Lauraine Jacobs

Food & Wine Writer

5 November 2014

PREGO

Restaurateurs who have the knack can make a restaurant timeless. Walk into Prego and the veritable buzz is as vitally charged as it was on the day owner Kelvin Gibson bought it in 1986. At that time we had all fallen in love with the fab Italian inspired menu and we’re still in love with it.

The place has always been noisy, has always felt a tad too crammed and there‘s always been that gorgeous outdoor courtyard, filled with some of the city’s best celebs and pretenders who want to be seen lurking in style on Ponsonby Road. Recently Kelvin undertook a timely refurbishment and the gorgeous green tiled walls, the new comfortable chairs, the ceiling baffles (which may or may not have reduced the noise level) and the bright new paint have lent new vigour.

But what’s not changed is Chef Lennox Bull’s menu. He arrived in 2008, inherited food that was beloved by scores of regulars and wisely has not messed with that. He deals with a vast menu but it is hard to fault a single dish. Antipasta, pizza, pasta, grills and sweet treats are all there. They are classics. He tweaks it occasionally but it is a reliable bet that if you love something you will return and eat it again. Over and over.

First things first. That Bread. Yes! A warm, shiny, puffy loaf is delivered to the table sitting atop a bread board, accompanied by a bread knife and a bowl of good olive oil mixed with good balsamic. Cut into it and it squashes before your eyes. There’s enough for four or six people but I have seen couples devour the whole thing in the time it takes to drink that first glass of wine. And if you’re looking for something in the same vein but a little lighter you can order the thin crisp garlic and olive oil pizza bread, also straight from the oven.

Next. Pizza. Prego pizzas are known around town. No pineapple or other silly contortions but fabulously fresh Italian styled pizzas on thin crisp crusts produced by that same pizza chef, Kava Likiafu, for the past 24 years. Perfect lunchtime fare or for sharing at large table.

And a shared table is a great way to dine at Prego as there’s so much worth eating if you can get to split little tastes of this and that. Classics not to be missed: crunchy tender calamari fritti with garlic aioli and thoughtful rocket leaves on the side that cut the intensity of the dish, the vitello tonnato with its crispy capers scattered over the veal and tuna, and melt in the mouth arancini balls stuffed with gorgonzola.

Pasta lovers are spoilt for choice with about eight different classic pasta choices, but my favourite in that section of the menu is actually a risotto. Shreds of roast duck, mixed mushrooms and perfectly moist rice cooked with a tasty stock could get me back and back to eat this dish again and again. Risotto also stars in the fish of the day dish and it’s been that way for yonks. Tender pan fried fillets perch over a soft lemony, herby risotto and it’s no accident that you will see lots of other diners eating this lovely combination.

Everyone deserves to have the Prego pie at least once in their life. The filling changes daily - it might be smoked fish, beef with rich porcini gravy or something else dreamed up by the chef, but it is always sitting on a mound of very moist potato parmesan mash and lovely wine jus gently lapping the edges.

The menu may be filled with Prego classics, but what were these dishes I spied recently? Gunaciale. beef cheeks gently slow braised with cocoa served with a parsnip and goat cheese puree and roma tomatoes, and a nutty barbabietole, warm roast beetroot, hazelnuts, goats cheese, and aged balsamic. Dishes that prove that while the favourites are as good as ever, there is room, imagination and respect in the kitchen for modern touches and ideas. Both dishes well recommended.

What is very interesting at Prego is the wine list. Being the social place it is, wine is a very important part of the experience. You’d think Italian fare encouraged Italian wine but the management know that we all love local New Zealand wines. They choose the best for their menu. Even though it is infanticide to drink it now, there on the wine list, Felton Road Block Three 2012 pinot noir. It may set you back $180 but it’s probably the only way most of us will ever get to experience this star of Central Otago. Of course there’s also plenty of more modestly priced choices and lots of wine by the glass on offer. Interestingly the only two wines from Italy on the white wine list are worth a try. A rosé from Puglia, that newly fashionable destination and of course, a pinot grigio from the Veneto.

To finish it would be hard to go past the cheese selection or for dessert lovers, a classic tiramisu. Or maybe throw caution to the wind and order Prego’s cioccolato, an amazing concoction of Valrhona caramel chocolate marquise with salted peanut caramel sauce and chocolate pearls. If that sounds good at $14.50 why not upgrade to the recommended Prego espresso martini cocktail for mere extra $17.50? Expensive indulgence but worth it.

