Phone: (09) 300 7252
Rating out of 10: Food: 7, Service: 6, Value: 8, Ambience: 7
The brain reeled. It was unthinkable. We were at an Israeli restaurant and they had no chicken liver pate. I was denied my decades-long habit of comparing the result with that of an old Jewish friend, whose approach to this dish was based on doing not much more than actually removing the liver from the chicken.
But the reason for this absence was understandable and something of a tribute to Ima.
The place was so busy they had run out of this favourite under the strain of demand. As our evening progressed it was not difficult to see why the place is so popular that wannabe diners were being turned away. The atmosphere is distinctly domestic and it's rather like being in a large gathering of family and mates - noisy, bustling and not always totally efficient.
The food is similarly homespun, if your home happens to be in the Middle East or Mediterranean. Their dinner plan is essentially convivial. After a choice of starters, all with the capability of being shared, you choose mains in portion sizes to suit the number of diners who fancy some and accompany them with a set delivery of side dishes.
One of our starters was something of a star turn and deservedly promoted as such by the very hands-on owner, Yael Shochat. This was brik, a fried pastry envelope filled with tuna, preserved lemon and a soft egg. It is a terrific combination of flavours although I felt an opportunity was lost by its being cut up on the plate for us rather than our having to manage the traditionally entertaining task of simultaneously biting and sucking to prevent the egg descending gracefully down your shirt.
The small mezze plate was generous with falafel, hummus, olives, beetroot and the usual suspects, all fresh and fragrant. The large prawns were enlivened by herbs and the small cannonball objects of the kibeh, spiced lamb and pine nuts in a crisp shell of lamb and bulgur wheat, went down well.
When the mains came, two of us opted for the Lebanese lamb shoulder and its extreme tenderness was evidence it had, as advertised, been very slow-cooked, but for my taste, the sauce needed a little more muscle. The whole baby snapper had a fresh tang to it but the roast chicken was disappointingly bland and slightly dry with all the flavour concentrated in the stuffing.
The side dishes were, however, a triumph of textures and tastes, including a minty salad, okra in a rich sauce, grilled carrot and feta salad and an Arab rice dish of lentils, pine nuts, almonds, pistachios and caramelised onions that was so good I wanted to pack it in a box and take it home to try to replicate. The amount of food rather overwhelmed us and even our indefatigable dessert specialist quailed before recovering to sample a custard-like dish with a red reduction and semolina cakes. I tasted it but felt I had to suspend judgement.
The service was unfailingly friendly, if a little erratic, and our principal waitress was sweet but decidedly green. Even in the most informal places it's unusual to pour white wine into a glass that had evidently just been occupied by red.
But we all agreed we had had a relaxed, cheerful evening, which was just what we wanted - and judging by the rest of the customers, was just what they wanted, too.
Our meal: $343.50 for 12 dishes, three beers, one bottle and three glasses of wine.
Our wine: Bottles, carafes and glasses all available. The Galbraith's beers were excellent as usual, the Tatty Bogler Central Otago pinot noir was a quality effort and from the foreign list we enjoyed the Torres Coronas tempranillo 2010 and a French Domaine La Galine syrah grenache.
Verdict: Cheerful, casual, interesting eating in a place that does live up to its claims of inclusion, often mislabelled in the hospitality industry. Not a place for whispering endearments into the ears of a loved one - unless she/he is gifted with very keen hearing.