Address: 91 St Georges Bay Rd (lower end)
Phone: (09) 303 9660
Cuisine: Contemporary NZ
Rating: 8/10

The finalists and winners of the prestigious Lewisham Foundation Awards have just been announced. Included in the list of finalists are arguably some of Auckland's finest top-end restaurants.

Now, to anyone who feels as though they can't afford to dine at some of these establishments, I say "You can afford it. Just desist from spending money on four or five (or six or seven), mediocre meals and you'll have enough to go somewhere truly special." Going to such award-winning eateries reminds us that dining out can be an event.

So, seeking somewhere special from the finalists in the category of Best Auckland Establishment, I settled on Cibo in Parnell to meet two friends. We dressed up for the occasion and I even took to my hair with some curling tongs (with limited success).

Entering through the big steel grill gates and drifting down towards Cibo's impressive courtyard and pond area with its striking "floating" fire features, we felt as though we'd entered the set of Survivor.

It was magnificent. We just hoped, being more Pt Chev and Ponsonby, that the Parnell tribal counsel wouldn't vote us off their island.

We were settled into a corner table and from then on were looked after by an ever-changing parade of staff, all of whom were marvellous. On this night the floor was being managed by an all-male team who all had the same cool, laddish appearance. They looked like they were waiting for the snowboarding season to start, but they behaved like we were the only people that mattered. They even laughed at our jokes. Well-trained.

The menu reflects the innovation and creativity of Chef Kate Fay and makes for an interesting read. It is easy to get lost trying to decipher the details of some of the dish descriptions and it features its fair share of "foam", "snow" and "air" but given Fay's reputation for excellence I suspected it would be warranted.

The Englishman selected the soup of the day - parsnip and parsley with garlic escargot and truffle oil. I stole a slurp and it was divine, the truffle oil giving it an earthy note to match the sweet parsnip.

His wife melted into a pork belly served with scallops and peanut foam which she declared to be brilliant.

My starter was one of those on the menu that I could read the details of, but had no idea what form it would take.

"Corn and crab textures" turned out to be a corn dumpling accompanied by a spanner crab salad, sweet corn broth and corn air. Crab has a delicate flavour at the best of times but I confess, I didn't get a hint of it in the salad. The broth however was exceptional - sweet and strong and clear as a whistle.

I felt very unadventurous in the main I'd chosen but I wasn't sorry when it arrived. The peppered lamb rack was exceptional. Tender and sweet with a slow-cooked lamb neck croquette on the side, it was just the meat fest I was after.

The eye fillet was served with an oxtail rendang on top of a rice cake as well as sauteed cabbage. While the aged steak was top notch, the oxtail and rice cake were warm at best, unfortunately highlighting the fattiness in the oxtail.

Our third main was described on the menu as "herb crusted fish of the day (snapper in this case) with steamed little neck clams, celery puree and roasted oyster mushrooms".

When it arrived the plate was dominated by a pile of spiced lentils that reportedly overpowered the flavour of the snapper and my friend was left disappointed with her choice.

We wondered if the lentils had somehow migrated from the other fish dish on the menu - the spiced hapuka with red lentils? Then again, we were so engrossed in our conversation that maybe we'd not read the menu correctly.

We were a trio of non-drinkers on this night, but no such restraint was shown towards desserts.

We selected the Valrhona fondant, the banoffee inspired creams and the "broken" pineapple cheesecake. All followed a theme I'm not usually fond of (ie. de-constructing the classics), but these were seriously impressive.

Though everything wasn't quite faultless on the night we visited, Cibo get points for an impressive setting, service that shows great care and attention and food that ventures outside the norm to ensure that dining out feels like an occasion and worth every penny.

From the menu: Soup of the day $17.50, pork belly $24, crab & corn textures $23, lamb rack $39, snapper $38, aged eye fillet $40, Valrhona chocolate and peanut butter fondant $17, pineapple cheesecake $16, banoffee cream $16.

Drinks: Extensive wine list.