There’s no show however without Punch. Manager Brandon Lela’ulu has looked after the rich, the famous, the passionate, the new and the regular diners at Prego for over 12 years. He’s the consummate host and ensures that everyone is well served, and that service flows seamlessly in a friendly, unpretentious manner.

Prego, 226 Ponsonby Road, phone 09 376 3095 No bookings, apart from the large table to the rear for very large groups. Open 7 days from noon until late.

5 November 2014

O'CONNELL ST BISTRO

I am just back from a glorious trip to France and Portugal where I ate loads of fantastic meals. So many, that there were occasional moments when I thought there was a possibility I might explode with all the gustatory delights. But eating is a serious occupation for me, and as my friend international food critic Ruth Reichl recently told me, “We are professionals and it is our job to eat.” Well. Yes. Maybe.

Apart from the highly organised week in Burgundy where we joined a group of eight other wine lovers to explore that region’s wines and food, and ate glorious breakfasts, lunches and dinners every day, we tried to limit ourselves to one good meal daily when on our own. Anyone who travels frequently will know that wandering the streets in the hope of finding a great restaurant is highly likely to end in a disappointing experience. Do the homework before leaving home and just as flights and hotels are booked in advance, think about finding good restaurants in advance. You will never regret making reservations via the internet or via one of the restaurant booking services before you go.

The best value, particularly in Paris, can usually be found at lunch time. Posh restaurants that hold those elusive Michelin stars, the large popular Parisian brasseries and even the tiny family run bistros all offer a fixed price menu at lunch, often at one third or one half of the price of the very same food that appears on the dinner menu. The lunch may be just two or three courses, with the added bonus of a carafe of house wine, but it is a great way to experience fine fare without breaking the bank. We ate so well!

So back in Auckland, where I can assure you we have plenty of restaurants that measure up to international standards, just why are we presented with the very same menu at lunch at the same cost as that offered at dinner? Those Parisian restaurants burst at their seams at lunch yet our fancy places here, on the whole, leave it to café owners to feed us.

Chris Upton, the suave and highly professional owner of one the city gems, O’Connell Street Bistro, has recognised this niche and has gone against the mainstream to offer a set price lunch each weekday (or pre-theatre if you vacate the table by 7.30pm) that is a true bargain, just like those French establishments.

We had only been back a week and I was straight back into my lunchtime touring habit to take advantage of this delicious well-crafted and well-priced food. But first, I was very happy to see that the busy little street has finally after months of s-l-o-w work been finally been re-shaped into a ‘shared space precinct.’ On fine days the food businesses there, including O’Connell Street Bistro, set up outdoor tables on the newly paved street with its lovely nikau palms. The whole area has a terrific feeling about it. You are looking good, central city.

The bistro ‘express menu’ as it is known offers a choice of two entrees, two mains and dessert or cheese. Two courses $39.50 or three for $45. Hey, this is definitely one of the bargains of our city.

A dish to start thrilled me; Northland smoked eel wrapped in pancetta with plump and juicy seared scampi, caramelised apple, black garlic puree & beurre blanc. I love it when chefs recognise good local ingredients and this one made me very proud to be Kiwi who was dining well. To follow, a thick nugget of moist skate with salt cod and agria mash, slow cooked fennel and fresh tomato and caper beurre blanc. It does not get much better than this. A glass of wine as an extra and I had feasted like a gourmet for less than $50.

With that main course Chef Alex Strobach demonstrated his innovation. The skate was terrific; a fish that is rarely if ever seen on menus, and it was perfect. Strobach has headed the kitchen at O’Connell Street for just over two years, and his menu recognises the traditions that are much loved by the local professional business community and a host of long term loyal customers who dine there frequently. Strobach add his own touches seamlessly to the bistro as for almost 17 years Upton has maintained some of the best service, food, and one of the finest wine selections in town.

The menu is fairly succinct, with round just five or six choices of entrée, main and dessert respectively, but every dish is well thought through, perfectly balanced and could be best described as innovative, delicious comfort food.

There was a pappardelle with rabbit on the menu for ever, and Strobach has made it his own by cooking it with wild hare, pancetta and walnuts. He cooks a lovely mushroom dish with three different mushrooms and serves it with celeriac and silverbeet enlivened with hazelnut butter and grated truffles, and his lamb rump with black olive gnocchi and beans and asparagus is almost faultless. Lots of lovely desserts feature too, along with an excellent cheese selection.

