Returning to Auckland after a lengthy spell in exile in London, our guest was keen to know about the latest Auckland eating hotspots. The Britomart area was not on the radar on her last visit but on a busy Saturday night the territory provided a fine range of people watching.
As a representative example of what Auckland now offers, District Dining was a good choice. It has chic decor, the food is a fair reflection of the contemporary Auckland restaurant approach and it has that indefinable feel of an inner city destination venue - laid-back but smart.
The small plate selection dominates but for those who don't regard such offerings as serious food there are some main courses of substantial, if not huge, dimensions.
There are several of those novelty items calculated to remind you are not at home unless you are the most adventurous domestic performer - crispy pigs ears with Szechuan salt, kingfish with soy tapioca and wasabi snow, veal tongue with pickled turnip - along with simpler items like smoked fish croquettes with dill mayonnaise. This was one of our first selections and was good - hot, crisp croquettes with a firm, smoked flavour enhanced by that delightful hint of dill that goes so well with fish. The school prawns were also good, like sea-flavoured crisps and probably just as bad for you. There seemed to be a quite a lot of them, but like all crisps they proved irresistible and soon disappeared. Our third little sharer was braised brisket pancakes, a neat twist on the Peking duck theme although the braising would have profited by being more sharp than sweet.
When it comes to the mains, the eclectic nature of the cooking was displayed again. The duck confit came with North African ras el hanout spice, ginger, carrot and orange, the French curry spice vadouvan went with the snapper and the salmon was sumac-crusted.
The lamb was accompanied by pumpkin, raisins, brik pastry and feta. Not being a great pumpkin fan I switched to the skirt steak with corn, avocado puree and the Mexican chipotle smoked jalapeno. Enthusiastic carnivore though I am, there was almost too much meat but it was full of flavour. Comfort food indeed.
Our other main was a little more elegant, a prawn and scallop ravioli with edamame beans and miso. This was delicately flavoured and balanced and thoroughly enjoyed.
The dessert menu was small, featuring the trendy Eton mess, that juvenile lash-up of meringue, cream and strawberries, and it was alright if you have a taste for nursery food. The simple passionfruit brulee was accompanied by honey madeleines that had the requisite taste without being sickly.
Apart from the food, the other elements necessary for a city eating house to win any reputation in Auckland are in place here. The decor is stark but not uncomfortable and graced with artworks. The service is informal but slick. There is a good wine list and the cocktail and spirit selection is as comprehensive as the target clientele expects.
While District Dining and the others set their standards like this, the crowds are going to keep pouring into the Britomart scene.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $213 for three starters, two mains, two desserts, and four glasses of wine.
Wine list: A reasonable selection by the glass from a lengthy list.
Verdict: Stylish casual eating in a fashionable venue, suitable for a glass of something and a quick bite or for a more lavish blow-out.