Phone: (09) 390 6213
Toto Pizza: 0800 868674
Rating out of 10:Food: 9, Service: 9, Value: 9, Ambience: 7
Our visit to Farina was unusual from the beginning. First, when I called to make a booking, co-manager Mike Ross took the call and said we could book a table for four.
"I'm the boss, and yes, that's fine." A few days later he called back to discuss what sort of budget we were planning for the meal. We chose the $60-a-head version which sounded a good deal for antipasti, pasta, main course and dessert, and headed over to Ponsonby with mounting excitement.
And so we should have. Mike was on duty. And as he explained, 18 months after he and the famous Toto, with its opera nights and marvellous deli, left Nelson St and hit Ponsonby Rd, they've invented a new style of dining. Instead of offering the usual a la carte menu, Mike and his chefs personally design a three-course dinner plus hors d'oeuvres around each group. All diners do is set a budget and they put together the best in-season and well-balanced meal that amount of money can buy.
"The idea is to make it all about the food rather than money," says Mike. "Too many restaurants focus on profit. We want to give our customers a marvellous experience at the lowest possible cost, which our chefs can do far better than anyone else."
It sounded grand to us: no bum choices, a chance to try new things. So after giving him our short list of allergies and serious food dislikes, he took off to create our perfect Italian meal. Which is where the only slight glitch in the system occurred.
Although the restaurant wasn't busy, we waited almost an hour, sipping our dry Italian wines before it all happened.
Our first dish was long, elegant and filled with thin-sliced tuna carpaccio swamped in olive oil, studded with greenery: the whole ensemble seemed quite enough as an entree for four on its own. But there was more, much more. Next came finely sliced smoked beef topped with rocket, with just enough creamy sauce to make it delectable, thickly sprinkled with fresh-grated parmesan cheese. Every bite came together for an amazing mouthful. Next to arrive was a line-up of tiny red and yellow heirloom tomatoes topped with egg-sized balls of buffalo mozzarella. Then, just as our table was getting seriously crowded, our waiter delivered a generous plate of polipo, or octopus, sprinkled with a piquant, thinner dressing, accented with slivers of raw garlic. It was so meaty and tender, I just couldn't stop munching away.
After that we asked our charming, ever-smiling waiter if that was it. "Oh no," she said. "You have three more main courses to come, but don't worry, they're very small."
With a flourish, she reappeared with four large plates sporting, in the middle, a fat parcel of tender, home-made pasta stuffed with crab meat and floating in a creamy, truffle-infused sauce. After all that protein it was just what we needed, and fabulous, too.
Next up was an equally big plate, with a decent-sized portion of tarakihi surrounded by tiny, almost-raw clams. Both were tender, with a taste of the sea still clinging. Again it was small, just the right size for us, perfectly cooked. But it was the quail course which was the most thrilling. Roasted rare, with just one tiny wing bone still attached, filled with pork sausage meat, and sitting on a creamy veloute sauce, accompanied by a small roasted beetroot with a hint of the vinegar our mothers used to make, it was a dream.
The cannelloni dessert filled with ricotta and chopped almonds, was another thrill. Small but perfectly presented, contrasting creamy ricotta with the nuts and a chocolate-dribbled cannelloni case that I had to shatter with the back of my spoon, it was everything we could ask for rolled into one. We'd go back for that alone, if we could be sure it was on the menu.
Meanwhile the rest of Farina's staff dropped over to introduce themselves and ask how we were getting on, which made us feel as though we were at a terrific dinner party rather than a restaurant we'd never tried before.
In all, despite a couple of things that need fixing (Mike says he has 40 items on his list still to be sorted), Farina turns a dinner into a banquet without costing the earth. Our gripes focus mainly on the wine list (no soft-finishing pinot gris or gewurztraminer for people like me) very few chairs with backs (we chose the only four) but the glory of the food overshadowed all that. Good luck to Mike and his super-friendly team for keeping prices down, insisting quality and freshness are top of the list - and cooking like angels.
Our meal: $196 for five dishes, two desserts and four glasses of wine.
Wine list: Not the most extensive list but varied, with some less familiar choices to try.
Verdict: Fine and unusual flavours well served in a welcoming setting, a combination that left us planning a return visit.