Phone: (09) 377 1911
Rating out of 10: Food: 10, Service: 10, Value: 10, Ambience: 10
It was friends who'd moved down country 20 years before and returned to the French Cafe for their wedding anniversary who proclaimed: "It was still brilliant, even better than before."
So we decided it was time to see for ourselves how Auckland's poshest place was doing in these days of celebrity cooks and the tasting-plate frenzy. I called amd yes, we could come that very week, if we were prepared to start at 6pm and leave at 8.15pm. So in we strolled, having found a park right outside.
And we were dazzled. The room we were shown to, just beside the bar, was much more spacious and airy than I remember. Our table, with its thick white linen setting, was directly opposite a large Karl Maughan painting of brilliant yellow wisteria and pink peonies that was better than overlooking any garden. There was even a back bolster on my cushioned bench seat. Meanwhile, a team of black-suited waiters, all of them with delectable French accents, presented us with a thick wine list and a surprisingly short menu.
Although we couldn't have the degustation menu - it takes three hours to prepare and devour - the French Cafe has moved on to four-course dinners, which give you more chances to sample the range of its amazing cuisine. You start with hors d'oevres, followed by entree, premier plat and dessert.
There were no arched eyebrows when we asked for tap water and our waiter was particularly helpful with the wine list. Our first course arrived promptly, "a little taster from the chef", he explained. It was finely chopped smoked salmon served with cafe-made potato crisps. Tres bon.
Next, to our amazement, came the amuse-bouche, another gift from the chef to get our "mouth juices" going. This time it was a small glass of velvety pumpkin soup, topped with foam. Beautiful.
Then, as Brian said later, "along came something we actually ordered". His appetiser was the silky, gossamer-light chicken liver parfait, served with thin, crunchy crostini. My swimmer crab came shredded in a big bowl with a matchstick-sized Asian-flavoured salad. Both were perfect.
Next came hot, cafe-baked rolls with smoked and churned butter, followed by the lobster baked in parchment for me and the day's special pork belly for Brian. What the waiter hadn't told us was that the pork came with one of the wonders of New Zealand seafood - and one we hardly ever see here - a large, barely-cooked scampi.
So on it went, drum roll after drum roll, which begged another glass of wine. Brian's crispy roast duckling arrived looking like a pear on the plate. It was delicious. My smoked beef was fillet, sliced inches thick, cooked rare and tender with enough smokiness to give it a tang.
We chose one dessert to share, fully expecting to be ushered to the bar to eat it as we were approaching our 8.15pm deadline, but again our waiter surprised us, this time with pink sorbets perched upon crisp juicy raw apple: yet another present from the chef, this time to clear our palates. He also told us we could stay at our table and finish our dessert - tender fresh peach with almond cream scattered with pistachio nuts and raspberries.
Meanwhile, the restaurant had filled to brimming. All the small tables were occupied with smiling couples and groups. A large table, some of whom were French, started to play and wound up the decibel level. But still, thanks to the thick brown carpet interspersed with wooden floors, and muted music, we could hear each other easily.
This was an evening to remember and way above anything else we've experienced in Auckland - or anywhere for that matter. The decor is fabulous, the service impeccable, the food glorious.
It's also great value for money. Our meal, with five glasses of wine, cost just over $300: a steal for what turned out to be eight courses in the most glamorous yet relaxed setting in Auckland.
Our meal: $302 for two four-course dinners plus five glasses of wine.
Our wine: Creative, enormous and interesting, it showcases the best both New Zealand and France have to offer.
Verdict: If you want a special occasion dinner, look no further than the French Cafe, which occupies a category of its own for ambience, cuisine, wine and a brilliant team of French waiters who make you feel a million dollars.