Address: 33 Victoria St East, Auckland CBD
Phone: (09) 377 1333
Rating out of 10: Food: 7, Service: 7, Value: 9, Ambience: 7

They were playing French radio the night we went to Scarecrow for dinner. It was the perfect aural backdrop to the florist-kitchen-grocer hybrid that oozes Europe.

"Actually," said Megan, "This is the sort of place where people say 'oh, this is just like Europe'. But really, there is nowhere in France you can buy flowers, groceries and a restaurant meal under the same roof."

I am less sophisticated than Megan. I am easily charmed by copper sinks and dragonfly wallpaper, wooden boxes of heirloom tomatoes and stacks of handcrafted ceramic dinnerware.

But then I sat down and my head hurt. I should have just blown out the scented candle. Or asked the passing waiter (or waitress - they visited on high-rotate, just seconds after each other) to move it. But I didn't and so the smell of lavender saturated the evening with a very-wrong-in-a-restaurant olfactory ambience.


Scarecrow is an undeniably pretty space at the Albert Park end of Victoria St. Well-sited for dinner before theatre (The Civic, et cetera, within easy walking distance) and, when we visited, there was a Tues-Thurs special: two courses for $35, with a free glass of wine if you booked online. Good value, because entrees normally range from $14-$18 and mains $21-$28.

The menu is seasonal and fresh. Think ratatouille galette, semi-crudo and caprese salads for starters, with six mains evenly split between vegetarian, fish and meat offerings (chickpeas with a tomatillo salsa, fried tofu and cauliflower crumb; slow roast lamb leg with red rice pilaf, barberry and a radish salad).

I started with "black forest" venison - slices of salt and sugar-cured meat, served on a crunchy slice of very dark rye bread, with horseradish creme, cacao nibs and pickled cherry. The unadvertised addition of radicchio and edible nasturtium flowers added to the toasty, bitterness of the dish. It was an appetite-sharpening aperitif you could eat, and I loved it.

A Mahoe blue tart, with leek, candied walnuts and poached pear didn't live up to expectations. We wanted a rich, blue cheese taste and a creamy texture. What arrived was more like scrambled eggs in filo.

Complimentary wines quaffed, we moved to a Stanley Estates albarino ($10 a glass from a list that included local representation from Kumeu River and Waiheke Island's Passage Rock) and settled in for some grocery shopping. Seriously. When you're not eating at Scarecrow, peruse its shelves for everything from oatcakes to chipotle peppers from about 100 suppliers.

Maybe the radio had distracted us, but when the waiter said the market fish (parore) was a kind of snapper caught near Matakana, the vegetarian who stretches to pescetarian said yes, please. Regular snapper flesh is white, moist and flaky. The parore (sometimes called black snapper) was tight, stringy, and had a strong-tasting strip of dark flesh. Parore has other names, but don't google them, because fishing forums can be cruel.

My side of the table scored better. An eggplant moussaka with lentil ragu and smoked mushrooms was sublime. Roasted tomatoes cut the richness of the bechamel, the lentils still had "bite" and the mushrooms were juicy.

Of course we ordered dessert ($12 each). A cakey, runny chocolate fondant echoed the on-trend bitterness of the entree. Poached stone fruits had a gentle spiciness and came with shards of meringue, a scoop of black doris plum icecream, and a dollop of cream. The pescetarian-vegetarian is also a dairy queen. She was, finally, very, very happy.

The bill: $122 for two starters, mains and desserts, a side salad and four glasses of wine.
The verdict: Well-sited (and priced) for a mid-week, seasonal produce-inspired dinner before the theatre.
Bookings: Available online.