It has been a busy year-so-far: two of every three places reviewed on this page in 2015 have been in their first few weeks of operation. But the winter has been a quiet one for openings, and it seemed like a good time to revisit this Birkenhead institution.
Odd orthography aside, Eight . Two has long been regarded as one of the only two excellent restaurants on the Shore. I stopped going to the other one years ago because one of the proprietors seems to regard the visit of a reviewer as an act of unforgivable effrontery, although I understand it's still very good.
But I've had mixed fortunes here. Meals in 2006 and 2010 were very disappointing, though in 2008, when expat Brit Nigel Marriage was in charge, the food was an object lesson doing simple things superbly and not straining for effect.
The kitchen is now under the direction of executive chef Des Harris, who remains in position at Clooney, and the hands-on man is Logan Clark, a Clooney alumnus whose CV includes the excellent Saggio di Vino in Christchurch.
The food is almost uniformly excellent combining heartiness with attention to detail, all the while retaining an unostentatious accessibility. It's a cut below fine-dining (and so are the prices) but a cut above casual bistro (ditto), so a meal here will suit an occasion without demanding that reverentiality expected of you in places that make you feel you're bloody lucky to have got a table.
Having the menu headed "July 2015" gives you a comforting sense of a kitchen in constant response to the changing seasons, though it is somewhat undermined by the fact that the menu online was headed "June" and the one in an illuminated box on the streetfront was headed "May".
In any case, the June and July menus are very little different.
All that said, this was a very good meal, if not quite a great one. Two croquettes of pork and blood sausage made a rich and tasty appetiser, though the accompanying dipping sauce which purported to be "pickled mustard seed emulsion" was not an emulsion and had no discernible taste of pickle or mustard seed. The plating was also almost grimly spare, the Professor observed, although that is in line with the prevailing aesthetic in the overall design.
It was pretty hard to fault what followed. Unusually, the entrees are almost as big as the mains - none of your single-mouthful starters here - and the two we chose were crackers. A soup made of celeriac, baked and then creamed, was a hearty knockout, so earthy it had the whiff of truffle about it and the scattered walnuts added textural interest.
My butternut risotto was state-of-the-art: dense with roasted chunks and topped with a delicate puree, with big bass notes of parmesan adding depth and creaminess.
My main of short rib (off the bone and braised sous vide, I suspect) was tender enough to eat with a spoon, and the accompanying crispy kale worked well, even if the menu promised something else.
In both this dish, and the Professor's excellent snapper, garnishing fripperies (tiny discs of radish or onion; single leaves of Brussels sprout) worked against the meal's predominant virtue of being satisfying to eat.
I thought the desserts, one of which was not the one we ordered, were a bit smartypants, too, with too much emphasis on crumbs, but the Professor said I was wrong. "If you don't like it, don't eat it," she said, deftly swapping her empty plate for my half-full one.
• Share plates $12; entrees $17-$19; mains $29-$38; sides $7; desserts $16
By Joelle Thomson, joellethomson.com
Make wine not war; Lebanese vino
If I hadn't seen the bottle of Lebanese wine that Ralph Hochar poured into my glass I'd have sworn we were drinking a very old and very good southern French red.
This third-generation Lebanese wine bloke has spent a month pouring wine for New Zealanders, perplexing many with the mere mention of Lebanese wine: The Lebanese make wine?
Well, yes. Very much so. In fact, they have been doing it for 4000 years. Hochar knows that his country is better known today for war than wine and is on a mission to change that perception. His family winery is Chateau Musar, founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar, whose son, Serge, trained as a winemaker in Bordeaux, then began blending wines from unconventional mixes of grapes - cinsault, carignan and cabernet sauvignon. Their stunning wines are pale in colour, intensely earthy in flavour and rich with red fruity appeal. The 2008 Chateau Musar Hochar Red is about $45 and the 2007 Chateau Musar Musar $68 and seductively velvety. They are available from Negociants NZ;
Journey into the divide ...
The makers of Main Divide wines spent six months of dedicated listening to make their third Main Divide CD, which features local musicians such as Mara TK. It was compiled as a thank you to cafes, bars and restaurants that stock their wines; music selections were by Ed Donaldson of Main Divide and production was by Loop Recordings in Wellington. It is available now as a free download at loop.co.nz/releases/mdv003/