And just as there is that democratic ‘express’ menu that gives diners a chance to experience fine fare, Upton raises the stakes at the luxury end of fine dining. The house Champagne is Roederer, and a special Roederer Dinner can be ordered for a group of eight guests or more. (The restaurant boasts the city’s best private dining room that seats up to 20 in a secret space on the corner of O’Connell and Shortland Streets.) Accompanying this very special five course menu are glasses, no less, of four of the Roederer champagnes including the stunning Cristal and a fine red Bordeaux. The cost per head? A mere $230.

It would not be fair to write about O’Connell Street without mentioning the extensive wine list. It has been assembled over the years by Upton, who has an equalled passion amongst restaurateurs for fine wine. The selection of both local and imported wines is lengthy, thoughtful and admirable. And just like the leap from the express menu to the Roederer menu, there is something for everyone. It is a happy place that offers a rose wine at $42, a lovely chardonnay at $55 and a choice of many half bottles (375mls) of both red and white wine. At the other end of the budget a connoisseur might choose a $1400 magnum of exceptional Spanish red wine, or even celebrate with a $6500 bottle of Pomerol Petrus. Heaven forbid, the choice is yours!

Whether it is an intimate dinner, a celebratory occasion, a business lunch or just an opportunity to eat terrific food in a cosseting environment, O’Connell Street with its lovely bar and cosy dining room has it all. And on a hot summer‘s day, a table outside if you wish.

O’Connell Street Bistro, 3 O’Connell Street, Auckland City ph 09 377 1884 www.oconnellstbistro.com

7 August 2014

CASSIA

The first clue came with the recently published block-busting book, The Great New Zealand Cookbook. Eighty of our country’s best chefs, cooks and bakers are portrayed with recipes, and there on pages 272 and 273, Sid Sahrawat and his little daughter Zoya the ‘hospobaby,’ are pictured foraging for herbs in a wild field. Turn the page and there’s a sumptuous double page spread of a glorious Indian family banquet, followed by more pages of traditional Indian recipes.

Everyone who’s a foodie in the Ponsonby area will be proud of the achievements of this likeable and talented chef who has won almost every accolade there is to win on the New Zealand culinary scene including Metro’s Chef of the Year and Cuisine’s Restaurant of the Year. But we all know him for the elegant and upmarket food he carefully crafts in his local restaurant, Sidart. We wondered whether we would ever get a chance to see him cooking the food he grew up with in India and taste the spicy fare of his childhood in Chandigarh.

Now Sid and his wife Chandni have fulfilled a dream they’ve had for a while and opened their casual intimate new restaurant, Cassia, in the central city. They are serving a menu of deliciously piquant food to perks up the tastebuds and to show Aucklanders a new style of modern Indian fare not seen in the city before.

Their restaurant is in a basement site in Fort Lane, a far cry from the very first Indian restaurant I ever ate in which was also in a basement, but 12,000 kilometres away in London. That life changing meal, in another century, was a revelation at the time for a Kiwi Lass on the big OE. The fare then was simple but beautifully spiced curries, and I recall taking a 7 pint can of beer to accompany our meal. That meal could not be more different from the stylish dishes that Cassia’s menu delivers here and although genuine Indian Kingfisher beer is on tap, there’s also a sophisticated list of gin cocktails and a wonderful wine list of labels specially selected to accompany the food.

The dining area is long and low, hung with clever globe lighting, and a long bar with the kitchen beyond allows diners to perch and drink, snack or watch the chefs weave their magic at the stoves. White painted wooden chairs are reminiscent of classic home kitchen furniture and the room buzzes with chatter. Beyond the main area is a colourful overflow room, Holi, with a brightly painted wall depicting the festival of colours the same name, Holi. It has a large dark table for casual seating to sip or nibble. And there’s a more formal private dining room to the rear, tucked away from the view of the crowds. It is all very sophisticated and subtly decorated, with the old building’s historic brick walls providing sharp contrast.

The kitchen has two tandoor clay ovens, pivotal to creating the flavours Sid Sahrawat and his team coax from the seasonal New Zealand ingredients he likes to work with. Everyone around town with his salt as a chef now has a ‘slider’ on the menu, and Cassia’s version must be up there at the top. Soft brioche buns, lightly curried and flavoured with fennel and sesame seeds are filled with fragrant chicken from the tandoor, a superb kuchumber slaw and finished with fried almonds, lemon juice and yogurt. There are so many layers of flavour that the taste is the stuff of dreams.

Garlic naan and a soft onion kulcha, accompanied by a fresh coriander relish emerge hot from the tandoor, as do many of the meaty dishes and vegetables. This method of cooking provides maximum heat in minimum time and the smokiness gives the food an edge that cannot be replicated any other oven. Mmmm.

