Lauraine Jacobs

Food Writer and Author of Delicious Books


1 March 2014


Simplicity has not been the buzz word on the lips of Auckland’s restaurant patrons of late. We’ve witnessed glitzy fit outs costing millions, exotic menus of dazzling proportions with complexity and showmanship on every plate, and an array of drinks including cocktails, craft beers and wine lists that would challenge Harry’s Bar or the Ritz. Bookings have been hard to come by at some of the most popular places so that you’re left crossing fingers and toes hoping for the return call that confirms a place for you at a time that suits them.

So it is utterly refreshing to go to Orphan’s Kitchen on Ponsonby Road for the ultimate stripped back experience in town. Walk in and there’s nothing to either surprise or startle you in the way of décor. The tall vertical timber walls make a subtle statement with each board painted in soft neutral colour tones and not a piece of artwork in sight, apart from one large gilt framed mirror. The tables, all high top, are sturdy slabs of macrocarpa with the tree trunk still evident on the edges. Metal stools are adorned with sheep skin covers and you get the feeling that this is a very natural place. And shock horror, no bookings, so just roll on up and take your chances.

After seven months of operation this brainchild of two business partners, Josh Helm who manages front of house, and Tom Hishon who works the magic in the kitchen, has settled in with an almost full house each night of diners who appreciate the friendly service and straightforward menu of just eight choices. Divided by ‘smaller’ ($15) and ‘larger’ ($25) plates, each dish has a mere four or five key ingredients. But first up as you settle in, relax over some of the best bread in town, accompanied by a brown butter scattered with ash. Both the bread and the butter are made in house and if you request extra, there will be a charge of one dollar per piece. Yes. You read that right. Just one dollar for the most delicious bread and butter in the city. Where, I wonder could you find anything in any restaurant for just one dollar? Amazing!

All the fashionably vaunted ingredients are on that small menu; line-caught fish, heirloom tomatoes, venison, Ora King salmon, milk fed lamb, goats curd, karengo, samphire and more. I was also amused to see ‘hen egg.’ Is this a new trend I wonder? The heirloom tomatoes I wanted were not available but I seized the chance to order their replacement, courgettes with a soft goat’s curd and embellished with capsicum and capers. That was perfect, just the right crunchiness in the vegetables to prove they were absolutely garden fresh. The other smaller plate we ordered was smoked salmon with a refreshing and seasonal crisp adornment of celeriac and apple and the surprising palate-awakening bite of fresh horseradish.

For mains, it’s always tempting to order fish and the night’s market fresh line caught blue moki was the only disappointment. It arrived at the table colourfully and beautifully plated with roast cauliflower, red cabbage and scattered olives and herbs to garnish, and although as fresh as fresh, the soft flabby texture of this uncommon fish didn’t really appeal. The milk fed lamb made up for that however; tender, juicy, and carefully matched to little jersey bennes, some pureed aubergine and feijoa chutney with samphire. And for dessert a stunning sourcream ice cream. I am one of those people who spurns dessert – too rich and cloying at the end of a lovely meal with wine, but I would happily order this again and again as the as the caramelised pineapple, passion-fruit and basil were heavenly and very light. It’s that old maxim, simple well thought out food is always going to be a winner.

The wine list is small but strong. Helm finds all sorts of gems to list that are inexpensive and interesting, and offers each and every one by the glass, in a 500ml serve or as by the bottle. Averaging out at about $45 per bottle or $10 a glass this is one of the strengths of the place. I loved my glasses of vouvray and albarino and we finished with one of the most fascinating wines I have tried in ages. A glass of old vine negroamaro from Puglia in southern Italy was dark and inky and made me think of chocolate and licorice. There’s a very small bar to the rear and the upstairs room is available for groups of more than ten. As for the ‘orphans’ name, Helm and Hishon were mates in London and those were the days when groups of friends shared good meals in their flats rather than eat out all the time. They’d gather together and Hishon inevitably cooked for everyone in what became known as the ‘orphan’s kitchen.’ They’ve paired up here again and so that name was a first for them back home. We’re glad they’re here and doing so well.

Orphans Kitchen, 118 Ponsonby Road, ph 378 7979 (bookings for large groups only) Open for Dinner Tuesday to Saturday, Lunches Thursday and Friday.

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