Where:338 Dominion Rd, Mt Eden. Ph (09) 630 6345.
Rating: * * * *
Wine list: Good choice and the prices aren't fancy.
Vegetarians: Heaps of tapas and pizza choices, one main.
Watch out for: The very laid-back Steve..
Bottom line: Simple food cooked with joy and served with pleasure.
When is a restaurant chain not a restaurant chain? It's a serious question. When the second steakhouse under the name Tony's opened in Lorne St, the steak Italiano and the crumbed scallops tasted exactly the same as they did at the Wellesley St original. And I know this because I worked in both.
And I know that a Big Mac tastes the same in Seattle and St Petersburg because I saw the film The Accidental Tourist, in which William Hurt explains that McDonald's exists so Americans don't get frightened when overseas.
So it would not have occurred to me to darken the door of any restaurant in Auckland named Tasca because I went, almost exactly a year ago, to the one in Newmarket. It was not a happy experience: rereading my review, I see that a cordero of lamb was a roasted and reheated knuckle, the $31.50 paella contained a small square of fish and four mussels, and a spinach pizza was soggy.
Then a colleague spoke highly of the Dominion Rd restaurant bearing the same name and a young person of my acquaintance did the same. Read on and you will find that I enthusiastically agree. But I remain puzzled: the menus are identical (making matters more complicated is the existence of another one in Vulcan Lane) but the website www.tasca.co.nz refers only to Nuffield St. Beats me why you would want to keep the Dominion Rd place secret.
It being the warmest day of the summer so far when the Professor booked, she made a particular point of asking for a table in a cool spot.
We arrived to find the place apparently deserted, but the very friendly waiter, Steve, soon showed us why, leading us out the back to an expansive courtyard where business was brisk but the tables were so widely spaced in the shade of established olive trees that it was like having the place to yourself. It was laid-back alfresco with a very European feel, the perfect place for dinner on a sultry evening and, as it turned out, the dinner was pretty much perfect too.
Some entree highlights will give the flavour of it: a slab of grilled haloumi - a salty cheese of Cypriot origin - was half the size of my hand and came on a wedge of grilled bread with a lovely mint-tomato salsa; a red pepper was stuffed with rice, currants and pinenuts and baked; calamari, lightly pan-fried with lemon, were tender and juicy. Each of these was as large as a small meal so we all got a generous taste.
Things stayed on track with the main courses: the Prof's lahmajun, aka "Istanbul street pizza" was fragrantly topped with spicy meat, and I relished a dish of baked eggplant topped with green beans. Younger members of the party were equally impressed: a "Barcelona salad" - a spin on nicoise but with chorizo instead of tuna; a "Portuguese-style" roast chicken, carrying the scent of rosemary and the wood fire. A selection of cakes, big and small, sweetened the coffees.
The menu says this is a Spanish joint, but it's pan-Mediterranean really, and it's great.
They may have lifted their game over in Newmarket, but I strongly recommend that you beat a path here. Ask for Steve. Say I sent you.