Ada is absolutely hopping on a Saturday night. It’s a scene. A magazine editor, some film people, a very jolly 50th birthday group and tipsy hipsters all tuck into plates heaped with handmade pasta. The restaurant is awash in joy.
So, too, the boutique hotel in which it is situated – 22 rooms stripped back to make the most of the former convent’s Spanish-mission-style arches, oversized windows, tiled floors and handsome woodwork – and the tiny bar where diners can wait for a table. There are people in every nook and cranny.
The place is so far removed from its recent miserable past as a boarding house of last resort that it almost belies belief. Property developer Andy Davies, also founder and owner of Ponsonby Central, has done a stellar job of restoring the building to its former glory while creating something entirely new and fun.
The restaurant is tucked into what used to be the cloister, a covered walkway where nuns would perambulate and reflect. A vaulted glass ceiling seals it from the elements, creating a unique dining space that’s long, narrow, partially columned and quite beautiful.
Like so many eateries, Ada deals in seasonal sharing plates. You order four or five dishes between two people and consume them as they come to the table, in no particular order. While fine in theory, this can result in all of your heavy selections arriving at once, and if you’re greedy – as we were – then you won’t have saved any of your lighter accompaniments to break up the work of forking pasta. You will come to regret this.
First up is a plate of Brussels sprouts served with burrata cheese and aged balsamic vinegar. The contrast between the warm, bitter veggie globes and the velvety, cool cheese is delightful. A few sprout leaves have been removed for optimum crisping and scattered casually around the plate, begging to be picked off like chips. Paired with a glass of 2020 Millton Libiamo Malbec from Gisborne, you really can’t go wrong. 10/10.
The broccoli toast is another example of a simple dish that exceeds our expectations. The bread is doused in garlicky oil, giving it an exemplary crunch, the broccoli is firm without being chewy, and the stack is topped with buffalo ricotta, lemon zest and sliced chilli.
My favourite dish of the evening arrives third. Beetroot is puréed and generously studded with nuggets of pistachio and dots of goat’s cheese, which adds an element of animal funk to the sweetness. Barely cooked broad beans lie atop this glorious cushion, providing the dish with some substance. I could imagine scooping this concoction onto some of Ada’s toast as a meal in itself. 11/10.
Starting to feel comfortably full, now we are hit with the pasta – plump cavatelli served with ricotta, leek and saffron cream; and fazzoletti draped over a white pork ragù and topped with chives. The pasta is elastic, firm to the bite and cooked to perfection. It’s what you would expect given Ada’s chefs, Hayden Phiskie and Johnny Price, have both come from Cotto, which specialises in handmade pasta.
The standout is the fazzoletti, the heartiest dish of the night in texture and flavour. I would have been a supremely satisfied customer if I had known enough to simply order this and the beetroot for myself, and to hell with sharing.
The cavatelli is fine. Cheesy, leeky, plentiful. I leave most of it to my dining companion, who is tempted to order more wine and settle in for dessert. I ask him not to, for two reasons: I can’t even contemplate more food after the fazzoletti, and the ambient noise is doing my head in.
Still in its infancy, Ada is the hot spot of the moment, and that success is double-edged. Our charming server wants to hustle us into the bar when we reject dessert, to make space for others. A woman from the bar cheers when she is finally led into the dining room, exclaiming that she has failed to get a booking five times.
This is not the place for a quiet date night or dinner meeting. You don’t slink into Ada for an anonymous nosh. It’s a community experience. You chat to the barman, who delivers house-mixed cocktails in little chilled bottles and tells jokes. You try to figure out if the diners with trucker caps and tattoo sleeves are famous. You can’t help but overhear the adoring speeches at the 50th. It’s an immersive evening, it's buzzy and tasty and really, really fun – but it’s not relaxing.
Menu: Shared plates $8 to $24; $60pp for the “Fate l’amore con il sapore”, a chef’s selection of dishes.
Where: The Convent Hotel, 454 Great North Rd, Grey Lynn.
Hours: Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday, 5pm to late; lunch, Thursday and Friday, noon to 3pm.