Some other gems from the menu not to be missed. A Sahrawat family favourite, Delhi duck is a sumptuous curry with kumara, lychee and tomatoey garlicky, gingery sauce, so good that every drop of sauce will be licked up. Juicy lamb chops with fenugreek, onions two ways – both pickled and fried in rings, is accompanied by an aromatic coconut chutney. Bengali style fish has been marinated before cooked with curry leaves, mustard seeds and coconut cream and served with crispy fried kale leaves. Gasp! Who knew kale was part of the Indian pantry? I am not sure it is but it certainly shows just how in sync Sad is with what’s hot and currently vogue-ish on the food scene.

Fish lovers will savour the seared scallops which are jumbo sized and served with foie gras mousse, refreshing apple and mooli, and a stunning rendition of pickled fish spiced with garam masala, chickpeas, tamarind water in a light-as-air buri shell and mint dressing. Spicy dishes to warm the heart of every vegetarian are offered too. Roasted potato and cauliflower with burrata, spinach and cashews is a winner, along with fried eggplant, mushrooms, onion seeds, fresh cow’s curd and a generous dose of fresh chilli and mint.

Be sure to leave room for dessert. The cardamom pannacotta with lychee and rosewater sorbets, marshmallow and sunflower seed praline may be the prettiest and most subtly sweet dessert in the city. As for the chocolate kulfi, a smooth icy concoction that comes with banana mousse, date puree, cumin caramel and some astonishing curry notes has to be devoured to be believed.

The prices of these items are all the $13 to $29 range and when the quality of the ingredients and the work that is evident in every dish, Cassia may be the bargain of the Auckland dining scene. Just how he does it I cannot even guess at. But more importantly, Sid has assembled a keen and talented kitchen team that will allow him will continue to cook regularly at Sidart, while Chandni and Matthew Aitchison oversee some excellent service from Cassia’s smart team.

I have always said if you want to open a new restaurant in Auckland, it’s essential to bring something new and exciting to the food scene. Sid Sahrawat has done exactly that. Don’t miss it.

CASSIA, 8 Fort Lane, Auckland City Lunch Wed to Fri, Dinner Tues- Sat. Reservations parties of 8 or more only. Tel; 09 379 9702 www.cassiarestaurant.co.nz

1 July 2014

LOOP

At a time when huge budgets for restaurant openings and big named chefs abound throughout the city it is heartening to see an enthusiastic young team embark on a modest new restaurant project that gains instant acclaim. A brother and sister team, Hailey Boock Rodger and Elliot Boock, who grew up in neighbouring Grey Lynn, together with Hailey's chef husband Craig Rodger, have already attracted favourable reviews for their new venture, Loop in Kingsland.

Kingsland is almost door-to-door eating establishments these days, although it seems that most of the places have their eyes firmly fixed on watering the football and cricket crowds who flow through the Kingsland train station to adjacent Eden Park. So it is great to see young people who put food first and foremost operating this genuine restaurant, albeit one that is casual and a tad quirky.

When the team moved in they stripped out most of the fittings; what remains is a glorious white-tiled kitchen, a feature in itself, and it looks to be a serious centre for the creation of some interesting fare. It is openly viewed from most points in the large airy space of the dining area, and at the rear there is a huge photographic portrait of chef Craig Rodger's favourite culinary hero, Marco Pierre White. Interesting hero worship, for Rodger is serious and shy, unlike the brassy bad boy of the British culinary scene. The connection I believe is that both are genuinely passionate about food.

So what about other little bits of quirkiness? Well. I loved the industrial lights, specially imported from IKEA in Oz, the very comfortable and generous white chairs and the odd jugs of flowers decorating a few of the wooden tables. The walls are vast and high, and at the top of each side of the restaurant are the original painted advertisements running the length of the room, giving a clue to the idea that maybe these premises originally housed a grocery store.

But even better, the art is fascinating. A friend of the Boock-Rodgers, Tyrone Lane, painted two of the collection of interesting pictures that adorn the walls. The large one is a busy pedestrian scene at the Queen and Wellesley Street intersection in Auckland’s downtown filled with people all crossing the streets. Look carefully and you might spot Lorde and Taylor Swift walking together, or some mates of the artist. I thought I identified Elliot. And on the facing wall is a smaller painting of the Laundromat on Karangahape Rd and who is that lurking outside? Would-be-if-he-could-be political influencer Kim Dotcom and his former wife Mona. Very funny indeed.

