Phone: (04) 499 9379
Rating out of 10: Food: 9, Service: 9, Value: 10, Ambience: 9
W.B.C (standing for Wholesale Boot Company, to which the premises were home in a previous life) is humming when we visit on a Friday night. It's a full house, with 37 on the floor. We take the last two seats at the end of the elegant, rather Japanese wooden bar.
There's inviting feng shui flowing through to the long, glassy perch over Victoria St on the other side of the restaurant.
We've got a ringside view of the hardworking chefs, seated right in front of junior chef Elliot Chang. The young gun started in sushi and shucks us some oysters while we eat green and black olives. The bottled chardonnay vinaigrette is disappointingly average, way behind a Japanese ponzu, but the oysters - Tio Point, Mahurangi, Orongo - are fresh and flavoursome. Battered Bluff oysters go down with a superior tartare sauce.
It's a serious but relaxed place, perfect for catching up, celebrating. Attentive staffers know when to be chatty and when to leave diners. The food, especially the small plates, suits sharing. There's a dynamic mix of menu standards and daily specials. From the specials' small plates, we try some tasty hot and sour Marlborough tuatuas. Seafood is one of W.B.C's many strengths - I'm looking forward to the sold-out Polynesian fish salad on another visit - curiously neglected in Wellington, with the wonderful exception of Ortega Fish Shack and Bar.
Bone marrow arrives next. The beef shin is soaked in salt for 24 hours to get the impurities out, then roasted. It's served lustrous on the bone, and tastes even more luscious spread on bread, finished with burnt roasted lemon.
The beef tartare bruschetta is absolutely delicious, too. Chang deftly grinds a steak strip up with mustard seeds, cornichons, capers, parsley, onions and aioli. Once again, Central Otago pinot delivers. AJ, suspicious of the French "bio" wines, says the beef and lamb are well-matched with his Bannockburn Terra Sancta Pinot Noir.
Piquant, full- bodied Gladstone's ginger beer is on the drinks list and I later enjoy a Balinese punch mocktail - coconut water, passionfruit, San Pellegrino aranciata orange, and mint. There's a better than usual selection here for those who elect not to imbibe alcohol.
It's main course time. We've been eyeing the lamb cutlets over the evening. When we express our regret that they've run out, head chef Vaughn Turner goes off-menu. He delivers a third primal, succulent red meat creation: lamb neck braised in tomato, coriander, cumin, fennel and apricot; garnished with yoghurt, sliced almonds and mint, served with onions and tabbouleh bulgur.
The latter is one of a number of winning Middle Eastern flourishes. Unlike Auckland with the superb Ima, Wellington is overdue some high-end touches from that sizzling region.
The gurnard, pan-fried until the skin crisps just so, is accompanied by tamarind, cucumber, coconut rice, and mint salad. Albeit a dash dry, the dish is toothsome. Priced at $28.50, the mains are excellent value.
We finish by sharing a dessert special. Deep-fried pistachio icecream comes with a poached pear, and lashings of uncommonly good tamarillo sauce and pistachio nuts.
Yum. Again, the varied textures and tastes heighten each other.
Turner is known for his work as sous chef at W.B.C sister restaurant, Capitol. (Though dinner there doesn't disappoint, we've had a couple of mediocre brunches.) I was sorry to later discover Turner is heading back to Europe soon. We'll be back though.
Our meal: $212 for oysters, three small plates, two mains, one dessert, one glass of wine, one Sapporo beer, and non-alcoholic drinks.
Drinks list: A selective mix of wines, focused locally, with standard reds and whites from Marlborough, Hawke's Bay, and Central Otago. A Mediterranean feel is also present; Spanish sherry and sweet wines. The world's best beer, Sapporo. A better than usual non-alcoholic selection, such as the Balinese Punch mocktail.
Verdict: Ortega Fish Shack and Bar is still Wellington's best restaurant, but the exciting W.B.C is snapping at its heels. Fresh, flavoursome seafood dishes and succulent red-meat creations for demanding carnivores.