Lauraine Jacobs

Food & Wine Writer

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 what’s 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 he’s 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 Pirate’s 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 day’s menu can be substituted. On a recent visit I couldn’t 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 Pirate’s 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. I’d 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 Auckland’s 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. That’s 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 Ginger’s 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 Rosé on perfect summery evenings when they can relax outdoors and watch the sun set over the masts of Westhaven.

It’s 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