Eight.Two, Birkenhead

By Peter Calder

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Herald on Sunday rating: * * * *
Address: 82 Hinemoa St, Birkenhead
Phone: (09) 419 9082
Web: www.eightpointtwo.co.nz
Open: Tuesday to Saturday 6pm to midnight

I had a deeply disappointing time at this place in June '06. The room was cold and cheerless, the service was to match, the food was either unremarkable or bad and the bill was $154. It certainly seemed to confirm my impression that - the then-new Engine Room excepted - the North Shore remained a gastronomic desert.

Well, you can mark down the re-invented Eight.Two (say "Eight Point Two") as another oasis.

The Blonde and I were back in town after a week at the beach. But this did not mean we were any easier to please than normal. Our camping buddies are demanding diners and careful cooks, and the gas stoves had been used to produce some pretty splendid food. Even the Blonde - whose natural habitat is a cafe rather than the kitchen - did her bit, knocking up crepes stuffed with mascarpone and poached cherries.

So we had set the bar pretty high and it would be wrong to say that Eight.Two cleared it with ease: both mains featured flesh - blue-nose, and pork - that was more than marginally overcooked, and our otherwise-competent waiter pursued that odious practice of topping up my half-full glass. (I sometimes bark at waiters when they do this. This time I let it pass because I was feeling in a good mood. But I do wish they would realise that, even if they are just being helpful, it will always seem as if they are trying to make me buy more wine. In these days of host responsibility where less is more, that's a bad look).

But these were slight blemishes on a fine evening.

Eight.Two occupies a handsome villa that has been gutted to form a beautifully refurbished L-shaped dining room which gives on to a plain patio at the end of which three gas flames issue from a large stainless-steel installation. It looks more like an item of catering equipment than a design idea and one of the flames kept blowing out in a light breeze. But the rest of the place is bright and sleek.

The kitchen is now in the charge of expatriate Brit Nigel Marriage (previously at the Michelin-starred New Angel in Dartmouth, owned by John Burton Race of the television show French Leave) and the food is a testament to the decision to appoint him.

On the menu, the dishes seem unremarkable but on the table they are sublime, the work of a man who is not straining for effect: he does simple things superbly which is - competitors take note - much better than doing fussy things adequately.

We revelled in two cold soups. The Blonde's was a delicate gazpacho with a compact cake of fish and prawns, and mine was watercress with small cubes of lime and cucumber and several fat oysters sitting proud above the surface.

The mains, overcooking aside, were also of intelligent but unshowy conception: black pudding and apricot with the roast pork, and a delicate sauce of caper and lemon on the bluenose.

A shared dessert of stonefruit baked in a batter so light the fruit seemed poached made the perfect finale. The wisdom of keeping it simple was never so convincingly demonstrated.

Wine list: Small and smart. The 250ml carafes-for-one are great value.
Vegetarians: One entrée, one main.
Watch out for: The big dumb candles on the terrace.
Sound check: Conversation-friendly
Bottom line: Top class.

- Herald on Sunday

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