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Boom. I'm excited. At last Auckland has its own Basque-style tapas bar complete with a counter laden with just-prepared, ready to eat pintxos, the name given to traditional tapas in northern Spain. For years we've seen "tapas" touted on menus in this town but, alarmingly, they can involve anything from authentic Spanish-inspired morsels to mini meals that bear no relation to Spanish cuisine whatsoever and which need to be ordered off a menu - precisely the opposite of what happens in their country of origin.
With San Sebastian the capital of the pintxos bar (pronounced pinch-oss, it's the Basque word for tapas), on a visit there last year I could not get enough of the numerous hole-in-the-wall bars offering this sociable way of eating. One moves from one bar to the next to discover a bewildering array of pintxos set out on counters. While some of the bars specialised in, say, croqueta, which would be freshly fried to order, or prawns, done in simple, tasty preparations and paired with a glass of the crisp, spritzy local white wine, txakoli, the eateries mostly offered an ever-changing parade of colourful, bite-sized snacks "spiked", often to a slice of bread. They drove us to wild greediness night after night.
Now, Pintxos in Ponsonby, which slid on to the scene late last year, is offering something similar much closer to home.
Eating this way is so deeply gratifying; there's a no-wait approach, just go up to the counter, feast your eyes on the tasty-looking treats, grab a few, sit and eat. And the way they tally it up at the end is based on the number of "spikes" you've collected - so not uptight!
At first the selection seemed a tad homogenous given most of the offerings were served on bread, but as the night wore on, more and more freshly prepared pintxos appeared and by the end I was left feeling more than satisfied. Small golden rectangles of polenta with rosemary, red pepper and manchego, tender empanadas, patatas bravas that were brave indeed, with a kick in the sauce that lingered. Large chunks of golden, poached peaches are wrapped in jamon serrano while a softly fried quail egg sits with an olive and jamon. A cold potato salad packed with mustard seeds, capers and topped with sausage was marvellous, as was a tiny ball of goat's cheese fried to golden and served with softly sweet, caramelised onions. White anchovies are criss-crossed on slices of hard-boiled egg and topped with an olive. A crispy golden croqueta oozes blue cheese and there's no sign of bland mashed potato filler or other such laziness.
We return to the counter again and again, then stop for a bit to let the chef get ahead and to rest our taste buds. We sip our wine and take it all in. Cool cats ride lazily past on their big-wheeled bicycles, a crowd gathers to take in the art lightshow being projected on to neighbouring buildings and there's a continuous flow of newcomers arriving and jostling for seats - and why wouldn't you, it's unbelievably pleasant and the atmosphere is so convivial and neighbourly. I wonder what will happen in the winter but a trip out back reveals another courtyard with a big outdoor fire and cute parlour room set up like a hipster's living room, complete with tasselled lampshades and old fashioned paintings. Pintxos shares a lane - and an owner, Jeremy Warnock - with Grand Central bar. It's going to get cosy back there in winter, I can tell.
We resume our eating but have started to slow down - soft, roasted peppers stuffed with tuna are delicious; spicy chorizo with red onion, stuffed mushrooms oozing with breadcrumbs and blue cheese; and a sweet cinnamon-spiced pastry; and cortado, a small glass of strong espresso "cut" with a shot of warm milk, spells the finish for us.
We'd have liked it if the spikes were less bamboo and more toothpicky to really remind us of Spain, not Asia, but we loved that we were treated like grown-ups with the trusting tally-up system, small bowls of complimentary toasted almonds and colourful jugs of water, complete with slices of orange, are brought to the table as soon as you're seated and the staff circulate all night, offering efficient, friendly service.
As we basked in the fading sunshine, I turned to my friend and said: "You know how Auckland wants to be a world-class city? I think we're going to make it!"
Well done Pintxos. Now I'm just looking forward to us progressing to being able to nonchalantly toss our serviettes on the floor, just like they do in San Sebastian.
Open: 7 days 1pm-late
From the menu: All pintxos $2.50 each
Drinks: Fully licensed
- VIVABy Nici Wickes