Herald on Sunday Rating: 4/5
Address: 151 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby
Ph: (09) 378 1719
Isn't it funny how, when something changes, you forget what it used to be like?
When the Professor gets a haircut - an occurrence to which the only sane response is "I like your haircut" - I can never remember what she looked like before. If she has not had a new haircut but rather, say, got new glasses, it can get uncomfortable.
Open less than a month on the corner of Anglesea St, Tin Soldier certainly looks nice, of which more below.
But I had to Google the address to remember that it was formerly a branch of a franchise pizza operation called One Red Dog.
Since I consider the words "franchise" and "pizza" do not belong in the same sentence, I cannot bring myself to regret never having tried the place.
Tin Soldier's fitout, designed by co-owner Mike Marshall, features pale wood that seems to have been stained with honey and whisky.
It makes the long room - two rooms, really, which run down the Anglesea St slope - bright and cosy at the same time.
The shape of the room, like the style of the menu, reminded me of Depot, though in contrast to that place, the tables have been spaced so as to allow some elbow room. The music is too loud for my taste, though people who enjoy shouting at each other while they eat will feel right at home and, to give the staff credit, they turned the music down when the Professor asked (though they turned it up again soon after). But it seems a shame that the leisurely enjoyment of food, wine and quiet conversation is made so difficult; the space is large enough to have a quiet zone.
The new venture is in the hands of Amanda Williams (who managed Tyler St Garage) and chef Stephen Smith (ex-TriBeCa). Luke Dallow, whose Chapel Bar and Bistro is on the opposite corner, has been doing a bit of mentoring and everything from the front-of-house welcome to what arrives on the plate is rather fine.
The menu comprises 10 small plates ($12-$17), five or six of which would satisfy the hungriest couple, and the same number of main-size courses (including, commendably, three thoughtful vegetarian dishes).
An oyster bar, charcuterie, desserts and cheeses make up the rest.
The drinks list includes many small-boutique beers (the India Pale Ale from Dallow's Dedwood Brewing Company is on tap) and the wine list is interesting without being silly.
After some excellent tiny, house-baked bread rolls and some fat Bay of Islands oysters, we settled into some of those small plates.
I have not met the word "jammer", but if you order the "soldier boy jammers" you get tiny baps filled with gouda and ham hock, the latter richly glazed and shredded, or with battered mussels.
I thought the former the nicer, but as nibbles went, they were top-shelf.
Pig's cheek, braised and oven-crisped, came on top of a carrot puree, with bok choy and skin cleverly puffed like popcorn, by a method that I cannot even guess at; it was a terrific blend of soft and crunchy.
Croquettes of Clevedon mozzarella were sharpened with chorizo, though the spicy sausage was not allowed to elbow aside the mild taste of the creamy cheese.
Little fish pies were beautifully textured - the base of crispy potato skin topped with a creamy mash flecked with chives - though the fish flavour was, regrettably, close to imperceptible.
The ordered sardines (with tomatoes and dill) never showed, I later realised, and to judge by a photo I've seen, that was unfortunate. But they were compensated for by a couple of mains the Professor ordered: crispy-skinned yet lusciously juicy tarakihi with capers and serrano ham, and a memorable warm salad of different smoked beetroots (golden and red) tossed with walnuts and goat cheese.
Of the three quite excellent desserts we ordered, a deconstructed apple crumble was a standout. I am normally suspicious of the deconstructed approach but it worked superbly here, soft-poached fruit and crispy oat topping in a melange that the diner could arrange in preferred proportions.
It takes some smarts to make a dish of such homely provenance taste like a new invention. Smith's food is the brightest and most joyous I've encountered in a while, and Tin Soldier is an enjoyable, if cacophonous, experience.
An excellent example of a modern breed of urban dining.