Lauraine Jacobs

Food & Wine Writer

22 March 2016

MEREDITHS AND LOVEBLOCK

There it was. A thin crunchy crisp rice cracker, spread with a soft puree of the sweetest apple I had ever tasted and topped with a fine mist like cloud of grated cheese. “This is totally mental!” I exclaimed.

When food is this good, with so much flavour, texture and taste it almost becomes a mental rather than a physical sensation. But then almost all the food at Meredith’s is like that. There is so much thought, care and innovation in every bite served in this eponymous restaurant headed up by one of our most talented and now most revered chefs, Michael Meredith.

That cracker was the finale at a very exclusive occasion at Merediths where a tasting of five special dessert style wines was served, mid-afternoon, to just five wine writers, hosted by Erica and Kim Crawford. The pair have poured their hearts, souls, and a fair amount of hard slog into their new brand, Loveblock, making organic wines in the Awatere Valley, Marlborough on a very challenging specially selected site. So it was fitting that they had singled out super-talented-chef Michael Meredith to come up with five desserts to showcase some of their stunning sweet wines in the best possible light. And after five dessert wines and five of Meredith’s desserts I floated away and even found room for a light dinner.

That experience was so good that as I left the restaurant I made a booking to return a week later for the degustation menu that is served. Diners at Meredith’s are offered a five or eight course tasting menu on weeknights, and on Saturdays, in celebration of the weekend, the pace steps up to nine courses for everyone. When booking the question is always posed about likes, allergies and preferences to ensure that everyone gets to eat food that will agree with them. Vegans and vegetarians are welcomed and a menu is always designed around the whims and fancies of the customer.

Suffice to say that when you go to Meredith’s it is certain that you will be entering into a true pact of trust. You essentially, having established a few boundaries, put your appetite in the hands of the chefs in the kitchen and experience a series of small courses that are designed to please, to showcase seasonal food, and occasionally to challenge you in a way you might not have thought about food before.

Each course is designed to flow on from the previous one. You will start with things that are fishy and light, or maybe some wonderful vegetables that have been carefully prepared. You will move on through a several courses that might include a little cured beef, a robust short rib, a serving of red deer or lamb, and it is always garnished and presented with amazing complementary flavours so that it not only tastes superb, but is as appealing to the eye as it is to the taste-buds. And there will always be a light pre-dessert and another, probably focussed on seasonal fruit in the summer months, or heading into the chocolately, caramelly spheres when it’s colder.

Our pre-Christmas dinner met all our expectations. Michael Meredith has a strong connection to the Pacific, and he’s is at the top of his game, in my opinion, when he works with fresh island produce. I once saw this guy do an hour and a half on stage showing Ways with Coconut. It was a mind blowing experience. So the first dish kick-started a meal that delivered all that was promised. Like every dish on his menus, the written description doesn’t even touch the reality of the plate that is put down on the table. “Taro, coconut, crab & curry” was a sophisticated exhibition of everything I love about the Pacific, melding those wonderful island flavours in startlingly simple style.

As we ate our way through the eight courses, we remarked how much of the food was completely fresh and some was uncooked – fantastic ingredients chosen with care so that they could speak for themselves. There had been a lot of diligent preparation and planning behind the scenes.

Everything about this restaurant is designed for a seamless experience. The décor is low key….dark wood panelling, colourful but restrained art to contrast with lovely potted plants that hang to divide the room, sparkling glassware and cutlery and exemplary informed service.

The wine list only offers the very best wines; New Zealand icons, interesting French wines and all chosen to complement the food. Diners can choose to have each of their courses matched for a very interesting experience, or wine can be ordered by the bottle. Either way wine needs are well cared for, and there’s plenty of choices that are well priced. Merediths dining is a masterly experience not to be missed.

But wait. There’s more. A review would not be complete without a nod to the chef. If there is another chef in our country with a bigger heart and more socially conscious attitude, I have yet to find him or her. Michael Meredith started offering a four course Dine by Donation night on Tuesday evenings. The idea is to go there, have four courses of experimental dishes that are being developed for the regular menu and then instead of being presented with a bill, diners make a donation to a charity of Meredith’s choice, according to their own instinct. Over the past year or two thousands have been donated to various worthy charities. Note that on these nights wine is not included in this deal.

And there’s even more. Last year Meredith lent his name and a great deal of his time to a start-up initiative to provide lunches for needy school children in Auckland. Eat My Lunch has been widely recognised and has even won awards for the efforts to make lunches with the money given by more privileged people. The idea is you buy lunch for yourself and the others in your office, and for each lunch ordered, a lunch is made, mostly by volunteers to be delivered to kids who otherwise would not get to eat a healthy tasty lunch. The kids are happy and it is a warm and generous effort by all concerned.

Merediths, 365 Dominion Road, Mt Eden. Phone 09-623 3140 Open: Lunch Friday only 4 courses by reservation. Dinner Tuesdays for Dine by Donation, Wed to Fri for 5 courses $80 and 8 courses $120, and Saturdays 9 courses $140.

14 February 2016

BADUZZI

In the corner of Baduzzi, right next to the kitchen, sit a pile of well-thumbed cookery books. It’s a busy kitchen with an army of chefs, quietly going about their work. Those books are the clue needed to see the inspiration behind Michael and Annette Dearth’s (of The Grove fame) very successful second restaurant. One of the many Italian books, A16 Food + Wine, is from an exemplary San Francisco restaurant where equal emphasis is place on excellent Italian wine and modern Italian food. The owners are friends of the family and their fine work is exactly what happens here too, both Italian food and wine prepared from our own seasonal ingredients prepared and served daily with lovely wines to an ever appreciative crowd of regular diners.

We are lucky in New Zealand to have attracted a new wave of people in the past two or three decades who not only have enhanced our life, but have provided wide ranging opportunities to encounter great food – food that was outside our traditional base of Anglo and French influenced cuisine - regional Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and other Asian specialties, spicy Middle eastern options, and even food from South and Central America and occasionally Africa. Of course we alwys knew Italian fare – pizza and pasta - but it has taken just two or three operators to expose us to authentic modern Italian cuisine. Antonio Crisci and then his nephew Sergio Maglioni extended our knowledge and experience. And then along came the Dearths.

This passionate American couple, who with their talented executive chef Ben Bayly, have rewritten the book on Italian in our city with Baduzzi. Baduzzi are ‘meatballs’ and I defy any diner to eat at this waterfront restaurant in the North Wharf precinct and not order at least one helping of these orbs of deliciousness. As an aside, despite the restaurant’s name Baduzzi, on the menu they are listed as polpette, which is rather confusing for all.

