Coveting Ortolana

"He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet?" - Dr. Hannibal Lecter, "The Silence Of The Lambs" 

Truth is, I have been quietly coveting Ortolana, in Auckland's bright, shiny new Britomart redevelopment, for a while now. It sounds like the sort of place, and the sort of food, that I am going to enjoy eating at. Its menu looks clean, and fresh, and impeccably well-conceived, and the people I know and trust, who have eaten there have given universally favourable accounts.

It can only disappoint, right?

Bearing that in mind, in the weekend I found myself, once more, in Auckland, a city which I have been, at best, ambivalent about in the past - as a born and bred South Islander, and Cantabrian at that, resident in Wellington, I am almost honour-bound to be down on Auckland. But lately I have had some really grand times there, largely down to knowing a bunch of nice people, and (I'm sure it hasn't hurt at all) - having some excellent meals.

I have had a mighty, meaty feast and some excellent bar food at my favourite Auckland bar The Golden Dawn. I have had a great pre-Radiohead chow-down at Depot, brilliant (and cheap!) noodles at Xi'an Food Bar on the North Shore, an excellent vegan meal at The Loving Hut on Victoria Street, and a delicious rolled and toasted pita at Fatima's on Ponsonby Road. So, I have hardly gone hungry.

And yet still I covet you, Ortolana...

To help me in my quest for satiating my culinary covetousness, I get in touch with my pal Simon Farrell-Green (whose Eat Here Now website you really should have bookmarked if you are interested in eating well in Auckland). Simon has reviewed Ortolana, and this was largely what piqued my interest, so it's only fair he pitches in and helps out with getting me fed - many hands make light work, etc.

So, on a rainy Auckland Saturday, at a time that is so singularly peculiar that it could be either a very late lunch, or a ludicrously early dinner, we head along - no bookings, just roll on up.

Firstly - it is a very attractive space. Despite being a newly created "destination" location for dining and entertainment, Ortolana sticks out as having a distinct personality. On a sunny day, with the doors wide open, I can see it being absolutely blissful. In summer, also, all of Ortolana's produce is grown at their farm in Kumeu, while in the colder months it is still well over half - a great way to ensure standards remain high - grow it yourself. This "garden to table" concept is at the very core of what this place does.

Wait staff are unerringly pleasant and hospitable as we take a seat, and there is a gentle buzz, the place bubbling away despite the peculiar hour. The small-ish, concise menu is basically divided into three sections - plates to share (ideal if you just fancy a snack), full meals, and salads/ sides.

Sparkling water is brought to the table (no charge! Huzzah!), and constantly replenished - a nice touch. I order the Rib eye bistecca, fried green tomatoes and oregano relish, while Simon opts for the Pillus pasta with mushroom, parmesan butter and yolk. We share a side of Cauliflower, mozzarella and almond panna grata, and a carafe of a worryingly drinkable house Pinot Noir.

You know how sometimes you order in a restaurant, and then wait, and wait, and wait - well, that didn't happen here. Neither did the food arrive so quickly that you are concerned whether the kitchen would have actually had time to cook it, or whether they just assembled it - nope, that neither. Food arrived at exactly the right time after ordering, and drinking a half glass of wine - bang on.

It feels like almost goes without saying that the food itself is exemplary - my beef is succulent, and pleasantly chewy, and cooked perfectly to my (mildly pretentious) request of "the rare side of medium-rare", and covered in fresh, lightly dressed micro-greens, and set atop sliced, crispy fried green tomatoes, flecked with the tang of the (excellent) oregano relish.

Simon's pasta (made in-house, naturally) is delectably light and, with the egg yolk breaking over it, rich and sumptuous, without being sickeningly creamy or cloying, the mushrooms plumply juicy. The side of cauliflower panna gratta is like a study in complementary tastes and textures - crunch from the cauli and almonds and deliciously cheezy ooze - exceptional. I would happily devour a whole plateful.

After this, we are both well-fed, but agree that for the sake of you, the eating/ reading public, we probably owe you at least a report on the small dessert menu, and an aged ricotta, granny smith and honeycomb sounds like just the sweet-salty crossover I fancy. Again, it is a superbly well-judged dish with flavours and textures that are blissfully complementary, light and full of flavour.

I often bemoan the lack of dining options in the "dearer than Malaysian/ Lebanese/ fish and chips", but cheaper than $35 mains kind of bracket, and this place hits that mark effortlessly, and enthusiastically. It is a place you can take a date, or meet friends, or show your parents a good time that won't break the bank, and know that it will deliver quality, generosity and class in spades. This is, increasingly, exactly the kind of place in which people want to dine.

Do you know what I didn't like about Ortolana?

Nothing. It is impeccable. I find it difficult to believe that you wouldn't enjoy terrific food, service and hospitality, were you to rock up at any time of the day or night. This is a place that just oozes with confidence and attention to detail.

This, people, is the New Zealand dining scene's future, and I can see Ortolana (and its parent company, The Hip Group), being around for a long time, and doing some very good things.

I coveted - and my covetousness was rewarded in spades. Very highly recommended.

Have you eaten at Ortolana - your verdict? And - is 3.30 very late lunch, or very early dinner?

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