping with this approach, we had the eye fillet and the saddle of lamb as our main courses. The beef was as close to perfection as you can get, both in the quality of the meat and the cooking, with that tangy outer surface and meltingly tender interior that we all aspire to at home but almost never quite reach.

It came with a substantial bacon, leek and potato terrine with thyme jus and a fresh horseradish cream providing a lively note in the heavier flavours.

My roast saddle of lamb was nearly up to the same standard. I prefer it a fraction pinker but I think it might have suited most. This was studded with garlic and came with a sort of butternut ratatouille with olives, a warm flavoured and sweet-tasting accompaniment. And it's worth mentioning the side dish of beans, crunchy but having been exposed to a cooking process.

My first course had been a little stunner, well, not so little as the servings here are not the sort that sit on a spoon. This was the smoked kahawai fishcake. When it arrived it looked slightly unprepossessing, like a catering pack crumbed cannonball. It turned out to be absolutely delicious and the celeriac, watercress and dash of curry dressing all added interest.

The chowder was another good example of its type and well packed with goodies. It's not often that whole scallops lurk under the croutons.

The desserts are of a matching quality, with my apple parfait with rhubarb compote being another example of a culinary imagination at work, and the cappuccino brulee provided a well-received blend of taste and texture.

But, as we have all experienced, good food alone won't do it. Totara, an old villa (by Albany standards) provides a pleasing if unremarkable setting, roomy enough to provide a comfortable space bubble for the claustrophobic, but compact enough to provide some atmosphere.

Co-owner Rod Fevre brings his own welcoming atmosphere to the front of house and is intimate with the obvious regulars, without treating the newcomer with the cavalier indifference sometimes inflicted on the passing stranger.

Even if Albany goes through more shape-shifting there's every reason to believe Totara will go on delivering its own rather classy act.

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