Since day one, about eighteen months ago or more, the number one choice from this section of the menu has been the crayfish meatballs with savoy cabbage and pecorino. There might be a riot if it were to disappear. Also presently offered are red deer meatballs with mushrooms and parsnip, smoked beef with aubergine (melanzane in Italian) and some very savoury organic lamb and wild thyme meatballs with preserved lemon and a spicy tomtoey gravy. Be forewarned however, each serving comes with three meatballs but it’s easy to order extra if everyone is to have an equal share.

One night there were large parties around us. Bookings are not taken apart from those large groups so it may be wise to gather up all your friends and head there. Not a bad idea actually as that way you could almost try everything on the menu. The groups all kicked off with long wooden platters of Italian cured meats which were gently making waves over some fresh chunky breads. They were happy munchers. Meanwhile we shared about three of the little plates; a highly recommended boned and grilled piper anointed with pine nuts, feta and raisins which was salty, sweet and tangy, some divine grilled tuna with shaved fennel and spices which made an interesting play on the classic vitello tonnato, and a plate of the aforementioned very tasty lamb meatballs.

After that it’s on to primi and secondi courses. Oh to have the constitution to have one of each! Primi are the pasta courses and the star of the show is the beetroot pappardelle with gorgeous little pieces of fried paua, smoked pancetta, fresh beetroot thinly sliced and there in the centre, a slow cooked runny quail’s egg. I told a friend about the dish and she looked at me quizzically; “What else would you ever want to eat there?” she asked. I demurred as I too probably would eat that again. And again. And Again. All the pasta dishes, and there are about six of them are handmade in the kitchen daily. No wonder there’s a big staff, all expertly led by head chef Glen File who looks like he could never be ruffled.

In the secondi section things get intense. For $40 you can order a tribute to the pig. Nose to tail eating with a variety of cuts and cured meats. Or a serious selection of beef cuts that are ordered by weight – flatiron steak, beef sirloin or a modern interpretation of the classic bistecca alla fiorentina, which are all accompanied by a rocket salad to cut the richness of the juicy meat.

Thoughtfully, vegetarians are truly looked after. They get their own section on the menu with six entries that include old favourites from eggplant parmigiana or a witloof salad with gorgonzola to frightfully modern buttered maltagliati with buttercup and crystalised pumpkin seeds and pickled black walnuts.

And if you have room for dessert the sweet treats are beautifully made and presented. Here’s a tiramisu to die for. Or Italian cheeses to finish on a savoury note.

The staff are all terribly helpful and knowledgeable. As they must be. They know their food well and can help with the wine list which is almost exclusively Italian - we certainly all need help with that if we’re to venture beyond prosecco and chianti. I spied one of my favourites from Sicily’s Arianna Occhipinti and also enjoyed a smooth and rich red wine from Puglia. The list is helpfully arranged into $40, $60, $80 and Big Boy wines and beware you could spend up to $1400 on a fantastico Sassacaia.

When the various restaurants opened at that end of the city’s sea front, there were only one or two that could be taken seriously apart from a place to relax and sip on a beer. When the far too smart ASB building was completed and the Dearths snapped up this site, not far from the fish markets, things changed. It is a top destination in a top location, with classy décor and food and wine to match. Just a pity it’s not on the front row so there could be views of the sea on calm sunny days. Do not miss the opportunity to eat there.

Baduzzi, corner of Fish Lane & Jellicoe Street, North Wharf. Phone 09 3099339.

Open everyday from 11.30am. Bookings at lunch or for parties of more than 8.

14 February 2016

SWASHBUCKLERS

Sometimes the most established restaurants provide the best experiences. Perched right beside the waters of the Westhaven Marina, Swashbucklers, the well-known haunt of sailors, sportsmen and more than a few businessmen, has a ton of appeal with its sunny outdoor bar tables, the funkiest bar in the city by a country mile and the added attraction of the ritual stingray feeding session daily. (At low tide.)

Most importantly, the kitchen serves up some of the freshest fish around in a totally unassuming manner. Sniffy diners, who like everything just so-so and want to head to the newest fancy-schmancy place to be able to trump their mates could well do to take in a breath of the salty air and relax here. They might even take the family as this is a place where everyone is welcome. An extensive choice of great comfort food including a kids menu is offered, all instantly recognisable stuff rather than the type of fashionista-fare that needs a clever waiter and five minutes to explain whats on the plate.

It is almost worthy of an historic places designation for in its early days late last century Swashbucklers was presided over by the legendary Ginger. Regulars all have tales to tell about him, some of which are fairly hair raising and many of which I am sure have become embellished over the years. Ginger passed away nine years ago, and the joint was taken over by a group of three or four friendly investors. These wise guys did not meddle with much as changing things too much as that would have been crazy. It remains a much loved place where everyone can feel comfortable. They did attempt to declutter, refurbish and bring in a few kitchen improvements, but for the most part it is still the same old Swashbucklers with much of the same old clientele. Bruno the Bear remains what the hell a grizzly brown bear is doing there alongside the three decorative fish tanks and a collection of ancient outboard motors and other nautical paraphernalia I cannot work out, but it adds to the eclectic scene.

The first key to all this is the affable general manager Paul Smit. He was known to many from his previous restaurant Headquarters in the same Westhaven precinct, where he looked after the locals and regulars with the same enthusiasm hes brought to Swashbucklers. (My first introduction to HQ was the mighty hangover breakfast back in the day which was so hearty it was cited as the ultimate cure-all. Smit has taken that idea and there it is - served on weekend brunches and called the Pirates Breakfast with the famous HQ Hash Brown, Mixed Grain Toast, Eggs, Grilled Tomato, Mushroom, Baked Beans, Beef Sausage and Bacon worth every penny of the charge of $24.50.)

Secondly, he took with him a chef from HQ, Shaun Margan a young guy with a ton of talent who had grown up in a family with a love of good food, especially fishy stuff. Margan has a great kitchen team behind him and his passion for sourcing the freshest fish shows. Every night he cooks a huge number of plates of Swashbucklers Fish and Chips - gurnard, lightly battered with a mountainous pile of fries, tomato sauce and tartare at $23. But whatever other fresh fish fillets have been delivered for the days menu can be substituted. On a recent visit I couldnt go past this house specialty, choosing to have snapper and was warned by fellow diners to order a small portion of the fish but was still served two huge fillets that fairly melted in my mouth; moist, fresh and covered in one of the lightest crisp batters I have encountered in ages.

Meanwhile the fish of the day, hapuku was as expertly styled as any in the city. Big thick chunks on a tasty potato rosti with roasted tomato and caper buttery sauce and a flourish of balsamic were superb, especially alongside one of the heartiest piles of green vegetables on the side I have seen anywhere.

