While there's probably never going to be another restaurant in Wellington to match the domed splendour of Logan Brown, Osteria del Toro comes a close second.
REVIEW: Yet grand as they both are, they're chalk and cheese: where Logan Brown is dignified and classical - the sort of place you'd be proud to take a foreign dignitary to dinner - Osteria del Toro is Baroque'n'roll.
A huge, sprawling bar-brasserie with a Latin theme, it's the elegant modern successor both to Il Casino and, in a wider sense, the Kiwi booze barn of old - the sort of place to wind down with friends or family without feeling you have to be too careful about your manners.
Probably designer Michael Nalder's best work yet, the interior is cavernous yet snug; theatrical yet never gaudy.
It's a huge space, so the copious drapes, oversized ropes and giant tassels are appropriate; viewed from the far end of the long room, the Baroque gilded mirror doesn't seem exaggeratedly large. Beside huge urns, deep Victorian buttoned fabric reaches up the walls and around pillars, cocooning diners like the padded great hall of some lunatic asylum for 18th century aristocrats.
With such posh surroundings, you'd expect a meal here to be expensive, but it's not: despite the name, Toro doesn't charge like a wounded bull.
As with Monsoon Poon, owner Mike Egan has created a people's palace with food to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
I'd keep coming even if the food here were appalling, which sad to say my last meal very nearly was.
At least it began swimmingly.
The service unfolded as such a glamorous occasion demands. The waiter laid out the makings of saganaki cheese on a butler's tray next to our table, poured over a shot of hot ouzo and lit it. Ouzo and cheese may sound weird, but this wasn't: with the alcohol having gone up in flames, you were left with a faint aniseed flavour that gently lifted the fried Greek sheep cheese.
Arancini balls were technically perfect at least, if perhaps lacking a little oomph.
Lamb souvlaki skewers had been nicely marinated and grilled but, alas, were cold.
For the sake of sampling the hand-made pasta from Bongusto in Miramar, we made a not altogether welcome return to the Italian mom and pop cafe cliches of the seventies: spag bol, carbonara, pescatora, puttanesca (anchovies optional).
My vegetarian guest exercised the no-anchovy option, making her puttanesca plainer. Her verdict: delicious black olives, but it was like something she'd cook at home. Paella here is made with calasparra rice, the highly absorbent paella rice from the mountains of Spain.
"Please allow 30 minutes," requested the menu. So imagine my bemusement when it arrived 10 minutes early - and my intense disappointment at it being chalky in the middle.
Between the crunchy rice grains and the excess grit and rock fragments in the accompanying 'surf clams', it became hard going, and two-thirds of the rice went back uneaten, along with underdone squid.
The so-called surf clams were actually the tiddlers we Kiwis know as cockles (but that are really little-neck clams).
These too were underdone, to the extent that I had to take my knife to the shells and prise a couple all the way open.
But I will say the combination of salty clams and sweet jamon serrano was magic. Roast baby carrots in the side of vegetables were nice and soft, but both the parsnip and the yams were - you guessed it - underdone.
As to the churros we had for dessert - lovely and crunchy on the outside, but again, a little too doughy in the centre.
Since the skills of executive chef John Allred (not in the kitchen that evening) are beyond question, I'm not suggesting that every meal served here would be thus flawed. It can't be, for the place to be so perennially popular.
OSTERIA DEL TORO
60 Tory St (Ground floor of Wildlife House)
Ph: 381 2299 Fully licensed.
Open: Mon-Fri 11.30am-midnight; Sat 5pm-midnight; Sun noon-11pm
Price range of mains: $19- $28
Wine list: ***
Cost: $125 for two (excluding wine)
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Tarte Tatin. This is not the classical upside-down apple tart, but a scrumptiously novel variation upon nana's sponge pudding. Importantly, a mound of beautifully burnished apple remains at the heart of the dish.
- The Dominion Post