Phone: (09) 555 1229
Rating out of 10: Food: 7, Service: 8, Value: 7, Ambience: 6
It was an evening of surprises from start to finish. First, it was hard to believe that this open space with no real walls, was actually the restaurant. Second, it was surprising how cosy I felt in front of the gas fireplace with its imitation logs. Then I was surprised at how, from its extremely short wine list, Toru produced an excellent Schlumberger pinot blanc, a decent chardonnay, plus, for later, a delicious Marques Rioja red.
The menu looked interesting, too. Four of the eight small plate choices were suitable for our pescatarian, as well as two of the four main courses. And the service from the maitre d' was superb. He gave us several wine samples before I settled on the Schlumberger, offered our teetotaller a bottle of Otakiri sparkling water, and explained the menu.
Without his help we'd have over-ordered on the sides.
Our small plates arrived reasonably quickly and I claimed the slow-cooked beef short ribs. Why has this American beef cut suddenly become the latest thing? It turns out that it's the same cut as for pork spare ribs, which makes it a rather sinewy, slightly fatty part of the bullock. However, my four thinly carved slices showed no visible fat or gristle and the meat was meltingly tender. It was served with a thick sambal and eggplant mixture which, with its lime, galangal and chilli, kicked everything along brilliantly.
The prawn toasts with garlic butter and smoky mayonnaise had a completely different European flavour. The toast underneath was liberally buttered, then slathered in mayonnaise while the prawns were fat and delicious.
Last up were the cauliflower fritters with haloumi and tomato kasundi sauce. Again, the flavours and textures had been assembled by some genius in that tiny kitchen.
By then we'd ordered our main courses, but there was still a decent pause before they started arriving. Brian's flat iron steak was large, perfectly cooked to medium-rare, tender and given a bit of lift by the horseradish, which was fresh and gave some bite. And the crinkly chips were amazing: large, like super-thick crisps, they tasted great and added crunch.
The snapper was also perfectly cooked, while the wild rice it was sitting on was outstanding. Flavoured with harissa and cashews, and studded with beetroot and feta, it again had all the elements: flavour, texture and colour.
My spiced chicken was tender and spicy enough but amazingly was outshone by the accompanying pearl barley. Our waiter regretfully reported they'd run out of chorizo: would pancetta fill the gap? Sure, I said. Off he went and came back with a taste-tingling mix of flavours. Fantastic.
Our desserts were equally good. The espresso tart was a slightly bitter mix of chocolate and coffee, with an almost chewy texture, and a large dollop of chocolate icecream. Best of the lot though was the banana, coconut and rum rice pudding. Like mother used to make but 100 times better.
The biggest surprise of all was how those Houdini-like chefs managed to produce such a variety of tastes from their tiny cooking space. Toru does at least three different styles of cuisine extremely well. The Irish entry of colcannon, which turned out to be creamy-whipped mashed potato with finely chopped cabbage, was, thankfully, better than anything I've tasted in Ireland. The Asian dishes were brilliant, especially the sambal and aubergine concoction, and the New Zealand-style meals were okay, too. Service was excellent and the small plates were generous enough for four to share.
Toru opened for dinner on Wednesday to Saturday only a few weeks ago and, given its unusual venue in Ponsonby Central, hasn't fully made its mark yet. But it will.
Our meal: $215 for three glasses of wine, a bottle of sparkling water, plus three entrees, main courses and desserts.
Our wine: Reasonably short, but offering wines from local to exotic to meet every taste.
Verdict: Despite its draughts and lack of atmosphere, Toru is a fine addition to Ponsonby's dining options. Every dish, whether Asian, European or local, is carefully created to give exactly the right balance of flavour and texture. There's a wide variety to choose from including plenty of vegetarian and fish dishes.