Skycity's plans to expand its gambling operations - and the craven response of city planners to the offer of downtown redevelopment finance - may not impress all-comers, but what they are doing for Auckland diners certainly impresses me.
Peter Gordon's Bellota and the fine-dining Dine (or, if you must, dine) have been reliable presences in the precinct for years, but the eating in the main building has always been a bit dodgy (has anyone ever had a decent meal at Orbit?).
Now it's all go in the adjacent Federal St. Luke Dallow's The Red Hummingbird, which opened last week, displays the man's signature style (the menu bears the legend "Get Stuffed"). Meanwhile Sean Connolly, a British-born Australian, opens The Grill from September 1. And then there's Al Brown.
Like Connolly, Brown is one of those people who has become a celebrity chef, thanks to television. In Hunger for the Wild, he and Steve Logan, his partner in the superb, upscale Wellington restaurant Logan Brown, go hunting and fishing with local experts and cook the results al fresco. It's an entertaining watch and goes a long way towards erasing the memory of Brown's grievous miscasting as A.A. Gill's interlocutor at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival in May.
Anyway, Brown's in town at last. He opened two weeks ago what he describes as "a frantic and fast-paced eatery, serving unpretentious food on plates to share".
They don't take bookings, so the Professor and I were not hopeful when we arrived on a Friday evening and found the place so full that I doubt you could have slipped a Wall St banker's conscience in there. But the extremely personable woman at front of house said she was sure she could seat us within 15 minutes and did so in four.
Our spot, at the bar overlooking the kitchen, meant that we were away from the worst of the noise of the bellowing Friday-night suits and we had an excellent view of chef Kyle Street (a Logan Brown alumnus) and his busy team. (Brown was not in the kitchen but acting only as a genial and hospitable maitre d').
Thus positioned, we could get a look at dishes before deciding whether to order them. This was fatal since everything looked so damn good that we ordered more than we should have really and had no room for either of the desserts.
The by-the-glass (well, tumbler, actually) wine list runs to 18 names, far from all of them familiar, and adds an "on tap" option for $13 and $24 the 250ml/500ml carafe. If you end up spending a lot of money here, it will be because - like us - you ate too much.
It must be said that is a pitfall hard to avoid. In a separate "raw bar" they shuck to order Tio Point (Marlborough) and Orongo Bay (Northland) oysters, and clams, too, with sensational dipping sauces (the rock-sugar ginger syrup made me forswear my habit of only eating oysters natural).
We exulted in firm pink cubes of kingfish sashimi, dressed with a peppery oyster cream and matchsticks of crisp apple; the falafel was electrically, though not distressingly, spicy, a memorable take on a dish that is often bland and unimaginative.
For my money, the lamb's tongue was not best served by being mixed through a leafy salad: the distinctive flavour of the meat was somewhat lost in the welter of tastes. And the tortillas of battered snapper didn't work either, really, with the two levels of carbohydrate.
But the potato skins with manchego were like a bowl of chips served in some celestial pub and the roasted pork hock, with its thin, toffee-brittle crackling and flesh falling off the bone, was an absolute treat.
This place, which will be heaving come World Cup time, bodes well for the thoughtful redevelopment of SkyCity's dining options. Welcome to Auckland, Al. What took you so long?
Need to know
$ = $20-$40; $$ = 40-60; $$$ = $60+.
(Price guide reflects three courses for one person without drinks.)
Peter Gordon's Bellota
It is still the benchmark establishment for authentic tapas, pintxos and montaditos. A pan de Fernando and a glass of wine will whisk you to Spain for less than $20. Breathe it in. Lap it up.
Address: Almost straight across the road at 91 Federal St
Ph: (09) 363 6000