Phone: (09) 255 0666
Rating out of 10: Food: 7, Service: 7, Value: 8, Ambience: 9
The reaction was understandable. You're in grey, dismal London in winter, the weather is vile, but you are keeping your spirits up with a little glass of Villa Maria wine. To hear your partner is, coincidentally, just about to tootle off in glorious sunshine for lunch in the lovely setting of that very same vineyard can provoke language unexpected from a well-brought-up young woman.
Of course, for the person at the other end of the Skype call, it was just the idea that was the cue for the expletives; the pretty background, the sun, the fine wine and the good food. For those of us about to set off, the test was whether the reality matched the dream. And, in good measure, it did.
We are used to the delightful rural settings of many of our vineyards, so there is something a little weird about heading through the wasteland of slab-sided light industrial architectural brutalism near Auckland airport's ever-spreading outskirts and suddenly turning into the manicured setting of the Villa Maria site.
But there it is, in a different world, the country atmosphere underlined by the occasional bang of the bird-scarer guns keeping the vines unmolested. We were quickly ushered to a pleasant outdoor table and relaxed over the menu.
It's a well-balanced, reasonably priced affair with the usual bases covered, nothing to excite a gourmet looking for amazing new sensations, but sound food treated with enough imagination to keep it interesting.
The fresh pea risotto with asparagus and peperonata was a good match for the day. Our other first courses included a decent caesar salad and pork belly, standard but well set off with pureed kumara, beetroot and a nice braeburn jelly.
Slightly more unusual was the lobster agnolotti pasta with fennel and lemon oil, which was well received, although the customer was not sure if the micro salad contributed anything.
All the main courses passed muster. The good pea risotto turned up again, appropriately accompanying seared salmon. The pastrami lamb rack was cooked just right, and the grilled feta, polenta and a cabernet sauvignon jus set off the meat well.
My eye fillet, with a caramelised shallot tarte tatin, creamed potatoes and green peppercorns, was of a standard that often costs a lot more, and the John Dory with sauteed summer greens and a crab and cognac sauce went down well with the partner of the unfortunate young woman left in England.
It was one of those lunches that threatens to linger into later afternoon, so we slid into a couple of the desserts, a caramelised lime tart with enough sharpness to match the berry coulis, and a vanilla bean panna cotta with the perfect amount of wobble and a Grand Marnier sponge.
As the occasion was deliberately lazy, we didn't trouble ourselves with decisions on the wine, but went with their matches. This was a wise move, delivering choices we would never have made. Particularly good was the single vineyard Ihumatao Verdelho 2010 with the fish, and the contrast between two different chardonnays, the cellar selection Marlborough 2010 and the Ihumatao 2011, was a reminder of the variety to be found in one grape type.
The service matched the atmosphere too, efficiently delivered by a bouncy, enthusiastic young woman whose awesome use of fantastic, fabulous superlatives cheered us no end.
If we hadn't had other commitments, we would have lingered even longer, which tells you all you need to know about this well-run, thoroughly pleasing establishment.
Our meal: $309.50 for four first courses, four mains, two desserts, eight glasses of wine and two coffees.
Wine list: Villa Maria produces one of the most consistent ranges of wine in the business and they are on display here. I particularly enjoyed a Hawkes Bay 2010 viognier I had never tried before.
Verdict: A reminder of how lucky we are in our better vineyard restaurants, which provide good food and wine in great settings. What more could you want?