Address: 1106 Tutanekai St, Rotorua
Phone: (07) 460 0400

Ponsonby Rd is in Rotorua. The bar, I mean, not the street. The lower bit of Tutanekai St that is cutely christened Eat Streat has in the past year been roofed in, so it has a bustling, busy feel. The move has attracted new operators, among them a jazzy lounge bar that takes its name from Auckland's top dining strip.

As somebody who remembers Ivan's, Joe's Bargain House and the Vista Bar, I felt chuffed. Are they learning to love us Jafas in the provinces?

I use the word "provinces" with trepidation. The last time I reviewed disparagingly a restaurant in provincial New Zealand, the proprietor formed a lynch mob and a reporter from the local newspaper rang demanding an explanation. But this place is great, in large part because, not in spite, of its small-town feel.

Take this: our waitress, who happens to be one of the owners, laid the last of the five dishes we'd ordered on the table and said, "Right, so that's you finished". It was a comment made more to herself than to us and it had the slightly harried tone of a mother who is doing 12 things at once and I found it utterly charming.


In fact, she wasn't harried. The place was packed but she later found time to chat with us about the design of a dish of braised brisket (on a miso-flavoured kumara puree and with a salad of beansprouts and pickled pineapple, it's something very special).

Kay Thompson, her name is, and discerning Aucklanders know her work because she founded the excellent Rocket Kitchen in Ponsonby Rd (the street, I mean, not the bar) all those years ago. The new operation is a joint venture with her sister Cherry Te Kiri, who is the brains behind a cool little bistro menu that only occasionally breaks new ground, but traverses familiar territory with grace and skill.

A recurring visual motif is silhouettes of finches, but despite several attempts, I never really got my head around how Atticus got into it.

The lawyer hero of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird fell into disrepute last year with the release of another book under very suspicious circumstances. But even untainted, this seems an odd name to attach to an eatery that doesn't serve the young Scout Finch's favourite crackling bread.

Never mind. What it is serving is great. Marvellously rubbery and squeaky slices of fried haloumi came on a salad of broccoli, broad beans and quinoa that might have done with a more assertive dressing. But fried chicken tenderloins with a sesame crust lent zing by fresh ginger, and melt-in-mouth gnocchi, with a delicately sweet date puree, brown butter and almonds, gave an original spin to familiar ingredients.

A chickpea and pumpkin curry was the standout vegetarian attraction on a menu more than half of which was vego-friendly and an apple and blackberry pie was agreeably undersweetened.

This place is the real deal.

VERDICT: Smart bistro thinking in Rotorua's dining precinct.

Snacks $6-$10; small plates $14-$18.50; large plates $24-$30; desserts $12