Amongst other choices, the pan fried John Dory in butter is the essence of simplicity, the Pirates Platter is a veritable cacophony of fresh seafood that can be scaled up for a group to look simply spectacular, there are scallops cooked the old fashioned way in a genuine mornay sauce, an tasty and comforting seafood chowder that is a meal in itself, fresh oysters in the shell, calamari, salmon, tuna, a sparkling sashimi plate, chicken parmiagiana, fantastic steaks and much more. Id go back in a heartbeat for the pile of paper thin rings of calamari, ever so lightly floured with salt, pepper, fresh garlic and herbs and quickly deep fried. All they needed was a squirt of lemon to complement their delicacy could this be Aucklands favourite dish of the year?

Afters, if anyone could possible tuck into dessert after their hearty meal, has all the most loved favourites; apple crumble, steamed ginger pudd, bread and butter pudd, ice-cream sundae made the old fashioned way and a Whitestone cheese board. The cheesecake of the day the other night was peanut butter and chocolate topped with ice cream and butterscotch hmmm. But the boys loved it!

And that bar. Thats another total experience. The regulars all know each other but mingle happily with newly arrived ocean-going sailors and salty types who breeze in after regular racing on the harbour. A chalkboard lists bar snacks that get the same careful attention the regular menu does in the adjacent dining room. The place is chockful of Gingers collection of number plates, yachting memorabilia, quirky signs and a roaring fire. Despite beer being the drink of choice (14 beers by the bottle and eight on tap) the wine list is short, succinct and most importantly focussed on recognised brands of decent chardonnay, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc and hearty reds, all pretty decently priced. I am sure the sophisticates will head for chilled Veuve Clicquot or the delicious Rochfort Rees Ros on perfect summery evenings when they can relax outdoors and watch the sun set over the masts of Westhaven.

Its a happy place, and to round off the experience the service is terrific. Friendly types to look after everyone, a private room called the Gibbs Landing which can be hired for private parties of up to 100 people, locals can walk cross the motorway on that swanky overhead bridge from St Marys Bay, and best of all Swashbucklers has its own carpark right by the door. Do not miss the fun!

Swashbucklers, 23 Westhaven Drive, St Marys Bay ph 09 307 5979 www.swashbucklers.co.nz

Open 11am till late daily, Brunch on weekends from 7.30am

6 October 2015

CAFE HANOI

Fresh fragrant herbs and the sharp tangy fish sauce are the two standout hallmarks of Vietnamese cooking. It is a gentle cuisine with soft spices, plenty of sweet notes, only a hint of fiery chilli and lots of fresh vegetables and tropical fruits.

And no-one is more passionate about it than Jason Van Dorsten, the chef of Café Hanoi in the city centre. With business partners and restaurant manager Krishna Botica this popular restaurant was set up five years ago and was among the first to venture into what has now become a vital part of the city. From the moment it opened Aucklanders thronged there to experience feasts of incredible variety in a casual friendly atmosphere. Van Dorsten has lived in Vietnam and visited numerous times over the past eleven years in search of street food, traditional dining in old Hanoi city and adventure. All of which he brings to the menu in a variety of dishes. This is food to never tire of as of all the different cuisines of Asia, this stands out for the variety of flavours and mellow and mild fresh tastes that echo the street food and classic dishes of North Vietnam.

He is so enthusiastic about the country that the restaurant website has a great list he has compiled of where to eat and what not to miss if you’re heading that way.

The restaurant is housed in one of the old heritage buildings that ring the Britomart precinct, and the brick walls, wooden floors, paper light shades and slightly antique Asian feel is a perfect fit. Looking out the window through the slanted blinds you can imagine you are in New York, Chicago or somewhere decidedly international. The open kitchen provides plenty of theatre and the best seats in the house are at the Chef’s Table, a high top right in front of all the action.

The menu is extensive as this is a place to gather a few friends together for food that is really suited to grazing from the various plates. Divided into three sections – modern Vietnamese, Old Quarter favourites, and “And Then Some” (which turns out to be small salads and accompaniments), diners are spoilt for choice.

Kick off with some of the smaller dishes. The staff are helpful, taking time to explain anything and everything. The goi cuon, summer rolls of roasted pork, shrimp, fresh herbs and peanuts are exactly the right item to start with as they’re refreshing, delicate and tasty, and along the classic pho ga, are probably the quintessential menu items speaking loudly of classic Vietnamese street food. That pho is an ideal dish to order if dining alone or when not in the mood for sharing as it is a traditional chicken noodle broth, with slices of chicken and topped with herbs to make it the ultimate comfort food.

Other starters are a small bites of excellent minced beef, wrapped in a perilla leaf with a chilli ginger sauce and peanuts, lovely pork wontons with chilled crab, and really juicy tiger prawns coated in young green rice which provides a wonderful textural element.

It’s then time to move on to larger shared plates. It is almost impossible to choose, but for me standouts have been the steamed Cloudy Bay clams in a fragrant lemon grass broth, the classic shaking beef which is made tasty with soy marinade, a Hanoi style grilled pork with rice noodles, herbs and good dose of nuoc cham – the fish sauce that is so central to the food, and a delicious wok seared squid with tomato, leek, ginger and dill. Do not miss the traditional crispy pancake fille with pork and shrimp and fine fresh lettuce and herbs.

Fishy treats include a very unusual and bold dish, the caramelised twice cooked mullet which is seared with galangal and ginger. It came with a warning about small bones, nevertheless it was worth the careful effort, endless tooth-picking and bone-catching required as the flavour was terrific – salty, sweet and sour at once and happily it arrived with a finger bowl of warm water so we could clean up after feasting on this dark tasty fish, generally overlooked by chefs. Another favourite is the whole baked terakihi, which is precisely the opposite to that mullet as the kitchen takes all the bones out for the diner and then adds a pile of herbs, garlic, spring onion and lovely cooling grilled lime.

Vegetarians have a choice of three excellent tofu dishes; two cooked in modern Vietnamese style. The first is steamed soy and black pepper tofu with steamed bok choy and the other a fried lemongrass tofu with lovely cinnamon smoked mushroom, wilted spinach and pickled mung beans. And in the traditional section of the menu there’s a great stir-fry of soy marinated tofu with cabbage, daikon, mint and peanuts. Add in a selection of the stunning small vegetable side dishes and a veritable vegetarian feast can be enjoyed.

The drinks list has been selected with the food in mind. Cocktails echo the flavours found in the food – ginger, lime, aromatic light zingy drinks to relax over before eating or even to accompany the meal. Beer is a great accompaniment to this fare and from a good list there are beers from both Hanoi, slightly malty and robust and from Saigon, lighter and more refreshing. As for the wine, plenty of aromatic white wines and just three chardonnays and a smaller selection of red wines with a distinct international feel.

