Mt Eden is rapidly earning a reputation for great food. It has Bowmans, where we had one of our best meals this year, and Molten, which is one of my favourites. And we kept hearing good things about Altar, on the other side of Mt Eden Village (and a scary trip across the road if you're parked on the wrong side).
Altar is known for brunch and lunch rather than dinner, so it was a calculated risk to take guests there. Although the building itself is gracious, with towering high ceilings and an impressive entrance, we were mildly dismayed at the tiny menu and the lingering smell of stale fat.
Probably the curse of those elegant ceilings. We sat in a pretty bay window, two on the window seat and me on a chair looking out past the early Christmas lights to Mt Eden Rd. The wine list was as short, but well selected.
The Rimu Grove pinot gris we chose was absolutely perfect - an aromatic mouthful with no bitter after-taste, it was one of the best pinot gris I've tasted and, at $45 a bottle, something of a steal. Altar has its own wine label, much of which is reasonably priced. Its Altar Kennedy Point quaffing savignon blanc is $8 a glass.
Because we were late starting, we moved straight onto the main courses: fish of the day ($24) - snapper - for Nicki, chicken and leek pie ($16.50) for Louise and my latest craze, squid salad, ($16.50) for me.
"Is it big enough? Do we need bread or extra vegetables to make it substantial enough for dinner?" I asked the waiter.
"Oh no, the meals are quite big," she said.
Luckily, Louise had a hankering for fries, because when my meal arrived it was large - but only with an unexciting salad liberally smothered in mayonnaise. And while the calamari was served hot and cooked just enough to be tender and delicious, there was not nearly enough of it. A man would have treated it as an entree and ordered another main course and had about the right amount.
The snapper was a much more dinner-sized meal. Again, the fish was beautifully just-cooked and the sauteed potatoes and salad accompaniment transformed it into a perfectly adequate - though by no means outstanding - meal.
Louise's chicken pie looked best. It arrived in its own ramekin, topped with beautifully browned puff pastry, again accompanied by salad. The only problem was that it was difficult to extricate the chicken and pastry from the dish with a knife and fork. She was still poking away at it long after we were finished, her difficulty possibly something to do with the dish the pie had been assembled in, which was more an oversized latte cup than anything else. I was really looking forward to dessert, but again I chose badly.
The menu was short and well priced, with everything at $6.50, however many were focused on chocolate. The best of our three choices was undoubtedly the crepes served with poached pears and cream. The pears had been cooked in syrup and were beautifully tender and tasty, the hot crepes were light and fluffy.
Nicki's lemon tart was large but not all that exciting. The pastry was overcooked and she ate only half. My meringue with berry couli and icecream was like something from a children's birthday party. While the icecream was okay, the three or four tiny meringues clinging to the single scoop were like those sugary, powdery ones you can buy in a packet. And the couli was a thin line that had been squeezed out of a bottle.
Overall, Altar was disappointing. Even this close to Christmas, it was only half full. There was no feel of occasion or excitement - indeed by the time we left, shortly before 10pm, the waiting staff were obviously keen for us to go. I'd advise you to stick to Altar as a lunch venue when, I understand, it is excellent.
Where: 465 Mt Eden Rd.
Ph: (09) 631 7184
Our meal: $131 for three main courses and desserts.
Wine list: Short.
Verdict: A cafe trying to make the transition to neighbourhood dining but not quite getting there. If they dimmed the lights, put candles on the tables and cleared away the counter food it would be better.
Out of 10