Imagine walking in from the busy intersection where Customs St meets Beach Rd, into a moodily lit bar that then gives way to a long, light and airy dining space sporting the huge stencilled words, white-on-white, that declare "I hate it when you leave". You have arrived at District Dining.
This new kid on the Britomart block is the work of husband and wife team, chef and restaurateur Warren Turnbull and Mimi Gilmour. The pair have brought their District Dining model to Auckland from Sydney, where Turnbull already has his fine dining restaurant, Assiette, as well as the Surry Hills District Dining he opened last year.
The menu follows the very "now" style of dining where shared plates are offered, as opposed to individual meals, but we were pleased to see that neither ribs nor calamari make an appearance. Instead there were pig's ears, beef cheeks and ox tongue to get us talking. We began with three snacks; a beef chimichanga, polenta croquettes and the pig with Szechuan salt.
Now, before you start imagining the pig's ears as large, chewy flaps of gristle let me assure you they were far from it. Thinly sliced, deep fried and seasoned with szechuan salt to spice them up, they were delicious. Crispy, but with a chewy centre, they were better than crackling.
We moved on to polenta croquettes and these were dreamy. Bearing no resemblance to typical greasy croquettes, they were soft and creamy, oozing with taleggio and bold with their wonderful corn flavour.
Our third snack, the chimichanga, was less heroic. Clumsily proportioned, the beef-filled burrito was served with an avocado dip seasoned with curry, which unfortunately had the effect of obliterating the other flavours in the dish.
For our next phase of eating we kept it light with a baby carrot salad and trevally sashimi. The latter was marvellously refreshing, the dark trevally flesh balancing on spoonfuls of that super grain, quinoa, and wasabi cream to whack it all into place. Our baby carrot salad had seen too much of a good thing - cayenne pepper - which had barged all else out of its way and even the cooling qualities of salted yoghurt couldn't soften the blow.
Our meat mains arrived and we were bowled over by their tenderness and tastiness. The braised beef cheek was gloriously gelatinous; the celeriac mash and freshly grated horseradish were sprightly accompaniments and the perfect palate match for the beef. The raw shallots, used as a garnish, were not. I hope they were just a mistake and not meant as a regular component of this dish.
Our gnocchi, was packed full of sharp and salty parmesan, fresh thyme and, combined with the soft veal shank meat, the tender little squares made for divine mouthfuls.
But they'd almost saved the best until last - the Eton mess for dessert was the best I've ever tasted. Made simply from smashed meringue, strawberries and whipped cream, it is not as easy to get right as it sounds. The creaminess and sweetness was cleverly balanced with a raspberry sorbet that brought it all together.
Though this is casual dining, the surrounds are sophisticated and so is the service. Our waiter was well-informed, or happy to ask the chef if he was unsure, and we liked that he kept brushing our table between courses. When you're sharing plates, the debris can accumulate.
So even though some small details let District Dining down on our visit - cold plates, even colder shank meat, seemingly thoughtless garnishes, a creme brulee was overly eggy and served too warm - we couldn't help but like it. There's an ease in the ambience, yet it's sophisticated and there's an excitement in the food that makes me want to go back for more.
From the menu: Beef chimichanga $10, crispy pig's ears $10, polenta and taleggio croquettes $10, baby carrot salad $18, trevally, quinoa & ponzu $19, braised beef cheek $29, parmesan gnocchi and veal shank $29.
Drinks: Fully Licensed.