Address: 3 O'Connell Street
Phone: (09) 377 1884
Cuisine: Bistro
Rating: 9/10

Don't you just love it when you're in a foreign city looking for somewhere to eat and you happen upon a small doorway, in a back street and it turns out to be where all the locals are eating because it's that good?

Approaching O'Connell St Bistro in Auckland's CBD feels like such a place - an awning-covered doorway and a warm glow emanating from the high windows the only signs that something may lie beyond. Though this was not my first visit, and I was well aware of its reputation, stepping into this cosy restaurant I had the feeling of "we just got lucky with finding this place" that I've had before in far flung countries.

Starched white tablecloths and sumptuous tableware elevate this backstreet bistro from casual to magnificent.

While Chef Stephen Ward's menu proved to be balanced, concise and manageable.

A chicken liver parfait starter comes served with crisp, tart cornichons that contrast with the rich buttery parfait, while a dollop of sweet pear chutney ensured the tartness wasn't taken too far.

Fresh from Nelson, my scallops were caramelised to a dark brown on the outside but were miraculously not overcooked in the center. Ward's undeniable talent for creating superb flavour combinations shone with this dish. It was amazing - scallops drizzled with harsh, smoky chorizo oil, then soothed by the gentle flavour of a vanilla and pear puree, without overpowering the sweet delicate queen of shellfish.

I kept passing forkfuls to my dining companion who was not having such a good time with his starter. The balsamic caramelised red onion and goat's cheese tart has been a highlight on the O'Connell Street Bistro menu for many years but tonight's offering was all the things I don't remember it to be - dry, undercooked, tough, difficult to eat.

The goat's cheese was its one redeeming feature.

From the first forkful of my main I was rendered speechless, capable only of making small noises of pleasure. Wide, tender ribbons of pappardelle were tossed with rich, dark braised rabbit meat. Bacon gave the dish even more depth and a watercress and walnut pesto added a sweet, peppered lift. A dusting of parmigiano reggiano topped it off with a sharp, nutty finish. The pool of broth at the bottom of the dish was indescribably glorious but, as it's my job to put words to the experience, I'll try: like a forest floor, wild herbs chasing game, rich and light at the same time...

The dining companion was having his own sumptuous experience with a lamb rump from Southland. On a bed of lentils and wilted kale, the pink ovals of lamb flank were meltingly tender and tasty but it was the delicious smokiness of the dish that had us both stumped. Had the rump been smoked? No, it was coming from the lentils.

Inquiring of owner Chris Upton as he passed our table, we were informed that O'Connell St Bistro makes its own extra-smoky chorizo. The lentils are braised with this in the cooking process, imbuing the pulses with the full flavour of smoke and spice.

Some chefs fade at side dishes, treating them as "asides". Not Ward. Steamed asparagus with softened shallots is "seasoned" with crispy, salty pancetta while bok choy is wilted in master stock for complexity and given texture and taste with crispy garlic and chilli. Divine.

Of the seven options for dessert my fellow diner's heart was immediately won over by the golden syrup tart.

The texture of the baked filling was silky and light and the full-on assault of sweetness was mellowed brilliantly by mascarpone.

To finish we grazed on Roquefort served with discs of house made ginger snap biscuits and honeycomb. These three were made to be eaten together, such is the balance of creaminess, pungency, spice and sweetness.

And did I mention the wine list? Probably one of Auckland's best. Dining at O'Connell St Bistro you could be anywhere in the world but, lucky for us, this fine bistro is nestled in our city.

From the menu: Chicken liver parfait $24, seared scallops $25, red onion and goat cheese tart $24, pappardelle with wild rabbit $36, lamb rump $36, sides of buttered asparagus, pommes frites, steamed bok choy - $8 each, roquefort $18, golden syrup tart $15.50.

Drinks: Fully licensed, extensive wine list.