Address: 130 Quay St, Britomart
Phone: (09) 379 4462

Funny word, "oaken". Old-fashioned. You'd have an oaken door in a 17th-century house but an oak door in a modern one. And Oaken's not old-fashioned.

It occupies a long room, running from Quay St through to Tyler that used to be the Quay Street Cafe. The Professor and I have been known to breakfast there as a rest stop on one of our seven-hour bicycle rides all the way to Mission Bay or even St Heliers. There was nothing wrong with the food, although I can't remember much about it, which cannot be said of what's on offer now.

The new incarnation, as the name suggests, is heavy on the oak which gives it a Scandiblond feel. Some huge botanical images on the walls add to the look, though from some angles, the mix of booth and table seating can evoke the breakfast buffet room of a chain hotel in middle America.

In charge in the kitchen is Javier Carmona, who gave us the excellent Beirut and the less-than-excellent Mexico chain, and it seems as if the Spanish-born Aussie import is taking the opportunity to strut the gastronomic stuff of his homeland. Even the breakfast menu has an ole! touch (migas, a savoury concoction on a base of fried breadcrumb: omelette with charred peppers) and if you want granola, they have granola, but not as we know it.


At lunch and dinner, too, it's distinctly Mediterranean, a mixture of Italian touches with the Spanish. But if you're looking for a place to have your tea, as my old Mum used to say, this may not be it.

Oaken positions itself as a wine bar and cafe, but that second word should not encourage you to expect a satisfying feed. Even the main dish - there's one only, changing each night - of pork cheek wasn't really enough to feed a growing boy, though it was an exquisite account of slow-cooked pork that perfectly balanced the competing demands of lean meat, crisp skin and silky, glistening fat.

But mainly this is a tapas place. It worked well for me and two old mates, when we met up one weeknight to bag a bunch of mutual acquaintances behind their backs. It's such a fine way to spend a couple of hours and the food certainly added to the pleasure.

Some things are knockouts: chargrilled padron peppers could be renamed chilli surprises, since about one in 10 of them is fiery; toasted farro (a barley-like grain) with cauliflower, ricotta and honey was an unexpected treat as were paper-thin slices of lonza, a fine cured ham, with fried eggplant, anchovy and segments of orange.

I was less sure about mussel escabeche, which lacked the requisite vinegary tang, though the shavings of celery worked well with it. And thin slices of milky Italian cheese melted onto lettuce leaves seemed at best odd.

Some serious thought has gone into the menu here and it's a nice wine bar with excellent nibbles: just don't go expecting dinner.

Dishes $12-$25
VERDICT: More nibbles than nosh, but delicious.