Key Points:

Restaurant reviewer Ewan McDonald revisits his favourite dining experiences from 2008 and recommends 20 places to eat out in Auckland

Parmesan-flavoured frozen air. That's the sort of food we should be talking about here (Ferran Adria does it: cheese is aerated then frozen in a complex process so it dissolves in your mouth). Or whether the perfect temperature for cooking a steak is 58C and not what your Weber grills at. Or whether the whole techno-emotionale and sous-vide thing is a load of bollocks (vacuum-packed then slow-cooked in the sort of dry-ice box where they keep Walt Disney's head or the effects for a Deep Purple reunion concert).

Gourmets or gourmands might snigger that the local Animal Rightists - who surely should be Animal Leftists - have discovered foie gras and are opposed to it, only a decade after the San Franciscans and New Yorkers did so, and were embarrassed to find they were protesting a practice that is largely - as Mike Moore might say - a goneburger.

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Sadly, none of the above are what we will be talking about. The main item on every restaurateur's menu now, for the past year and for the year or more to come, is money. Money, money, with no apologies to Abba.

What we thought was about banking - the headlines about credit crunches and photos of suits carrying their careers out of their offices in cardboard boxes, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Royal Bank of Scotland, all those mysterious cartels known only by initials - is coming to a restaurant, or a bar, near you.

For evidence, flick back through this newspaper and read the fine print. In the classifieds. Go to the Businesses for Sale and see how many are cafes, bars and restaurants. And don't be seduced by the agents' optimistically worded ads.

In Auckland several upmarket retailers have gone to the wall. Next will be the hospitality sector. The places that attract overseas visitors - who won't be able to afford to travel. The places which rely on local customers - who are cutting spending and reducing their credit card debt. It's nothing new for the trade. Hospitality, traditionally, has a high failure rate. Few start-ups last two years.

Mind you, it's not been a bad year for start-ups in Auckland, though few are at the fine-dining end of the market. Maybe just one. Or two.

Early in our dining year, Jude and I enjoyed simple and classically cooked food at a new bistro in Herne Bay, serendipitously named Pure. Later we would experience a couple of over-the-top ventures, the Capone-themed Prohibition on Ponsonby Rd and Luke Dallow's mega-bar, Sale Street.

We preferred the smaller, intimate, passionate places like Pure or Geoff Chunn's makeover of the justly maligned Delicious to the uber-ventures.

Often, this year, we ate off-Ponsonby or outside the Viaduct - Howick, Birkenhead, Mt Albert, Onehunga.

Too often we were disappointed. In the simple things - service, knowledge of food and wine, fresh ingredients. Especially when the bill was not far short of Ponsonby or the Viaduct. Heck, most people in this game have the Food Channel and some industry training, or even Google. Much of the business ain't rocket science, or even rocket salad.

So we found - and you should not be surprised at this - that the best evenings out were those where the true professionals of the trade didn't strut, but simply strolled their stuff. As they have, night after night.

The charming: Natalia Shamroth at the Engine Room, Michael Dearth at The Grove, Chris Upton at O'Connell Street. The classicists: Geoff Scott at Vinnie's, Simon and Creghan Wright at the French Cafe, Nigel Marriage at Eight.Two, Tony Astle at Antoine's. The daring: Sid Sahrawat at The Grove, Simon Gault at Euro (if you're reading this, Jude, his book

Nourish

is simple, everyday useful and dinner-party wow. If I found it under the tree...)

Almost time to go but I've been asked to come up with two recommendations for 2009. So easy. Peter Thornley has come up the Southern Motorway at last, and is cooking what and where he should be, at the revived and revitalised Kermadec seafood palace on the Viaduct. And, after far too long under the radar, Naresh Solanki has emerged in an utterly funky take on a curry house - M, where Salsa used to be, on Richmond Rd. Hindi tapas? I'm in.

Man of the moment: Michael Meredith

If you want to eat well in Auckland, go halfway down Dominion Rd. (That line was bound to come into this piece somewhere).

When I grew up there was not a deli, restaurant or cafe between our house in Shackleton Rd and the Valley Rd lights (sorry, it's the Eden Quarter now). Now it's a cornucopia of Asian, Indian, Turkish, Peruvian, halal, Lebanese.

Those are not where you go to eat best. You go to a tiny restaurant of 28 tables, in two old-fashioned shops (shortly to be three and about 40 tables), opposite a funeral parlour.

You go for the food of Michael Meredith, and you go for the experience of a restaurant that has found every one of the boxes - service, wine, style, ambience - and ticked them all.

Yes, you could - and I have - said the same, or very close to, about the French Cafe, O'Connell St Bistro, Cibo, Euro and Vinnie's over the 12 or so years I have been Eating Out and writing about it for Viva. Right now there is no place in Auckland that inspires, that excites, that I look forward to an evening at, as much as Meredith's.

Perhaps that is why Michael Meredith has been shoulder-tapped (brave people: I wouldn't tap those muscular, exotically tattooed Samoan shoulders without asking permission) to represent New Zealand at next year's Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, alongside Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, Jean-Paul Jeunet ...

Why? As Meredith's opened 18 months ago, Michael Dearth of The Grove, his previous employer and a partner in the new business, called him "the Zen chef".

In Meredith's words, "The thing I want [my staff] to understand more than anything, is food and how to respect it." Or as a senior staffer put it, "Without Michael's way, there's no way." Meredith's way means that everything takes time. It is refined cooking. You need patience to strive for perfection...

If the service and the wine and the style and the ambience and the search for perfection stay the same at Meredith's, all night, every night, the food does not. The chef has moved on, has tried and discarded, tweaked and refined. Relentlessly.

In my first review of Meredith's, I wrote: "I would eat anything from this man's kitchen." That's one thing that hasn't changed.

20 places where you should eat in Auckland

Antoine's Modern

NZ/French accents

Cibo Modern

NZ/Asian tastes

Clooney

Modern European

dine

by Peter Gordon Fusion

Eight.Two

Innovative classics

The Engine Room

Bistro

Euro

NZ Bistro/Techno

The French Cafe

Contemporary European

Grand Harbour

Chinese/Hong Kong style

The Grove

Modern NZ

Kermadec

Seafood

M

Modern Indian

Meredith's

Modern NZ/Techno

Molten

Modern NZ

O'Connell Street Bistro

Modern European bistro

Satya

South Indian

Soto

Modern Japanese

Soul

Modern bistro / Seafood

Te Motu

Modern NZ/Vineyard

Vinnie's

Modern NZ/Euro currency