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Herald on Sunday rating: 4.5/5
Address: 18 Stanley Street
Phone: (09) 366 4755
What do you expect of a restaurant called James? I can't help thinking of the expression "Home, James, and don't spare the horses", which, surely apocryphally, is what Queen Victoria used to say to her carriage driver (queens, after all, have people to say that sort of thing for them).
So the name suggests to me a snooty sort of place, where waiters circulate silently on carpeted floors, looking superciliously at diners and hoping they realise how lucky they are to be there. But it's nothing of the sort.
James is a new restaurant offshoot of Jamie Miller and Gisele Trezevant-Miller's Mint Kitchen Catering, which by all accounts is to canapés what the Sistine Chapel ceiling is to graffiti.
The look is the industrial grunge that seems de rigueur for inner-city joints these days (think Cafe Hanoi and Tyler St Garage in Britomart): a cavernous interior of factory-rough concrete walls is softened by floor-to-ceiling curtains that create smaller spaces, and the whole is glammed up with extravagant chandeliers.
The distressed walls pleasingly reflect the area's heritage - Stanley St was a light industrial area barely 10 years ago - but can make for a deafening dining experience. Certainly the Professor and I were glad that we had almost finished by the time the blinged and braying men and women settled in for the evening.
The word "tapas" doesn't appear anywhere on the menu here, but the food comes in small (essentially single mouthfuls) and medium (for two or three) plates. A seafood paella at $95 will feed three or four and carnivores can salivate over a beef rib, but we had more restrained intentions.
We made our choices with the assistance of our waiter Valo (a Chilean of impeccable old-school style), who urged us to include the corn and truffle soup and the bisteeya (of which more below). I supplemented these with a single oxtail empanada and a lamb cutlet which were easily shared and both superb.
The empanada, a folded pie like a tiny Cornish pasty, is a staple street snack in South America but, given the star treatment with braised oxtail and a sauce of chocolate and chilli, it was a standout.
The same went for the lamb cutlet, bulgingly succulent and topped with a generous glob of salsa verde (herbs and olive oil, like a delicate pesto).
The real surprise and delight was the bisteeya (the Arabic word in North Africa for what the Spanish call pastilla). My subsequent researches revealed that the usual main ingredient for this Moroccan speciality is squab (not a seat cushion but a fledgling pigeon) though chicken may be substituted when you are out of squabs.
This was the expedient adopted at James, where they mince the chicken with exotic spices both sweet and savoury - there's cinnamon in there, I fancy, and sugar too.
The result, encased in a delicate, almost filo-like pastry and sprinkled with icing sugar, is a wonderful creation. You can smell the souk and hear the wind in the date palms with every mouthful. It quite overshadowed a delicious baked ricotta which was our other choice.
Desserts (beignets, which are small doughnuts, with chocolate sauce; an impeccably presented tarte aux pommes) were a fine end to an extremely memorable meal.
The sole blight on the evening was the abysmal chlorinated water. Valo spent some time singing the praises of the filtration to which the house tap water was subjected - the pipes were old, he said, and it needed it.
I reckon they should ask the filter supplier for their money back: the French would call this eau de piscine - and that is not a rude joke.
Need to know
See: Aptly industrial
Hear: It can be hard to
Taste: Exquisite Price guide reflects the cost of three courses for one person without drinks.
$ = $20-$40; $$ = $40-60; $$$ = More than $60
Still the best in town.
Basque Kitchen and Bar
Address: 61 Davis Crescent Newmarket
Phone: 523 1057
Dogmatic dullards complain that because this superb place doesn't specialise in Basque cuisine, it should change its name: bad news for St Tropez, Verona and Calcutta Wala.
A great winter spot - try the mussels and the churros.