The Professor is living proof that I do like a woman who speaks her mind. So I loved our waitress at Little Jimmy. Asked about a dish described on the menu as "cured" fish, she puckered her features into a grimace as she essayed an explanation. Mention of a salad of wood ear mushrooms seemed to induce a state of mild panic. "It's rather ... unusual," she said at last and when I told her we were too, she didn't seem entirely reassured.
It's an occupational requirement, really, to be attracted to the more outre dishes on offer. And at Little Jimmy, it's easy, because the menu is pretty much a cliche-free zone. The burrata - when they have it; they didn't the night we went - comes not with basil, tomato and something balsamic but with figs and grilled peach; chilli and sweet caramel duel for attention on the lamb ribs; the beef short rib is curried.
Half-bar, half-eatery, Little Jimmy, which opened last week on the corner of Manukau and Empire Rds, is owned by Guy and Sarah Malyon of One Tree Grill, which, I am told, has repositioned itself slightly upmarket to accommodate its "little brother". Chef Mark Nicholson, latterly from the Raven and Cook deli down the street, has worked with Sean Connolly at The Grill.
They've done a great job of the fit-out which includes whimsical graffiti by artist Ross Lewis (a fat man fishing from a whale's back), old-school gold lettering on the windows and cutlery with spanner handles.
The service was slow and a little random, it has to be said: having received only one
of five dishes we had ordered we were asked whether we wanted dessert, but it was early days and I'm sure they will lift their game.
I have less patience with their habit of sending out dishes in any order, though this annoying practice is now epidemic in Auckland (at Burger Burger the other night, my burger and fries arrived 10 minutes apart). It may mean to denote a cruisy atmosphere but I say it places the kitchen's convenience ahead of the diner's experience. It can't be hard to get a salad and raw salmon with sweet wasabi cream and salted cucumber (a cracker dish, that) on the table ahead of a rich bowl of lamb ribs; all you need to do is want to.
That said, what we did get was excellent: that cured fish, served cool, didn't have a vinegary, pickled tang, but a comfortingly rich depth and the accompaniment of herb-flecked barley and smoky roasted tomato was perfect.
The silky, fatty lamb ribs were a treat, though they wanted a bit more of a chilli kick; a green lentil bake, though in need of a moistening sauce, suggested some thought had been given to vegetarians, who also get their own sharing board.
I thought the desserts rather routine and, at $15, pretty pricey, but this is the kind of place worth returning to. Good luck getting a table.
Small plates $16-$21; larger $26-$34; sharing boards $38-$48; pizzas $25-$28; desserts $9-$13.
Verdict: An inventive and attractive newcomer.