One of the best things about the Tin Soldier, the latest restaurant to occupy that prime position on the corner of Anglesea St and Ponsonby Rd, is the service. Both of the young women who looked after us were what my friend Andy used to call "easy on the eye", charming and polite. Good-naturedly they guided us through one of the more mystifying menus we'd struck in a while, and found us exactly the right wines.
However, the Tin Soldier is noisy. Somehow, the smart new fit-out, with its candelabra, wooden floors, wide windows and marble-topped tables, has turned the space into a sound shell. Which is fine when you're enjoying the bloom of youth, which 99 per cent of the other patrons were, but not so good for the rest of us.
The food is also youthful and exuberant. According to our waiter, all dishes are served as shared plates, and arrive when they're ready, in no particular order. But, when the kitchen has time - as it had on our visit - they can serve the large plates as an ordinary main course.
We started with the Soldier Boy Jammers, which turned out to be three small rolls, each sporting a plump, beer-battered mussel resting on a bed of lettuce and tartare sauce. "Delicious," said Brian, reaching for the second.
Around the same time our soy glazed pig's cheek arrived, to prove for all time that the cheek of the pig is sweeter than his tum. And to top it off, the dish was liberally sprinkled with separately cooked crackling.
The roasted cauliflower was a work of art, served with tiny orange carrots, lots of harissa with cumin and a good sprinkling of fresh-toasted almonds. It was cooked al dente, tasted quite delicious and bore absolutely no resemblance to the cauliflower with cheese sauce of our youth.
In fact, the chefs at Tin Soldier take obvious delight in turning classic dishes on their heads. The apple crumble was cold, mostly raw and topped with biscuit pieces rather than the classic crumble topping. While my nostalgic urge for comfort food felt mildly cheated, Brian adored it.
By 9pm Tin Soldier was filling up. Tables of young people seemed to be drinking beers and eating plates of Tin Soldier's hand-cut chunky fries rather than meals. All very cool, very New York.
Meanwhile, we were on to our large plates. The lamb shoulder rack for me and the poached poussin for Brian. Predictably, by now, they bore little resemblance to anything we'd expected. My lamb was off the bone and sliced into small pieces, more like a fillet than your usual lamb rack. It came with labne, which made a creamy accompaniment for the lamb along with the tombet, a Majorcan combination of fried and layered potatoes, aubergines and capsicums, topped with tomato, garlic and parsley. In all, a mighty fine dish.
Brian found his poussin elegant and interesting. The chick had been steeped in hot water for at least three hours, rendering it juicy and tender without being over-cooked, then finished over charcoal with peanut, chili and ginger popcorn and pickled shoots. This suited him fine - moist chicken topped with crunchy, spicy skin is an irresistible combination that few can achieve and Tin Soldier certainly pulled it off.
I'm told Tin Soldier is a great meeting place for drinks and a couple of jammers after work and at lunchtime, when the noise-level is more subdued and their pricing makes it a good choice. An excellent addition to the Ponsonby line-up.
Rating out of 10
Food: 7 Service: 8
Value: 7 Ambience: 7
Our meal: $164 for three small and two large plates and four glasses of wine.
Wine list: Wide-ranging, almost exclusively New Zealand list.
Good selection of boutique beers and a short but punchy line-up of
Verdict: Exuberant, innovative cuisine, served in a cool, state-of-the-art environment. Try the jammers and pig's cheek.