Rating: * * * *
Address: Elliott Stables, 39-41 Elliott Street
Phone: (09) 365 1111
It would have been a good idea to find a Sicilian or Bohemian restaurant, since four of us were on the way to see the visiting production of The Winter's Tale, which is set in those two countries (spellbinding, since you ask; I reckon that playwright is quite a talent). But I don't know of a specifically Sicilian eatery in Auckland - suggestions welcome - and the closest Bohemian joint is probably in Puhoi, which didn't seem practical. So the flavour of the night was Spanish.
Elliott Stables, the cosy cobbled precinct behind Smith & Caughey, is just a few steps from the theatre. The development is billed on its website (which, frustratingly, links to only two of 14 tenants, although several have websites of their own) as "reminiscent of an old European cobbled lane", which seems an odd sort of cultural cringe; I found it very reminiscent of Victorian Auckland, actually, which is where it was made.
This kind of nook is common in Melbourne but in Auckland we have preferred to demolish whole city blocks so we can let weeds grow on vacant land or put up gimcrack apartments that leak when it rains.
The stables are all about food: the people behind Bouchon and Pastis have Torchon, which specialises in savoury crepes, and Frankie's Wurstbude celebrates one of the very, very few glories of German cuisine, the sausage. Meanwhile, specialist shops deal in meat, tea, whisky, cheese and more.
El Faro takes its name from the Spanish for lighthouse, which seems an odd choice for a place so deeply buried in the middle of a building and far from any view of the sea. But with winter beginning to signal its approach, we were happy to be cosily tucked into the interior. (I'd been asked when I booked whether I wanted a laneway spot or somewhere more intimate inside. It was a nice touch, I thought, especially because it is so uncommon.)
It is essentially a tapas bar, this place, but if the atmosphere is casual, the service is not. Our (Spanish) waitress took plenty of time to explain the menu and to calculate what we might comfortably eat in the time available before curtain-up and, when one of our number wasn't sure which of two red wines to order, brought him rather substantial tastes of each.
While that was going on, I was tempted by the several sherries they had on offer, taking the waitress' recommendation of an amontillado, which went very well with the tapas that rapidly arrived.
These were proper Spanish-style tapas, the most authentic I've seen in Auckland, with the exception of the ones at Bellota in Federal St: marinated mushrooms, little banderillas (toothpicks, named after the tormenting darts used in the bullfight) spiked with juicy anchovies and olives; small plates of albondigas (meatballs) or sweetly casseroled eggplant.
Later we moved to a generous mussel pot and bowls of hearty beef stew with green olives. The fries included with one dish seemed a bit out of place and were anyway saltless and slightly soggy, but we strolled off towards the Aotea Centre knowing we had found an excellent pre-theatre dining spot.
Wine list: Vinos de Espana
Watch out for: The steep staircase
$183 for four
Tapas $6 to $8
Mains $22 to $23
Wine (one bottle red, one glass sherry) $58
Footnote: My most exciting gastronomic discovery in recent weeks is the breakfast burrito at Alleluya in St Kevin's Arcade: eggs, creamily scrambled, laced with coriander and chilli, wrapped in a tortilla, topped with mild salsa and avocado. Sensational.