Phone: (09) 300 7252
Rating out of 10: Food: 8, Service: 8, Value: 7, Ambience: 8
We hadn't visited Ima since Fort St was turned into one of those shared walking and driving streets, and what a transformation. The cobbled street is charming, and although there's no street parking, there are cycle racks and a Wilson's car park right next to the restaurant.
During the street upgrade, Ima's owner, Yael, took the opportunity to revisit her beloved Israel, drinking up the atmosphere, researching new, Mediterranean/Israeli food ideas as well as redecorating the restaurant. The kitchen seems bigger and the dining tables larger, with a more spacious, cool feel all round.
Our friendly and efficient waiter explained the new sharing menu, which offers four side dishes with every main course, brought us glasses of sparkling water (no charge), plus a glass of Hawkes Bay riesling for me and a carafe of Feraud's chardonnay for Brian. Both wines echoed the mellow sunburned slopes of their birth. Delicious.
Entrees arrived relatively quickly: the "Brik" fried pastry case option looked innocent enough until our waiter cut it into four with a flourish. It was packed with raw tuna, preserved lemon and a soft-cooked egg. The yolk trickled out to form a creamy sauce, which looked amazing and tasted great too.
Next up was the lamb kibbeh, which came in the shape of two ovoid meatballs, with an incredibly smooth crisp burghul wheat coating, served with hummus and an Arabian salad. Again the flavours were unique Israeli-Mediterranean with hints of cumin, paprika, maybe a wisp of chilli. As Yael explains, dashing in from her latest acquisition, The Deli, two doors down, everything is cooked from scratch, on the spot, and served with passion and a deep sense of generosity.
All Ima's main courses are served with five side dishes for an extra $12.50 per person, and great value they are, too. Probably the star of the sides line-up was the arabian rice, with pine nuts and pistachios, but there was also a carrot salad with feta. The carrots had been roasted just enough to retain their crunch, and sprinkled with enough feta to cream every mouthful.
After all that it became bit blurred: another side starred tomatoes chopped and seasoned with a pinch of chilli, a fourth was a crunchy, minty concoction. Together they turned some of our plainer protein meals into an exciting, memorable whole.
Brian's chicken meschan main course didn't need pepping up. A traditional Arab dish, flavoured with sumac, that I hadn't encountered before, it had been slow cooked, then grilled to crisp the skin. Combined with pine nuts and red onion, it was excellent.
The line-caught snapper was served whole and de-boned, which is a miracle on its own, but this one was also moist and perfectly cooked just waiting for our sides to pep it up. My only suggestion: could they scale the fish just as carefully so people can eat the skin too?
My fried halloumi cheese was salty and delicious on its own and also a perfect match for our sides. We finished the lot. But we weren't finished. Our companion had advised us to leave room for dessert so we ordered two between the three of us - which was plenty. His favourite, filo pastry cigars filled with turkish delight and pistachio nuts and served with a rose-flavoured custard was brilliant, but for me, the chocolate and hazelnut was out of this world. The chocolate layer was dark and creamy, under that was a chocolate and hazelnut praline, and the third layer was hazelnut macaroon. The whole thing was topped with vanilla bean icecream and chocolate sauce. Nothing was too sweet, instead it was rich, chocolatey and with a silky texture. Stunning.
Overall this was an outstanding meal and a couple of notches up from the last time we dined at Ima. As Yael says, she named her restaurant Ima, the Israeli word for mother, because she wants to serve the kind of nourishing, generous soul food she grew up with in her mother's kitchen.
This new menu, and the way it's arranged with those delectable side plates, does the trick.
Our meal: $213 for two entrees, three main courses and sides, two desserts, a piece of halva and one carafe (three glasses) plus one glass of wine and never-ending fizzy water.
Our wine: We were impressed by the smallish but excellently worked-out wine list and Ima's policy of offering carafes at well under the price you'd pay for three wines by the glass.
Verdict: Ima is a great extension of the kind of service and standards we're getting used to receiving at some of Auckland's top dining spots. Prices are reasonable, the cuisine gives you a real feel for Yael's home town, Tel Aviv.