They say the average lifespan of a restaurant in Auckland is 15 months, which makes me marvel at how many overstay that welcome. Pop-ups dodge this grim arithmetic. Nimble and fresh operations, they seek to appeal precisely because they are evanescent.
Jafa by Night, which opened in the late summer, is what it says on the packet - an evening operation for the cafe at the western end of Richmond Rd which was, for a while, the hottest table in the area. The Professor's fondness for their raw energy salad sank my prospects of buying a large yacht.
The night operation is the brainchild of Aftab Moosa, a dentist by day, who indulges his foodie passion by being a pop-up restaurateur. The old wisdom is that the way to make a million bucks is to get two million bucks and open a restaurant, so it is good that, to quote my old mum, he'll always have dentistry to fall back on if it all turns sour.
Moosa secured the services of Ross Birch, whose CV includes Snapdragon at the Viaduct and Citizen Park in Kingsland, to design a menu that changes fortnightly (a new one starts on Tuesday) and what he's come up with is a snappy, modern bistro line-up of four entrees, five mains (all including a generous plate of veg and spud) and three desserts.
There's a bit too much of that mangled menuspeak for my liking: the coriander is "young", the honeycomb "natural" (there's another kind?) and whoever came up with the idea of referring to crumbled matter in a dessert as "soil" should go to the naughty corner now and stay there.
Birch should possibly join him, for a few minutes, for the buckwheat gnocchi that were on the most recent menu. Gluten-free they may have been, but they looked like gingerbread and had the consistency of those things you give dogs when they bring the ball back.
A rich sauce might have made them palatable in a back-country hut, but relieved only by cubes (sorry, "textures") of roasted pumpkin and dots of ricotta, it really was god-awful. The Professor, who left a lot behind, suggested the waiter ask the chef to try eating the dish, but we heard nothing back. Perhaps he lacked the nerve.
It was the sole serious blunder in an otherwise pleasant meal that was remarkable mainly for being rather unremarkable. Lamb shoulder pressed into a terrine-like block was quite cool, but a minty pesto dominated rather than enhanced the meat's flavour. Globs of labneh semi-submerged in a pumpkin soup (sorry, "veloute") worked well, as did roasted monkfish with a celeriac salad.
It's hard to overpraise a bread and butter pudding made with a terrific brioche and pouring custard. It was the kind of hearty cooking that a neighbourhood place like this needs to strive for. At present, it falls somewhere between homely and cutting-edge.
Verdict: Somewhere between homely and cutting edge.
Entrees $19; mains $31-$36; desserts $14-$15.