Address: 244 Victoria St, Hamilton
Phone: (07) 839 4329

A chim-choo-ree is a bird. This fact has escaped the attention of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is odd, since they are usually very careful. Worse, and unforgivably, all the online databases of bird species that I can find missed it.

But the opening lines of Emily, by American harpist and songstress Joanne Newsom, are "The meadowlark and the chim-choo-ree and the sparrow / Set to the sky in a flying spree". Of the rest of the song I make no comment other than to say it is 12 minutes and 22 seconds long.

The waitress at Chim Choo Ree, the restaurant (there is some confusion about whether it is hyphenated or not) gave me the Newsom connection when I asked her about the provenance of the name. I had assumed it came from the chimney sweeps' song in Mary Poppins, but that's "chim cheree" evidently. My informant was silent on the question of why a Hamilton restaurant would name itself after a song by a Californian folk musician, but seeing that one wall is dominated a poster of a Victorian woman riding a bicycle on a tightrope and another by the destination roll from a Dunedin bus, it's safe to say that there's a certain randomness at work in the cultural references.

But there's nothing random about what's going on in the kitchen. I was at Chim Choo Ree, with the Professor's sister and her bloke, because I was in Hamilton on business and wanted to check out the third of the city's best-regarded restaurants. Mat McLean's Palate, now moved to a riverside position, set a standard that Victoria Street Bistro doesn't really come up to. But the food that comes out of chef and co-owner Cameron Farmilo's kitchen at Chim Choo Ree is tasty, generously portioned, and full of smart twists on familiar ideas.


Even the bar snacks - rice paper rolls are stuffed with eggplant, and fish croquettes use salt cod - encourage you to expect the unexpected. But we moved straight to the entree list.

William's carpaccio of beef had grated beetroot and creamy chevre - a beautiful display of colour on the plate - and little sparks of popped rice made for an interesting contrast of textures; Olive's confit duck had been shredded and moulded into a little stack and was lapped with a parsnip puree so delicate that it forced an entire re-evaluation of that underrated vegetable.

I'd been attracted by the ravioli, since pasta, along with Caesar salad, is a test of a chef's skills: Farmilo came through with flying colours, turning in several circular paper-thin envelopes filled with smoked ricotta. The pasta was made translucent by the sage butter with which the dish was drizzled and a sprinkling of roasted pine nuts completed a perfect entree.

Mains were even better. William is a sucker for a steak and got what he was after: a duo of beef comprised roasted eye fillet and shredded beef cheek braised with good sherry.

The two meats were a study in contrasts, from either end of the animal's quality spectrum, but both were quite superbly accounted for and the accompanying mash and an onion-rich bechamel sauce that I now know is called a soubise were perfect.

Olive was most taken with snapper - again roasted - served on risotto nero blackened by squid ink, a dish that is one of the glories of Venetian cuisine. I meanwhile pursued my professional curiosity and ordered up venison. It's a meat I have never been very keen on; the gamey taste is too rich for me and chefs often try to do too much with it: Denver leg with blueberries that I tried at a Tokaanu hotel in the 80s was the worst of many examples of lily-gilding I have encountered.

Well, now I'm impressed. The fillet here was rolled in finely ground coffee before being roasted, which countered the cloying richness so that, though it was sliced and served rare, it was extremely delicate and subtle. I thought the accompanying chocolate rice bubbles a bit of an error, but I'm not much of a fan of sweet and meat. I wasn't up to dessert but I can provide nibble reports: that the churros were first-class and a gingerbread icecream sandwich every bit as good as it sounds. A near-perfect performance from an unassuming but excellent restaurant.

Verdict: Expect the unexpected.