In the car on the way back to town, I asked the others how they'd star-rate the meal we'd just had and why.
Everybody said it was marvellous but stopped short of recommending five stars. So I asked, "In terms of what they set out to achieve, could they possibly have done anything better?" We drove on in silence for a while. Then someone remembered the waiter who tried to pour the last of a bottle of wine into the nearest glass. I think waiters should never pour anything but the first glass, actually. It irritates the crap out of me and it likewise annoyed the late, great Christopher Hitchens, who dealt with the matter comprehensively in a superb piece on slate.com entitled "Wine Drinkers of the World, Unite". Look it up. Especially if you're a waiter.
So it's a step short of perfection, but that was a small matter in the context of a wonderful evening. From the warm welcome to the cheery farewell, this was a seriously class act.
I was going to suggest that co-owner Jo Raj should be declared restaurant personality of the year. But then I see that Ganesh, her husband, who was working the other side of the room, has just earned that accolade from Metro magazine.
Jo would be the best host I've ever encountered while eating out: professional and efficient, she also exudes a genuine warmth. "She's not like us," the Professor said. "She likes people."
It's lamentably rare to find someone in the restaurant business who is plainly enjoying herself because she loves what she's doing. When you do, it's impossible not to enjoy yourself, too.
The Tasting Shed occupies a building that evokes the horticultural past alluded to by the name. It's an old shed once used for making pear cider and the dress-up has been done with restraint and taste. The shelves behind the bar are old apple boxes and the lighting comes from lanterns slung with artful carelessness. The wooden tables are rough and the chairs show traces of the paint that has been stripped off (after first being applied for the purpose, perhaps, but the effect is nice). It adds up to a feeling of crowding in for a feast at the end of the harvest - though I doubt that many agricultural piece-workers get tucker like this when the crop is in.
Chef Sara Simpson, formerly of the reliable Clooney and the up-and-down Terroir at Craggy Range in Hawke's Bay, turns out terrific dishes, broadly inspired by Mediterranean Europe and the Levant, but emphasising local ingredients where appropriate (the feta on the roast beetroot and the blue on the cheeseboard are from Taupaki).
The place describes itself as a place "where wine craves food", a line that sounds better than it is, particularly since it's pretty hard to wine-match with a meal that consists of a dozen different dishes. Best just to enjoy eating and drinking, I reckon.
We revelled in a Soho Stella sauvignon and a (local) West Brook chardonnay - as we ordered widely from a menu that will probably have changed by the time you read this.
The piece de resistance to my mind was the pig's head, which has become a feature of good menus in the past year. It's not the entire decapitated apple-in-jaw noggin, you understand, but the meat is braised and them formed into a rolled galantine shape, sliced and fried. The result is delicious and the accompanying pickled onion puree (she's big on purees, is Sara) inspired.
The crispy pork belly was hard to divide but sensationally good with a sauce of apple and black pudding; the tongue-in-cheek "tongue and cheek" a lovely contrast of textures. I thought the chargrilled octopus with chorizo quite perfect; the Greek in our group was sniffy but I suspect he was thinking of the fresh-caught versions he ate in the 60s, grilled on the docksides of Piraeus.
Chorizo also enlivened a dish of sweetly steamed clams and smoked speck lent bite to some buttery grilled Brussels sprouts.
I regret having missed this place in summer, when it must have been a great place for outdoor dining, but that's easily remedied. It's on my list of must-returns. Get it on yours, soon.
Need to know
$ = $20-$40; $$ = 40-60; $$$ = $60+.
(Price guide reflects three courses for one person without drinks)