Address: 141 Queen St, Northcote Pt.
Phone: (09) 480 9483
One of the curious aspects of Auckland is that there is no visible match between the status of any given suburb and the quality of its eating places. There are locations where the mansions and throbbing exhausts of upmarket cars suggest a level of affluence that could afford the best but where the caterers aspire to nothing more than mediocrity.
Then there are more blessed suburbs. The Northcote/Birkenhead area boasts the Engine Room, which is never absent from any reputable listing of Auckland's best, and Eight Point Two, another that regularly pops up in the good eating guides.
In the Stafford Road Wine Bar it also has a casual venue that is one of the more flourishing examples of its type. Spinning off from the Point Wine retail outlet, it is coming up for its fourth year in business, which is testimony to its keeping the customers satisfied.
A main attraction is the atmosphere. And to keep the chat fuelled, there is a food menu that offers a good deal of variety and originality in a small compass.
They list tapas and small plates, although it wasn't clear to me where the distinction was drawn. These start as modestly as pumpkin seeds or a plate of olives and work their way up through duck wontons with torched rhubarb meringue to a dish of roast lamb backstrap with potatoes, spinach and chorizo.
Between three of us we ordered two of the tapas and four small plates and found we had more than enough to eat and had no room at all for dessert.
The first arrival was the duck liver and port pate, which came with crostini and caramelised onion, a routine dish but of a quality that made it one of the evening's highlights; rich, full of flavour and generous in serving.
I was happy to see one of the tapas choices was whole sardines, one of my favourites.
The term sardine is less than precise, with scores of species falling under that name ranging from tiny sild to fish bordering on under-nourished mackerel. These were not of the little variety sold crisply fried round the Mediterranean but rather more substantial, less sweet but still tasty. The dressing on the accompanying bread turned it rather soggy.
The lamb and feta kofta balls were a good hearty addition on a cold night and the crumbed prawns were delivered hot and crisp.
Salads can be disappointing in winter but the grilled haloumi version here was excellent, with lollo rosso lettuce dressed up with a beetroot foam.
We had almost forgotten we'd ordered scallops but, when they arrived last - small ones daintily dressed up in spoons - they were declared unanimously to be excellent.
We were obliged to pass on the chocolate jaffa pannacotta and creme brulee but we had spent a cheerful evening, decently fed and with good wine. For those not drawn by the wine, Stafford Road also offers an extensive range of beers and lively looking cocktails.
On winter Sundays they run what they call winemakers' dinners, a four-course degustation with paired wines.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $167 for two tapas and four small plates and six glasses of wine.
Wine list: a fine list, mainly from New Zealand, but with some good imports including the Vina Pomal Tempranillo Rioja.
Verdict: busy, lively, popular. Food to match everyone's drinks from the nibbles to somethingconsiderably more substantial.