Dessert cannot be missed, especially the lovely sago pudding with white chocolate and yogurt cream and palm sugar caramel or the mongo mousse with fresh coconut and candied green rice.

Krishna Botica, who has presided over Café Hanoi for five years is a well-regarded leader on the Auckland hospitality scene. She was known for many years for her front of house position at Prego and those who enjoyed her flair for fun and consummate professionalism will be delighted to learn she is about to expand her business with a return to the Strip. She has plans for an all-new Northern Thai restaurant but I cannot possibly reveal more than that, but look out for it in late October/early November. Exciting times.

Café Hanoi, Corner of Galway Street & Commerce Street, Britomart, Auckland 1010, Ph 09-302 3478 Open Mon to Sat Lunch and dinner, Sundays from 5pm. Reservations at lunch only or for groups of ten or more. Private dining room in the cellar.

6 October 2015

FARINA

That pizza at Farina! A puffy yet thin yeasty crust topped with baby white mushrooms, great gobs of meltingly creamy fresh mozzarella, baby spinach, roasted pinenuts, cream, parmesan and truffle oil, all assembled as you watch, whipped into the oven for 3 or 4 minutes and whisked to your table. A lovely soft, aromatic feast to sink your teeth into with not a knife and fork in sight. It doesn’t get any better.

When the young engineer-trained-turned-chef Sergio Maglione arrived in New Zealand ago from Naples to work with his uncle he would not have even dared to dream he’d return to his homeland 20 years later to compete at the World Pizza championship in Parma, Italy. Better still, he was placed in the Top 20 in the world in April with his version of the pizza Boscaiola mentioned above. And that prize winner is on the menu at his bustling little airy casual ristorante, Farina, in the heart of Ponsonby.

Maglione first worked for that uncle, Antonio Crisci, at various sites around the city including Non Solo Pizza, Toto’ and others before branching out on his own to run Toto’ in Nelson St. Then, with business partner, Mike Ross, he opened Farina a year ago, taking over a place on the corner of Summer St that had seen several incarnations. He’d wanted to call it Toto’ Modern Pizza, but as he put the place together his vision widened and he developed a full Italian menu to appeal to anyone and everyone who loves the simplicity of the freshest and best ingredients cooked or assembled to order.

The atmosphere is fitting with a modern Italian feel that offers traditionally influenced Italian food. There’s the clean look of white tiled walls, a long bar that runs the length of the front room and marble table tops with high stools opposite. At the back three long communal tables and red velvet banquettes make for friendly eating and cosying up to other diners. Don’t fuss about that as it is a good thing when you can see what others order and follow suit as they feast and devour with delight.

Farina is the Italian word for flour, and much of the menu is based on flour based dishes; light as air fresh pasta, crisp bread from the oven, ravioli, gnocchi and lovely dessert cakes like delizia al limone (a limoncello custard cake) and sfogliatella Napoletana (flaky pastry filed with An Italian cheesecake stuffing.) And of course those pizzas. (More on those later.)
The gluten-free brigade need not despair. Amongst the antipasti, scondi and primi sections, which all good Italian menus follow, there are plenty of lovely options to indulge everyone who has the misfortune of avoiding flour.

The thing about Maglione’s food is it is all cooked from scratch with absolute passion. He sources the absolute best ingredients he can and works with them respectfully and carefully. The cured Italian meats and cheeses are the best around – Maglione turned up with a selection of rosy meat at our table and spent time explaining how important the cutting of salumi is. No hacking or rough sawing around here. Even better some wonderful bread, freshly baked in the restaurant kitchen that day, to accompany the meats and homemade pickles.

If you choose to drop by for a glass or two of fruity wine or an aperitvo, Farina has a terrific little Italian wine list with scant regard for Kiwi wines, amnd the snack menu (sfizi) harbours all sorts of delights like octopus, pungent with chilli and garlic, salty confit sardines with toasted bread, crunchy crocchette, and even a Napoletan style sashimi - squeaky fresh raw fish with garlic, chilli and mint and a 7YO balsamic that will keep the wolf from the door while you sip and relax.

I have no idea just how the kitchen does it but they have mastered the art of a very, extensive menu without missing a beat. My heart usually sinks when I am handed a menu with so many choices, especially with more than six or seven entrees and mains, as I have always thought there is bound to be a few dud dishes lurking in such a vast operation, but not here. The antipasta, all prepared daily, the secondi and primi dishes and the sides and desserts have all been exceptionally tasty and deliciously cooked with real Italian flair.

The pasta selection is fabulous and the duck tortelloni which is a rich braise of duck, mushroom, porcini and truffle oil is to be highly recommended. Also fabulous are a couple of vegetarian pasta dishes; gnocchi gorgonzola and a risotto that is made with freshly imported porcini (frozen but still pungent) and stracciatella cheese which is that wonderful Italian cheese that almost stretches all the way from the plate to your mouth.

Big eaters can have lamb ribs, a half metre skewer of market meats and vegetables with salsa verde, fish, crumbed veal and a charcoal marinated baby chicken.

But for me, it’s the pizza that cannot be missed. There are two sorts of pizza – the first and more common pizza has a tomato pulp base on which a variety of carefully thought out and traditional toppings are piled up. The classics are Margherita, Marinara and Napoletana while some modern variations are offered too. Or step up and go for a gourmet or special pizza with some stunning combos like mozzarella, prawn, pesto and zucchini, or salsiccia which has Italian pork fennel sausage, mozzarella, spiced broccoli, and parmesan. And then of course, there’s my absolute favourite the pizza bianco (white pizza as there is not tomato pulp) that I mentioned in my first paragraph. It really is a thing of wonder. And also a thing of wonder is that pizzas can be ordered as a magnificent metre-long takeaway.

After his prize winning trip to Italy Maglione decided to make the best pizza he would need the best pizza oven. So that enormous electric fired oven at the rear of the restaurant is about to be flung out and right now, on the sea somewhere, is an even more enormous wood-fired pizza oven that should be installed by the end of the month. Then, Maglione promises, Farina pizzas will be even more magnificent. That new oven will bake them in 60-90 seconds and the thin crust will be crisp and smoky. I cannot wait.

FARINA 244 Ponsonby Rd, ph 390 6213 Takeway pizzas; ph 0800 868 674 Open 7 days: 12 noon to 10.30pm Aperitivo evenings from 4pm to 6pm Tuesday to Thursday www.farina.co.nz

1 June 2015

LUCKY BUDDHA

When clever chefs get together to create a restaurant that celebrates the flavours they’ve grown up with in South East Asia, their exciting jumble of tastes make for an intriguing menu. Michael Choi and Simon Cho are the partners in the recently opened Lucky Buddha restaurant in the central city, bringing a wealth of their cooking experience and techniques, and expertise in hospitality together.

