Address: 160 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby
Phone: (09) 320 4237
Online: saan.co.nz

They don't take bookings at Saan. Instead, you turn up, find it full and give them your cellphone number. They call you when a table is ready.

I presume the idea is to create a sense of unattainability that, among the reef-fish diners of Ponsonby, is hard to distinguish from hysteria. But it's really a booking system designed with the establishment, not the customer, in mind and I don't care for it. If New York's Momofuku Ko can have a reservation system, all these places that "operate a walk-in policy" can, too.

Playing hard to get can backfire, anyway. Having declined the long wait once, we scored a table by turning up at 5.30pm on a Tuesday (it would have been a challenge at 7pm). By that time my taste buds were aching and my expectations were high, so perhaps mild disappointment was inevitable.

Saan, the new venture by the people behind the excellent Cafe Hanoi in Britomart, focuses on the cuisine of northern Thailand, so it's not the place to go if you're after moneybags, pad thai and green curry chicken. Isaan (northeastern) food has Khmer and Laotian influences; the food from the former Lan Na kingdom (if you have been to Chiang Mai, you probably ate it) is only mildly spicy and big on deep frying.

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In the site of the old Video Ezy, the new restaurant's Far East colonial design (think cream rattan) is a bit beige, although the range of seating options - booths and tables big and small - is smart.

The kitchen staff working under the direction of head chef Wichian Trirattanavatin can be seen pounding spices by hand and the food almost audibly crackles with freshness. I loved the cured beef which came on tangy, minty perilla leaves with toasted coconut and chilli jam - you wrap it up into a leafy roll which you dip into a sugary vinegar.

Sashimi-like treats of raw tiger prawn and tuatua, with a refreshingly tart chilli sauce, were another knockout, and the satay sauce on skewers of tender grilled goat was quite free of the sickening sweetness that ruins most of its ilk.

But the "deep fried whole fish" (cubes of fish artfully arranged on a mummified skeleton) was as dry as particle board; the pork belly was not even slightly crispy as promised and it was undercooked, and the batter on some banana fritters at dessert time was like leather (actually, all the desserts lacked distinctive character).

The service is pretty crisp, if slightly self-congratulatory: waitstaff have a habit of announcing each new dish as though it were the Second Coming and I had to ask (more brusquely than I probably should have) for a waitress to stop calling me darling, which is not a term of address for someone you just met, unless you're an actor.

None of this will deter the locals who swoop on anything new. But my advice: wait a few weeks for things to settle down before inviting them to book your patronage.

Verdict: Thai food, but probably not as you know it.

Dishes $12-$34