Herald on Sunday Rating: 3.5/5
Address: 168 Hurstmere Road
Phone: (09) 489 9510
Website: pinotplus.co.nz

We had scarcely taken our seats at this small and well-reviewed Takapuna eatery before owner John Ingle was beside us. Three glasses materialised on the table top, and he sloshed generous tastes of three different chardonnays into them, all the while maintaining a rapid-fire explanation of terroir or provenance or winemakers' CVs. Then he was gone.

He seemed not at all abashed when we told him on his return that two of our trio were non-drinkers (I didn't have the heart to add that the third dislikes chardonnay).

It's a matter of taste, I suppose, and perhaps mood, but I have to say that I was slightly taken aback (and my two companions were even less amused) at being pounced on and plied with wine with not so much as a hello, never mind a by-your-leave.

Enthusiastic hospitality is one thing, but if you take the view that the customer is always right, it pays to let him open his mouth before serving him, I reckon.

The knowledgeable Ingle has been around the traps since shortly after wine was invented, wielding a corkscrew at Vinnie's, The Wine Loft and Number 5, among other places.

I last came across him at Prohibition, where I imprudently ordered a glass of red to accompany my beef. Amid much fanfare, Ingle was summoned and, before I knew what had happened, a 500ml bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape or somesuch was breathing in a decanter before me and $60 or so had been added to my bill. I forbore to say that a glass of a rough Aussie shiraz would have answered my needs.

It would be unfair of me not to mention that Ingle's shtick will very probably impress, even delight, many people. If I had shown up in the mood for a glass or three, rather than dinner, the Mine Host routine might have been most welcome. But the sign outside says "great food", and it's not unreasonable to expect to be treated as a diner, even at a place with such a vinous name.

Pinot Plus has kept the crew that worked the kitchen in the premises' previous incarnation as Wine and Roses, a terrific little neighbourhood bistro that I regret having visited only once, largely because it didn't take bookings.

But when I rang to reserve (in the Professor's name), Ingle said that "of course" they take bookings at Pinot Plus, which was just as well because the place was busy when we got there and chocka when we left.

That's hardly surprising, really. The atmosphere is just what a local eatery's should be, cheery and relaxed. The kitchen staff may be a bit stretched - the wait for our food seemed interminable by comparison with the supersonic wine service - but what's the hurry?

That "great food" sign may overstate it slightly, but the plates that come out are more than creditable, if our selection was any guide. Tiny roulades of eggplant stuffed with pecans and figs and served chilled were the standout; a genuinely original treatment of a vegetable whose versatility is too often ignored.

The lambs' brains, too - served with new potatoes and a sauce ravigote that emphasised parsley rather than capers - were great; crisp on the outside and creamy within. Too few restaurants serve brains - or any organ meat for that matter - and they can be hard to find at all but specialty butchers, so I always order them when I spot them on a menu. These did not disappoint.

Reluctantly I passed over the slow-cooked beef cheeks - the evening was too summery for that - and we went for a couple of risotti: seafood and duck, which were perfectly sloppy and al dente, though the duck was a little hard to find.

The sole disappointment were little goat-cheese tartlets with red onion, capsicum, walnuts and cherry tomatoes: the filling was great but the pastry crumbly and greasy.

There are several main options and all dishes can be upsized if you're so inclined. But eating here is best done widely. On the strip where franchise operations and sports bars proliferate, Pinot Plus is an exception: compact and user-friendly. It just pays to be thirsty as well as hungry when you approach.

Ambience: Ample
Vegetarians: Several choices
Watch out for: Wine-tasting
Bottom line: Great wine, good food

THE BILL
$193 for three
Small plates: $11-$19 (add $10 for main size)
Wine: From $10 glass, $38 bottle