Choi has worked alongside chef Michael Meredith and in such respected kitchens as the Grove and Otto’s, and teaches part time in the kitchens at AUT. Cho owned a couple of the very best sushi outlets (Bien) that have appeared in Auckland. They, along with their sous-chef Kevin Puyat could have successfully created high-end, refined food, but instead have aimed for a casual approach that is really appealing.

And every dish exhibits lovely zingy Asian flavours and fresh ingredients that hark from the influences of Filipino to China and almost everywhere in between.

The site they’ve chosen for Lucky Buddha is almost off the beaten track, in that curious precinct two or three blocks back from Auckland’s waterfront that is Fort Street. Better known for seediness in a long stretch of times past, or maybe for those readers with very, very long memories, this area was where you could once upon a time find the excellent European restaurant Troika, a place my husband had his first real date (but not with me!) It is now a bustling and upcoming foodie destination in the inner city. It may lack the sophistication of nearby Britomart, but this new restaurant sits in good company nearby the wonderful Ima and Ima Deli, a Sal’s Pizzeria and juice/salad bar both about to open across the street, and a plethora of quirky little Asian eateries including a noisy Chinese barbecue restaurant that is packed to the walls every lunch time around the corner in Commerce Street.

With a dizzily high ceiling, huge street front glass windows and an inviting bar running along the front Lucky Buddha oozes the same casualness that the kitchen aims for on the plate. There’s a large central table to perch at (perfect if you are in the sad state of eating alone) and lots of face to face seating underneath some bright paintings that lighten up the walls along the side. It can be draughty here so dress warmly, but thoughtfully there’s a whole basket of light blankets proffered to drape around any bodies feeling the cold.

And from the kitchen – a menu of dishes to share and savour, just as diners would in any casual Southeast Asian feast. Of the starters, there’s not a dish there that doesn’t deserve its place. The shumai, filled with prawns and waterchestnuts are Choi’s favourite thing on the menu, available at dinner only, sadly. These little steamed treasures are offered alongside nhem - little fried-till-they-are-crispy rice balls that reminded me of arancini, served with lovely coconut and something called bagoong dressing which was salty and sweet with a slight citrus tang.

Not to be missed are the guo bao – genuine doughy steamed buns filled with sriracha basted pork, peanut seasoning and hoisin. You pick them up in your fingers, take a bite and they burst with flavour as all the yummy juices run down your chin. Lovely stuff. Also do not go past the eggplant; steamed until soft then grilled with miso and topped with grated parmesan which is a total surprise. Who knew that umami Japanese flavour would cosy up to Italian cheese?

There’s short raw section too, with tartare of beef, free range yolk, nashi pear and crisps, some fresh yellowfin tuna that reeks of Japanese flavours with accompanying komezu jelly, bonito and seaweed salad, and a refreshing interpretation of hamachi – the kingfish sashimi that comes with soy bean, yuzu and sesame and a topping of crisp nori.

The salads that were on the late summer menu have been largely supplanted by more wintry food to match the season. The angry chicken remains – spicy, ever so crisp nuggets of chicken with a little jasmine rice, mayo, and piles of fresh slaw with tangy sesame flavours. A spicy red curry is packed with pumpkin, chickpeas, sunflower seeds simmered in a reduced coconut sauce and then topped with a table of spinach and herby leaves and chilli and more grated fresh coconut. The ‘folded egg’ – lunchtime only and pictured above - turns out to be the best omelette ever. Pale and soft, it contains tasty fried tofu cubes and a huge pile of fresh crisp vegetable salad bathed in a spicy vinaigrette and is the perfect lunch for the business crowds from the nearby towers of industry and commerce that sit above Fort Street.

Vegetarians rejoice as you will be well looked after, despite the listings of other mains of steamed fish which tops a ramen noodle smoked pork broth, miso glazed duck leg, braised beef brisket with pinenuts and swede, meltingly tender lamb ribs that are simmered in a chinkiang vinegar caramel with carrot and apple and a huge 400g ribeye angus beef steak with seaweed butter, lily pods and shiitake. This is food that defies boundaries, but is exciting, challenging and well thought through.

Be sure to leave room for dessert. ‘Coconut snow’ turned out to be the most divine sweet treat I have eaten this year and the taste and perfume of this Filipino inspired dish certainly defied its rather messy look. Covered in flower petals, grated toasted coconut and weetbix crumbs, it was totally enchanting to eat with a cooling coconut granita, big pearls of tapioca, and other delicious textures all submerged in a gorgeous sweet chilled milky broth. Sound strange? I can assure readers it is worth a detour. There’s also a three rice pudding that a play on gulab malaka, a black tea pannacotta with pineapple, lychee and black tea syrup, and a kaffir limeparfait with pandan butterscotch. Sweet heaven!

In charge of the drinks department is Eddie Nadarajah, who has a wonderfully complex heritage of Asian and European. He mixes up several stylish cocktails that all exhibit appropriate flavours reminiscent of Asia, and has put together a beer list from China, Vietnam, Japan and the craft beers of Baird Rising to match the cuisine. And there’s Lucky Buddha, of course. The wine list is not extensive, but extremely well chosen with lots of lovely aromatics including Felton Road Riesling and Loveblock organic gewürztraminer.

I loved Lucky Buddha’s food at first bite, mainly as the flavours were subtle, the dishes were all piled with fresh crisp herbs and vegetables and everything was imaginative, defying the need to be labelled from any particular Asian cuisine but instead embracing them all. And the waitstaff were so helpful and delightfully knowledgeable about everything.

Lucky Buddha Eatery, 48 Fort Street, Auckland City, ph 09 309 3990

Open; Lunch Monday to Friday, Dinner Tuesday to Saturday Price Range; Starters $9 to $16, Large Plates $18 to $28, Desserts $12

9 May 2015

WOODEN BOARD KITCHEN

Auckland’s restaurant scene gets more eclectic every year. We’ve enjoyed a dream run of new places opening; mega-budgets have fuelled some of the most glitzy and expensive fit-outs we have ever clamped eyes on, celebrity clever chefs have danced on our tastebuds, we’re eating out more than ever and spending lots on satisfying our hungry appetites.

So it was a relief to happen upon a total little gem that answers to none of the above. At number 4 Upper Queen St, no further than you could pitch a wholemeal bread roll from the intersection of K Rd, Queen St and Upper Queen St, there’s an almost hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Wooden Board Kitchen. It is the domain of Anto Riswantono, one of the shyest, yet honest and endearing chefs I have ever met. He has run the place with his wife for more than two years and it is dismaying to me that I had not heard of it until I spied him on a segment of Seven Sharp. (More of that later.)

