Address: 479 New North Rd, Kingsland
Phone: (09) 845 1680
Rating out of 10: Food: 9, Service: 8, Value: 8, Ambience: 8

It was hard to believe that we'd walked into the Kingsland premises formerly occupied by Bouchon, then more recently Le Garde-manger. Back then the restaurants were slightly seedy in that alluring French way. But now, in the hands of new chef and owner, Phil Clark, it's "Phil's Kitchen" and all gleaming, stylish and cool.

The menu from this chef, whose resumé includes working for three Michelin-starred restaurants in London, plus Meredith's here, is short and simple, borrowed from the bistros of France. There are four choices of entree, main courses and dessert, changing most weeks depending on the cuts of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables that take Phil's fancy at the markets.

The set-up was perfect for our party of four. Together we ate right through the menu and scrapped gently over choices, with me often ending up with the least attractive option - which turned out a blessing. For example, I started with the potato veloute, which was served at the table by our charming maitre d' (and Phil's partner) Marine Peyregne.

A willowy woman with a strong French accent, Marine arrived with a bowl containing an almost-raw egg in one hand and a jug of hot, creamy veloute sauce made from stock and potatoes in the other. With a deft flick of the wrist she poured the sauce into the bowl and, voila, my egg was cooked. The truly brilliant touch was a handful of crisp buckwheat, which added crunch to the ensemble. It looked amazing, tasted divine and, for the dairy-free and calorie-conscious, contained no cream.

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Meanwhile, the others were digging into the kingfish ceviche with miso, sesame and radish; scallops perked up by fried kale, pulverised cauliflower and duck crackling and a pork belly that met all Brian's wishes: crisp on top, fat melted into the meat below, tender, tasty and plenty of it. Indeed, it was exactly the same size as a main course he was served at a different restaurant a couple of weeks ago.

Our main courses were equally unpredictable. The chicken breast no one really wanted was superbly cooked and beautifully presented on the plate. The smoked duck breast was tasty, wonderfully rare, and well set off by its accompanying dauphinoise potatoes and crunchy side offerings. Meanwhile, the spiced leg of lamb, which three of us had wanted as our first choice, turned out less exciting. Indeed, said our guest, it tasted much the same as his Mum's Sunday roast. She must have been a great cook.

Only the salmon confit disappointed. Slightly oily, despite being slow-cooked, its minimal seasoning wasn't saved by the accompanying crispy leeks and shallots.

The scrupulous attention to texture and flavour, alongside the main part of each meal, which made every dish a stand-out, went right through to dessert.

The "passionfruit marriage" featured crisp mini meringues paired with feather-soft homemade, marshmallowy meringue to accompany the tangy passionfruit curd. The doughnuts, which Phil bakes himself, were crisp, crumbly and exciting, just waiting to give up that core of caramel, while the apple brulee and chocolate parfait were equally appealing.

Phil and his kitchen have definite star quality. Every plate that appeared carried a couple of splashes of excitement and originality: opposing textures, surprising colours, tastes that danced on the tongue. Our meals were arranged like little masterpieces on their plates and the service, from Marine and Phil, who fairly waltzed out of his kitchen at the end of the night, smiling at our compliments, added the kind of personality that brings you back.

Our meal: $350 for four entrees, main courses and desserts, plus seven glasses of wine.

Wine list: Not quite as short as the menu and almost as surprising, offering several wines we've not seen before, including Mysterious Diggings and Paddy Borthwick.

Verdict: An excellent addition to Auckland's "bistro-bordering-on-fine-dining" scene, Phil's Kitchen aims for the stars and nearly gets there. Every dish is thought out and accented with off-beat, often surprising, flavours and textures. The French service and sophistication, fascinating food and little flourishes makes Phil's Kitchen ideal for special occasions. Don't miss it.

- Canvas