Address: 18 Stanley Street
Phone: (09) 366 4755
Cuisine: Small, medium and large shared plates of modern food
Luxury dining. What does it mean? To some it might need to include Michelin stars, a team of personal chefs or a location where there's a parking space for the private jet. But if, like my sister, you're trying to escape the tedium of shifting house you may be happy with any experience where you feel less MOT (Mother of Two) and more VIP.
"Come on" I said, taking one look at her "I'll take you somewhere where others will come to you," which is, by my definition, true luxury.
James in Parnell, had only recently opened and I had no idea what to expect but for two vital pieces of information that made me think we'd be in for the VIP treatment; (a) I had glimpsed two spectacular chandeliers through the window and (b) I knew that the owners, Jamie Miller and Gisele Trezevant-Miller, had been creating impressive food for high-profile events through their Mint Kitchen Catering company for years.
They were also responsible for bringing us that most marvellous of restaurants, Guadalupe, all those years ago.
We entered through the discreet side entrance, which opens into the dimly lit bar. First impressions were of one of those exclusive establishments in New York City or London frequented by those more famous for valuing their privacy than flaunting their celebrity status.
This dark and moody space then gives way to the "white dining room" where scarlet curtains drop dramatically from ceiling to floor, elegantly dividing the space into smaller dining areas. The design is fabulous, with clear Perspex chairs, round white pedestal tables and two chandeliers dripping into the space.
We were exquisitely welcomed by the head sommelier, a fine upstanding gentleman (he wore a crisp, white-cuffed, pinstriped shirt and well-cut suit pants) who showed us nothing but genuine attention all evening. He and the rest of the front of house team are consummate professionals, gliding through the dining rooms with what seems like a sixth sense in terms of knowing when to interrupt diners and when to leave well alone.
The wine list at James is worth a special mention. There are close to 40 wines available by the glass including French champagne - Krug Grande Cuvee and vintage Dom Perignon - as well as the wondrous Chateauneuf Du Pape Vieux Lazaret 2008 and our own limited and sought-after Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc 2007. We enjoyed glasses of each.
Now, forgive me for taking so long to get to the food this week; the aforementioned details are as important in terms of the overall James experience. But here we go; the menu follows the latest trend of shared plates of food and there's an exciting selection with more than 25 choices.
With this style of eating, you do run the risk of your meal resembling a canape party but we agreed that a second visit, with an increased familiarity with how the menu works, would allay these concerns. (I can vouch that, after two more sly visits, that is indeed the case.)
We started with the following small plates; two sensationally smoky kahawai croquettes with lemon aioli, a tender lamb cutlet with pork paprika pate and salsa verde and a plate of grilled prawns that were wonderfully charred, but over-cooked as a result, on a bed of nostalgic potato salad that we could have eaten all night.
We moved on to a beef cheek on carrot mash with a sherry jus that was divine - meltingly soft from a slow braising, richly flavoured ... and just writing about it now, I am salivating.
A house-smoked salmon was impeccably prepared and served on a bed of corn kernel, chevre and truffle salsa. The salmon and corn, taste and texture-wise, had true star power. A plate of iceberg lettuce served with old fashioned mayo (complete with a hint of condensed milk!) as well as a plate of charred broccoli, were the perfect accompaniments.
Desserts were sensational.
We delighted in the best beignets I've ever tasted, with their thin, crisp and crunchy shells and custardy centres, and an apple tart, tarte tatin-style, that was a magnificent display of tartness offset by syrupy butterscotch.
Though there's an air of quiet calm and privacy that pervades James, there's no sign of misguided pomp or exclusivity.
Dining there is a genuinely charming experience and I'd say James is looking like a new standout in Auckland's dining scene.
From the menu: Small plates: smoked kahawai croquettes $6.50, lamb $10.50, Medium plates: prawns and potato salad $18.50, salmon and corn $13.50, beef cheek $19, portobello mushrooms $12, iceberg lettuce $7.50 broccoli $12. Desserts: apple tart $15.50, beignets $12.50.
Drinks: Fully licensed.