Anto was born in Indonesia and arrived in New Zealand with his family when he was eleven years old. His family have moved on to Australia, but luckily for us he is firmly committed to the Auckland scene. He opened his own gig after supervising the kitchens for a café group that have sites around the city.

His aim is to provide really good food, cooked home-style. So this is the place to head to when you want a decent honest meal, do not want to be bothered by trying to work out what’s on your plate or, wonder just who is that show-off over there making all that noise? The restaurant reeks of simplicity. Twinkly little fairy lights guide you down into this Aladdin’s cave and you will immediately feel comfortable and unthreatened by the tiled floor, wooden tables, cushions on the chairs and cutlery placed graciously in a tin so you can set your own place.

Anto was given an old cookbook by a family member. She’d collected her favourite recipes over the years and written them up aided by an old typewriter before pasting the pages together. The aim was for him to utilise these recipes in his restaurant. He has put them to very good use; pinning them on the wall for all to share in a stunningly original display, and I’d be surprised if diners couldn’t recognise some of their own family favourites there. Decorating the opposing wall is a totally random collection of framed pictures, photos and paintings that make a delightful display to ponder on as you sit and eat.

Over the top of the kitchen pass a blackboard reveals specials of the day and other information. That’s where we learned about the fish of the day; a gleaming piece of fresh terakihi, cooked until the skin was just crisp and garnished with a generous pile of seasonal vegetables including red onion, corn, leafy greens and those amazing Curious Cropper tomatoes that are popping up in every kitchen that cares. Simple and deliciously tasty. From the menu there’s a choice of entrees that range from the very popular beetroot tart that’s been there since day one, an assortment of “sea creatures” lightly dusted and fried, pan seared scallops that I loved with cauliflower puree and crunchy little bits of steamed cauli, buttermilk free-range chicken tenders with aioli and lemon, to another vegetarian option, the hand-made ravioli that’s simply tossed in brown butter, and filled with pine nuts and parmesan.

Main courses are as afore mentioned, just the sort of food you would expect in the kitchen of a very good home cook. Lovely braised pork fell apart and was paired with freshly made kumara gnocchi and fennel and savoy cabbage. There’s half a free range chicken roasted with lemon and thyme on garlic mash with pan gravy. A Waikato lamb shoulder is served on cauliflower puree with roasted vegetables and capsicum relish, while the Angus skirt steak comes with garlic and herb roasted spuds and vegetables and chimmichuri. And hello! Here’s meatball spaghetti made with Angus beef and served with parmesan and pesto, so take the kids but take them early, please! Thoughtful vegetarian options included a rotolo made with free range eggs and stuffed with pumpkin, aubergine and spinach.

Does this sound like comfort food from home? It is indeed, and it will not break the bank either. Prices of entrees hover around the $12-$14 mark and mains are from $26 for that chicken and then spiral down to $22. Wonderful value for money.

The puddings are also old favourites; apple crumble topped with a muesli like crust and ice cream, sticky date pudding, banana fritter, warm chocolate lava pudding and a lemon curd vol au vent. If you want really fine wine, take your own but on the rather restricted wine list we found a couple of lovely glasses, including a citrusy light Spy Valley chardonnay.

I have popped in for lunch too which is offered Wednesday to Friday from noon to 3pm. On that blackboard menu, the choices are a beefy burger, a ‘hot dog’ and several stunning ficelle sandwiches stuffed with fresh vegetables and beautifully cooked meat for $13. They may be the best sandwiches in town and fully deserve the statement on the lunch menu: “Because You Deserve a Better Lunch.”

This is a lovely little humble restaurant tucked away that’s worth going to when you are not seeking bright lights and action. I have such admiration for this chef, but at the risk of incurring his wrath, I need to say that Anto has such a warm heart he cooks one night a week for the homeless, delivering meals directly to them in the streets and using ingredients that are all voluntarily donated, and assembling a team of people to help who arrive by word of mouth. Go to his Facebook page “Cooks for the People” to learn far more than I should be saying. You may even be moved to help!

Wooden Board Kitchen, 4 Upper Queen Street, Auckland City, Phone 09 309 2775 www.woodenboardkitchen.co.nz

Open: Dinner Mon to Sat from 5.30pm, Lunch Wed to Fri 12pm to 3pm.

30 March 2015

WOODPECKER HILL

Question: How long has it been since everyone who lives east of Queen Street has had to trek over to Ponsonby if they want to eat out and have a load of fun? Answer: Probably ever since Mark Wallbank moved on from Cibo in Parnell which seems like a lifetime ago.

Well the tide and the tables have turned. Ponsonby has arrived in Parnell. And it’s a sure bet that everyone who loves good food and fun has become a regular at one of Wallbank’s three racy restaurants on Ponsonby Road (MooChowChow, Blue Breeze Inn and Chop Chop.) Now the Ponsonby-ites, if they already haven’t, will be heading to eat at his new venture, Woodpecker Hill, slap bang in the middle of the Strip that is Parnell Rise. And once again Wallbank and his chef, Che Barrington have raised the bar, venturing into territory that is new, racy and exciting. Across town, no less!

The theme of Woodpecker Hill is American southern barbecue meets hot Asian spice. Chef Che Barrington is the master of south-east Asian flavours and his menu is a triumph of the combination of gorgeous smoky flavours of that southern American long, slow style of wood smoke cooking, and the fiery chilli, ginger, galangal, shallots and tamarind punch of Asian street food. But the real star of this unlikely amalgamation is Barrington’s heavy handedness with fresh, palate cleansing herbs like Vietnamese mint, perilla, lemongrass and more. It excites, it calms and it challenges the palate.

So what’s on the menu? Delicious stuff! There are two absolute standouts. The first is a single mouthful – one oyster, freshly shucked, frosty and still in its shell, with a topping of the tiniest cubes of cured sweet pork and the added punch of finely sliced green chili and a splash of lime. At $6 this may be the best Bluff oyster of the season. The other standout is the fourteen hour smoked beef brisket – gorgeous sliced slabs of smoky beef straight from the restaurant’s stunning smoker, that are so tender they can be eaten with a spoon. Better still this beef is accompanied by what has become the signature of the restaurant, a tangle of the fresh green Asian flavours of herbs, chilli, galangal and lemongrass. I am sure the great and famous barbecue kings of the States would be as blown away by this lovely dish as we were.

