It can be tricky to arrange a babysitter at short notice but little sister stepped up so David and Danielle were able to join us for a grown-ups' meal for the first time in months. We were all determined to enjoy it.
Practicalities were still observed, however. In order not to have to travel too far should arrangements deteriorate, we decided to stay close to home. The Refreshment Room had been recommended, so we headed west.
The restaurant is housed in the first Montana Winery building, started by Ivan Yukich in the 1930s. When the business moved to Glen Innes in the mid-1970s, the building went through a variety of incarnations, ending up in the hands of locals Mark Hopkins and Jon Baxter, with chefs John Pountney and Marc Harris. Their aim was to create a warm, friendly environment and offer rustic Italian cooking, all of which they have certainly achieved.
Wood panelling, an open fire and clear lighting all contribute to a relaxed dining room. In the summer, a large deck provides views across the Waitakeres.
The fire was lit but even so the evening was chilly enough for Danielle to fancy soup. The offering of lentil, spinach and pancetta was thick and fresh-tasting and delicious and could have been a meal in itself. The quantity was well-judged, though, so as not to ruin the appetite for a main course. My chickpea and mozzarella chips were an unusual creation, crunchy on the outside and fluffy in the middle, and set off with a homemade tomato sauce that was equally toothsome. Bill and David shared a platter of cured meats and cheeses with bread and pickles, which vanished so fast that Danielle and I could only marvel at (and guess at) the quality of the components.
The main plates have few ingredients but all are of exceptional quality. The menu changes often to allow for the seasonal availability of produce, and this is reflected in the fresh flavours.
Most of the mains are offered in two sizes, and I took advantage of this with the tortelloni stuffed with John Dory and mascarpone, served with leeks, saffron and a hint of lemon. I could easily have managed the larger size, so delicious it was. The pasta was fat with filling and cooked perfectly, and the leeks meltingly tender. David's ravioli were stuffed with slow-cooked pork and spinach and served with sage butter and were again of excellent quality. Danielle's scotch fillet topped with herb butter was cooked exactly to her liking, and the potatoes were crisp and brown.
Bill's braised beef was beef cheek, not his favourite cut, though it was meltingly tender and the sauce was mopped up with a generous supply of mashed potato and cavolo nero.
Never one to be fainthearted, David managed a creme brulee served with pears roasted in marsala, and declared it of high quality. Danielle shared, if somewhat reluctantly, her bitter chocolate and almond cake. Truly delicious.
The lack of diners on the night we visited implied that The Refreshment Room remains one of the west's best-kept secrets. It shouldn't be. Even if you're not a local, the drive is worth the reward.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $283 for three starters, four mains, two desserts, two beers and seven glasses of wine.
Wine list: Short, but all types represented and all available by the glass. A good beer list.
Verdict: Excellent fresh-tasting food in comfortable surroundings, with attentive but unobtrusive service. A great contribution to the area's dining options.