Wine Box Cafe, Albany

By Phoebe Falconer

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Where: 1/239 State Highway 17, Albany. Ph (09) 415-8600.
Our meal: $264.50 for four entrees, four mains, three desserts, wine and beer.
Wine list: An excellent local selection, with some less familiar choices.
Verdict: It's a pleasant place, and when things go right, they're very right. Unfortunately, this isn't all the time.
Out of 10
Food: 6
Service: 8
Value: 7
Ambience: 7

Should we say Al-(as in wall)-bany or Al-(as in shall)-bany? Whichever, the pretty little bottleneck on the road north from Auckland has been all but bypassed, as we city dwellers now hurtle through a blare of warehouses in our haste to be elsewhere.

Albany, formerly Lucas Creek, was renamed in 1890 in memory of Queen Victoria's youngest son, the sickly Prince Leopold, 1st Duke of Albany. So there you are, history buffs. But if you do stop in Albany, you'll find the peaky boy is making a spirited recovery.

When North Shore friends suggested the Wine Box Cafe for a recent Sunday night dinner, we hastened to agree. We'd heard good things, and owner Karis Thompson has been around long enough to know what she's doing. We kick off with an Old Speckled Hen for Bill, at $11.50 the most expensive beer on the menu and right up there with the wine prices by the glass. Good thing he enjoyed it.

Kevin and I share a bottle of Amor-Bendall pinot gris from Gisborne, not a vineyard we are familiar with but definitely worth the punt. And on to the menu. The Wine Box offers all the usual suspects, and then throws in a few new ones to make life interesting. Barbara's flowerpot bread with dips ($9) is run-of-the-mill, although we all enjoy the cream cheese and beetroot dip.

Bill's olives are fine, and come with feta and foccacia ($10). But Kevin's panfried crocodile loin with black-eyed beans and sweet lemon grass dressing ($16) is a hit, and my seared ostrich entree with salad ($15) is fine and tender. The quality of the mains is variable.

Barbara's vegetable tower ($23.50) is fine, if unexceptional. On the other hand, Kevin's fish of the day ($28.50), oven-baked terakihi with red rice - made so by sundried tomatoes with wine and cream - is reportedly the best he's ever had, delicate and moist. Bill goes for the wild trio of kangaroo, ostrich and lamb with mash and vegetables ($31.50) and it's disappointing. All three meats taste much the same, and the carrots and bok choy add nothing to the sum of flavours.

Game meats are funny things, and difficult to get right. My rabbit casserole with paprika and steamed rice ($27) could be anything, and is tough to the point of being inedible. Poor old Thumper died in vain. Compensation is sought in the dessert menu. Bill and Barbara enjoy their amarula brulee ($11.50), describing it as fresh and tasty, but Kevin's profiteroles ($10.50) are soggy, although the presentation is artistic.

The Wine Box is attractive and warm, with friendly, attentive service. A little of that attention wouldn't go astray in the kitchen.

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