Phone: (09) 280 3789
Verdict: Simple and smashing
"No," I told the Professor, "we cannot go to Milse for dessert. We have work to do."
She's incorrigible, really. Within a block of Britomart, her nostrils flare and she emits a little whinny of desire at the prospect of having pudding in the tiny dessert-only restaurant alongside Ortolana. I think it's a woman thing. Whenever we eat out, she starts by scanning the dessert menu.
But we were at the harbour end of the city to try this brasserie and bar on the second floor of the new Seafarers development between Quay and Tyler Sts. The team behind Ebisu and Tyler Street Garage are creating what will eventually be six floors of bars and restaurants, including a screening room and a private members' club.
Ostro, which opened just last week, takes its name from the south wind that sweeps the heat of Africa across the Mediterranean into southern Europe and explains the difference in temperament between an Italian and a Pole. It is helmed by Josh Emett, who has worked with Gordon Ramsay, earned a handful of Michelin stars and been on MasterChef New Zealand. It is not for me to say which of these is the most significant achievement.
In week one, the development still being a work in progress, access was slightly unprepossessing. A bouncer (restaurant bouncers are all the rage around Britomart, it seems) directed us through a deserted coffee bar, which is presumably open in the daytime, and gave us the option of taking a lift or the stairs to level 2.
The climb was worth it, and not just for the sight of Tommy Doyle, whose 2m-high image, bearded and beanie-topped, guards the door. It's a reminder of the place's previous incarnation as a lodging house for ancient mariners and old salts. Tommy lived there for 10 years or so in the 70s, though I wonder if that bouncer would have let him into Ostro.
The glass-fronted room, with the timber floors and some of the rough concrete of the original, has a dress-circle view of the harbour and Devonport (if you ignore the sea of cars on Captain Cook Wharf in the foreground). I'm sure the place will be heaving as summer comes on - by last weekend, the reservations desk was reporting it was under siege.
The menu, which runs from raw bar (oysters, cockles, ceviche) to a range of beef that would impress a gaucho, does not seek to dazzle with the unusual. With head chef Cobus Klopper, who held the same position at dine by Peter Gordon, Emett has crafted a selection of dishes that add flair to the everyday: little bar-snacks include bruschetta includes one with broad beans, guanciale (fatty prosciutto made of pork cheek) and ricotta, and another of sardines sweetened with raisins and sharpened with capers. The tapas plates include the very underrated ox tongue, crumbed, fried and served with horseradish mayonnaise.
In keeping with the season, the evening menu includes something for any appetite, from top model to trencherman. There's a bone-in rib-eye at $90 for two, which I plan to try as soon as I can ditch the Professor, who is queasy in matters of animal dismemberment. But we sampled pretty widely further up the menu.
A "market fish ceviche" (aren't the first two words redundant?) was an object lesson in keeping things simple: cubes of snapper, Meyer lemon juice, avo, cucumber and (a nice touch) little nutty stalks of samphire, the coastal plant often called sea asparagus.
We shared ox tongue two ways - crumbed, as above, and sliced into paper-thin ribbons and served with a caper-flavoured mayo; both were wonderful.
And, from the meat and poultry selection, which included harissa poussin, lamb rump and pork-belly pie, I went for a burger that made a virtue of its simplicity: the patty of tasty brisket sat on grilled eggplant and was topped with pickled courgette. Only some agnolotti of smoked duck disappointed, its constituent parts failing to work as a coherent whole.
The Professor will be annoyed that I didn't mention the moreish though rather-too-solid chocolate mousse, because ordering it was her sole contribution to the evening - apart from being dazzling company, of course.
Auckland is on a roll right now, as some of our stellar export chefs come home to roost. Ostro, which will be the place du jour for many jours to come, is a welcome arrival.