Back in the bad old days, when counting the number of really good Auckland restaurants was within the capacity of the average two-year-old, that select list always included Vinnies. But despite the excellence of the food, we'd had a couple of disappointing experiences there and hadn't been back for a long time.
Two recent visits have revealed that this has been our loss. Owner and executive chef Geoff Scott has put together a crew who provide the sort of evenings with which you bore your friends. The restaurant - and the menu - has undergone a refit which has improved what were already physically pleasing premises. The decor palette has been darkened, with one wall adorned by what look like ornate treble clefs. The lighting provides each table with a sense of privacy but you can, thankfully, see both the menu and the food without wishing for a miner's helmet.
But if the premises are pleasant, the service is exemplary, headed by a young Scotswoman - lively, engaging, knowledgeable and contributing a real sense of shared enjoyment.
And then there's the food. I suspect the best way to enjoy Vinnies is through the tasting menu but we stuck to the a la carte route, which offered more than enough opportunities for the kitchen to display its originality and technique.
The quail, which was spatchcocked and grilled to a smoky succulence, came rubbed with berbere, an Ethiopian spice mixture, warm without being overpowering. The foie gras mousse needed to be intense to compete and achieved this, while the guavas added more sweet notes. A terrific starter. Our other first course of moonfish poached in citrus oil with garlic puree, scallops and a little edamame bean mixture, was less explosive but equally well-balanced.
The main choices showed similar attention to detail. The Fiordland deer had an appropriate rural theme with urenika and garlic bolt and a mulled wine reduction, which looked very appealing. But I didn't regret opting for the Waikato angus eye fillet, superb meat complemented with a morsel of melting short rib, a parsnip puree enlivened with horseradish and tempura broccolini with wasabi oil. The broccolini might have been crisper but the overall effect was more than satisfactory.
One of the survivors on the menu on our second visit was the wild hare, which had been such a standout we gave it another run. And it was again a triumph, the meat slow-cooked, stripped from the bone and pressed into a confit-like texture reminiscent of a rillette but less fatty and topped with a ham crumble. The sweetness of the meat was highlighted by yam and exotic carrots - if a carrot can be so described.
More creativity and a bit of a joke with dessert. My pretty quince and croissant bread and butter pudding was advertised as having a dropped mint icecream, which turned out to be just that, a little inverted cone looking just as it might have inspired the wails of an unfortunate child as it escaped their grasp to head for the pavement. Mind you, a child might have been less than pleased with the sogginess of the wafer. Our other dessert was a classic, soft-centred bitter chocolate fondant, dubbed a 1981 version - apparently the date on which this dish was first created. This came with a red wine-poached pear, fizzing with cinnamon flavour and a pear sorbet.
The thought had crossed our minds on the first trip that the cooking had a tendency to gild the lily but on the second visit every grace note added to the totality of the score.
As we lingered over our dessert wines, we paid Vinnies the rare compliment of thinking it would be a place we would be happy to take some of our more picky relatives.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $267 for two first courses, two mains and two desserts and six glasses of wine.
Wine list: A good list but I would have liked to see a few more options by the glass.
Verdict: This place celebrates fine food and provides the backing of service and comfort it deserves, without being at all pretentious.