What has become the modern dining trend is evident here. Don’t even think about going there and having that old format of entrée, main and maybe a dessert. Instead order a wide selection of what really appeals and share everything. (We even ended up sharing a couple of our dishes with the diners at a neighbouring table as the food was too good not to!) Price seems to be the determinant of whether a dish is small or substantial, although the ever helpful staff will happily advise diners. There’s a range from $10 for stir fried bok choy or the deep fried pickles through to $30-32 for red smoky pork curry, a stunning chargrilled soy duck, an exceptional dry curry of BBQ duck (duck is a theme here), that afore mentioned fourteen hour beef, and a stir fry of soft shell crab that almost has hints of India with its flavour profile of turmeric, tamarind and crispy shallots. There’s lots in between too.

Also in line with modern dining, there is a fine choice of dishes that are concentrated on excellent vegetables. As one of my dining companions one night said this is a restaurant where you could be truly satisfied by sticking to vegetables only. On two occasions I have adored a crisp dish of deep fried eggplant in a light-as-air batter, served with tamarind, sesame and a toss of herbs. The current dish of roasted cauliflower is worth a detour, and the green papaya salad is filled with interesting flavours. (PN Editor please note – you will love it.) An interesting note in small print on the menu says; “Vegetarians, please talk to our waitstaff for tofu or vegetable substitutions for most dishes.” Now there’s a kitchen that is tune with its customers.

Already changes have been made to the opening menu. Any kitchen will do this once the ebbs and flows of service and the customer response is taken into account. And that’s a really good reason those competitive reviewers around town who seem to have to go to a new opening within a day or two of the doors being flung open should hold their breath. A slimy pudding that made its appearance in the first week (I liked it but it seems no-one else did) has disappeared. It has been replaced by a complete rework so it is now sticky black rice with coconut ice-cream with the lovely gooey honeycomb that I fell in love with.

All sound good so far? There’s more. The wine and drinks document has been written with wit and knowledge. Do not miss it. There are at least 30 great choices of wine by the glass, and possibly the best selection of American whites and reds in any NZ restaurant. But there was something else that took me back to Louisville, Kentucky, the scene of the famous Derby and a place I have visited about ten times. So here’s the thing. This is a restaurant with bourbon. Seriously, and in serious amounts. Even a beverage, White Lightning, that’s unique to Woodpecker Hill along with many other bourbons and southern whiskies. If you have never tried bourbon, head there as soon as possible, engage with the barman and do a tasting of this wonderfully smooth and heady drink.

There’s also an ice shaver at the bar and the best selection of non-alcoholic drinks in town in a place that takes booze seriously. There’s something about the décor that also screams southern States, despite those curious woolly sheepskins backing many of the seats. Maybe it’s the brown colour everywhere, the eclectic accumulation of lights and astonishing lampshades, the piles of wood logs or the spacious bar area where you can happily wait for your table. One thing is certain the décor works for me far better at night when it seems cosy and welcoming, rather than through the day when the brownness and wintry fabrics are a tad depressing. But that’s a very personal view and others I know love it anytime. What we all love is the return of the brilliant restaurant team of Wallbank and Barrington and their excellent staff and superb food and drink to Parnell. My money is on this place being the best new thing.

Woodpecker Hill, 196 Parnell Rd, Parnell phone 09 309 5055 open 7 days lunch and dinner

30 March 2015

ODETTES

A little background first. The old City Works Depot site stood waiting for years while developers mucked about, trying to get the site covered in monstrous new buildings and failing that, a residential enclave that may have extended those disgraceful housing blocks cluttering the top of Hobson Street. Thankfully good sense prevailed and the large airy sheds on the land have been renovated, broken up into very interesting spaces and house all sorts of creative uses. It is now a fun precinct to visit, day or night, and the best news is there’s reasonable parking available round the clock.

Al Brown has his office and development kitchen there for his ever expanding empire (tucked behind his Ugly Bagel shop), the media giant Bauer has vast offices below, other spaces are taken by ad agencies and creative, you can get your hair blow dried over a cup of tea, or pick up flowers for a date, and then there is food, good coffee, cakes and drink. Lots of it.

The newest arrival is the best yet. Odettes Eatery sits in the centre, oozing comfort and offering a thoughtful menu that changes a little throughout the day to suit the appetite. It is the brainchild of Clare and Joost van den Berg who ran two wonderful chic eateries on the North Shore, Zus & Co and Zomer, before selling up to concentrate on their city venture. They planned the interior themselves, with minimal guidance from site architect Nate Cheshire, and the result is stunning in every detail. The large, almost square room is light and airy, and decorated in a gorgeous palate of restful blues and greens, with an outstanding feature of a wall of teal green tiles surrounding the open bar and kitchen behind, juxtaposing a sleek timber wall opposite. Banquettes and attractively places corner tables are furnished with the most comfortable seating around – with lots of cushions that seem to cry out “sit here and relax.” And two other features, the large artwork by Slim Aarons and some drop dead gorgeous globes of glass lighting than hang over the room, are just perfect. And while the warmer weather lingers on, diners can eat out in the adjacent stunning outdoor plaza. You may never want to leave.

Fittingly, the menu is in total sync with this exhibition of good taste and high fashion. Chef, Josh Cucharick’s food meets all the demands of the modern diner and there is something for everyone, as long as they are prepared to be a little adventurous. His flavours tend to Middle Eastern tastes and are very tasty with the spices and lovely sour notes that region is known for. The van den Bergs wanted a city style menu to suit anyone, anytime, so they open for breakfast and lunch seven days and for dinner on Tuesday to Saturday.

The breakfast/brunch menu is way different from the expected ‘eggs with everything’ that dominate most other cafes and restaurants around town. And all the fashionable dieters will love current offerings like a dish of ancient grains bircher with almond milk, marinated berries and toasted almonds, an egg white omelette with tomatoes and a fresh and zesty smashed avocado, chili and coriander on toasted rye. Fancy something heartier, then there’s a brioche burger with pork sausage or the lovely Tahitian vanilla crepes with lemon yogurt, blueberry compote and mandarin sugar. All complemented by delicious juices and smoothies that reek of freshness and good health.

Lunch and dinner menus are similar; divided into sections ‘bites’, ‘for sharing’, mains, and desserts. It is hard to understand why the bites and sharing items are separated, as if you have a knife and fork it’s pretty easy to share anything. (Dishes that are hard to share are broths and soupy dishes, as the thought of dipping spoons in constantly is a little worrying.) But that’s a very minor quibble.

Standouts enjoyed alone have been the soft shell crab slider and a delicious Vanuatu Prawn steam bun. The beef cheek fritters are very moreish, and spinach empanadas with kidney beans, quark and dill were delicious. I usually love fresh kingfish served sashimi style but at one recent shared lunch we all agreed that we‘d have loved something more than the dry and crunchy coconut shreds and crisp popped rice that adorned it. Even a little lemon juice we requested didn’t help that lovely kingfish to shine! Our seared Atlantic scallops, large and plump with shreds of confit pork hock and a salsa verde was much more successful dish and we all voted the saffron tortellini with yogurt curd, spiced cashew and green chilli a major triumph.

There’s one dish not to miss; the ‘wild’ mushrooms which come bathed in whipped Persian feta, accompanied by little donuts made with mushroom flour and baby basil. I loved this highly original dish and I am not alone. Lunching with a gourmand friend, he took one bite and waved the waiter over to order a second helping. Yes!

There’s a full bar and a great little wine list, with lots of wines by the glass that suit the food perfectly. Odettes also offers some lovely house made sodas – great if it’s hot or you need to return to work after lunch and can’t go the distance with wine or cocktails to accompany your meal. There are plenty of very helpful service staff on the floor and nobody seems to have to wait for their food to arrive.

If you are after a casual meal, don’t miss this. No bookings unless you are a party of six or more. And don’t try to split the bill according to what you ate. I love their policy of “one bill per table or split it evenly.” We are all grown-ups, aren’t we?

Odettes Eatery, Shed 5, City Works Depot, 90 Wellesley St, City phone 09 309 0304

11 December 2014

SIOSTRA

I have been to Siostra a couple of times but it just dawned on me that I should have taken my sister there to share a meal. She would love it. Siostra is Polish for ‘sisters’ and there’s something very familial and friendly about this cosy neighbourhood restaurant. Not surprising, as it is the latest venture from a pair of talented sisters, Esther (ex Sunday Painters) and Beki Lamb who are madly passionate about food and hospitality.

Like my sister and me, the pair must have grown up in a home where meals were very important, as their passion for lovely fare is clearly on display. The sisterly theme extends to the art and the menus. On the back of the various lists (bar, dining menu, brunch, wine, etc) there are stunning black and white shots of pairs of sisters. I especially loved the young Hemingway girls, Mariel and Margaux, and those two famously naughty sisters Jackie and Joan Collins.

And the food from those menus emerges from the kitchen on an eclectic selection of plates, some harking back to past family favourites. One of the dining room walls is decorated with a very nostalgic display of old china plates.

The Lamb sisters took over a much loved restaurant, Delicious, which was known for its terrific pasta, but that carb-heavy starchy fare has sadly become so yesterday with the advance of the current crazy trend for Paleo, raw food, unusual grains, gluten free and superfoods. There’s none of that hysterical trendiness at their Siostra, thank goodness. What there is on the menu however is totally appealing and appetising; lovingly prepared food-of-the-minute that occasionally harks back to the comfort food of the past, albeit with a new twist and plenty of gutsy flavour.

The layout of the restaurant has not been fiddled with. The first view as you enter is over the large wooden bar through to the busy kitchen. That bar is very welcoming and a great place to enjoy some very original cocktails (all with girls’ names and one might just be your sister!) if you have to wait. No bookings are taken, although there is a cosy private space on the first floor for small parties. I think I am now a fan of no bookings, especially when the dining is casual and friendly, and the service is swift. It makes for a great neighbourhood feel which is exactly what Siostra is – a fine local eatery.

The menu is divided thoughtfully, so rather than traditional entrees and mains, you can have Now, Soon, Charcuterie, Later & After choices. ‘Now’ features little nibbley things to get started on like almonds, olives, or freshly shucked Mahurangi oysters, the very nostalgic ‘devils on horseback’ (yum- childhood food), and a rather daring and delicious octopus and chorizo skewer with ouzo aioli (love the aniseedy flavour of ouzo.)

‘Soon’ are plates to share and it would be hard to go past the stunning salad of beetroot and goat cheese with freekah (oops – a trendy grain) and chopped roasted pistachios. The fried calamari with squid ink mayo was really truly moreish and the scallops must be ordered as six beautiful plump morsels arrive with cauliflower puree, lentils and guanciale.

That scallop dish is destined to become a Siostra classic I dare to suggest, as the combination is perfect, beautifully presented in scallop shells with crisp pieces of guanciale which is dry smoky pig cheek, not unlike bacon. Loving mussels, I ordered the baked mussels with taro chips one lunch time. I was disappointed that the mussel flavour was strongly present yet someone in the kitchen had chopped or pureed those mussels so finely I did not find a single speck to chew on, and the accompanying taro chips were really dry and bland. But that is the only niggle I have.
“Charcuterie’ is also a house specialty and we loved our wee jar of lamb tongues’ rillettes, rather like a tasty pâté, which was accompanied by bread and pickles, as are all the charcuterie selections. A big platter of the kitchen’s selection of cold cuts would be perfect to share amongst four or six people.

And so on to the ‘Later’ courses. The chargrilled T-bone may be the biggest and certainly the best value steak in town. $34 gets you a humungus piece of meat the size of a dinner plate, and unlike the fancy-schmancy steak houses around where you would be paying for just the meat and at twice the price, Siostra’s kitchen garnishes that T-bone with crab and smoked cheese jalapeno and a pile of buttermilk slaw. A showstopper if ever and a real challenge for the fainthearted!

On a more restrained but still very tasty note, the market fish (snapper the night we ordered) is a lovely combination of fillets of fresh pan-fried fish with tender grilled calamari, braised tomato and an unusual black rice fritter. And from the specials board which usually has a couple of inspired dishes posted each day, a $28 generous Spanish-style stew of Cloudy Bay diamond clams with prawn and crab balls in a wonderful tomato broth. There were two large pieces of grilled sourdough to mop up the juices, and two thoughtfully places bowls – one for the shells and the other filled with warm water and lemon to wash my fingers. I sure needed them as those sweet clams may be the absolute best protein we produce in New Zealand and I was determined to get every single skerrick of the meaty flesh out of those shells.

The ‘After’ list has several desserts, cheese, and dessert wines, port, and coffee and teas. There’s a deep fried apple pie with dulce de leche icecream that has the sweet-of-tooth around town raving but that’s a step too far for me. I would need to go straight to the gym after that! However I can recommend from personal eating experience, the prune and armagnac crème brulée which was the lightest I have ever encountered, and a special of goat cheesecake garnished with seasonal strawberries. That cake could have floated away from its nutty base if it was any lighter. It struck the right note to end a dinner as it was part sweet and part savoury.

And not to miss is Esther Lamb’s wine list. It is a stunning selection of well-priced wines that should please everyone from a wine novice to a connoisseur. Predominantly New Zealand with a nod to interesting offshore bottles, and almost every wine on the list is available by the glass, including the champagnes. You’ve gotta love a wine list where the listed sav blancs are Clos Marguerite and Cloudy Bay. Well done Esther!

Siostra, 472 Richmond Rd Grey Lynn ph 09 360 6207

Open lunch and dinner 6 days (closed Mondays) Brunch from 9am Weekends.