The food too is a tad quirky and I like that. My two favourite items on the menu are ‘bacon and eggs’ and ‘pineapple lumps.’ Neither are to be missed. The bacon and eggs (see the photo) make a fabulous starter. Chef Craig Rodger hails from Scotland where he enjoyed a classic Europe training. His play on bacon and eggs is beautifully crafted; a Scotch quail's egg juxtaposed with a couple of squares of meaty pork belly, garnished with wonderful triangles of crisp paper-thin crackling, pea shoots and celeriac.

His pineapple lump dessert is new on the menu. Fascinated with those delicious chocolate covered pineapple marshmallow chunks of deliciousness we all grew up with, chef Craig did some research and discovered they were the creation of Charles Diver at the Regina Confectionery Company in Oamaru in the early fifties. He spotted an early handwritten recipe and was inspired to de-construct the pineapple lump, as chefs do. This glorious dessert centres on a long sticky slice of chocolate terrine, surrounded by blocks of pineapple marshmallow and a wedge of glace style fresh pineapple. I love a thinking chef!

Hailey and Craig are committed to a healthy diet and this is reflected in the overall menu. I felt like a spy when I read it for the first time as there are endless codes to decipher. They prove to be useful however as LCHF is low carb high fat, GF gluten free, V vegetarian and DF dairy free. (Goodness me, where are all these people coming from that a restaurant has to turn to this?) Do not fear. Be that as it may, the menu is jolly good and filled with things that will please most people whether they worry about these requirements or not.

I loved the afore mentioned bacon and eggs, and a chunky coq au vin terrine that has since been replaced by a rich duck liver parfait with beetroot puree, roast artichoke, pistachios, quince and bread. (You can ditch the bread and the dish becomes LCHF if you must.)

There are just five entrees and five mains which change out every 8-10 weeks to reflect the seasons. Even though that number of choices may seem limiting, you just sense everything is going to be fresh and invigorating.

When it came to main course choices, I was impressed at the simplicity. My slow braised daube of beef had been in the oven for 24 hours and literally melted in my mouth, as it should. The accompaniments were lovely; butternut and ginger, cucumber, coriander and a spiced coconut emulsion. Just the right amount of flavour hits for a cold wintry night. The market fish (kingfish) was stacked with good old fashioned braised carrots and lots of lovely greens and fresh and deliciously light.

Vegetarians are thoughtfully catered for; rosemary and brown butter gnocchi to start and a complex main dish of rolled aubergine and mushroom with couscous, harissa, butternut, macadamia and roasted broccoli. And wouldn’t you know it, every single of those dietary codes were satisfied by that one dish! Praise on high!

There are lots of sides to choose for those who feel the need including some rather wicked twice cooked chips with parmesan aioli and rosemary salt, or the terribly trendy kale slaw with far too many healthy components for me. And lovely desserts, especially that pineapple lump plate and that old favourite, a Baileys affogato.

The wine list is concise and interesting with some of the usual suspects that diners are comfortable with, but also a nice selection of French wines from Maison Vauron (and their delicious imported French cheese too.) A few craft beers enhance a predictable choice of tap beers, and for those waiting or on their own there’s a cute little bar with a display of quirky Scotch whisky jars the Boock's grandfather gifted them.

Of course, service by the owners is never going to be a problem as the commitment to this restaurant shows from the steady stream of food that arrives promptly from the kitchen to the warm interested welcome diners get from the front of house team.

LOOP, 462 New North Rd, Kingsland www.loopdining.co.nz T09 849 4448

Open dinner Wed to Sun from 6pm. Lunch/Brunch Fri - Sun

10 June 2014

LAVA AT THE SOFITEL

Now here’s an idea we don’t think about often - a sophisticated lunch or dinner in a city hotel. Nick Honeyman’s arrival at the Sofitel maybe the best thing that’s happened to the Auckland hotel scene for ages. Too often hotel food is geared to the tourist and business market. However the combo of this beautiful hotel that seemed to have lost its way for a while, and one very talented young chef who in his previous jobs had been consigned to the backroom of a busy pub followed by a stint in the kitchens of a monster sprawling place in the culinary wastelands of the North Shore, must be good news and a fortuitous match for both. I sincerely hope so.

The site is great. Perched on the inner reaches of the Viaduct Basin with views of bobbing boats and the skyline of the city, the restaurant at the Sofitel sets an ideal stage. Pass through a stunning walkway with water features and shiny glass to get to the main dining room Lava. It is so named for the spectacular sheets of gold and black patterned Mexican onyx that adorn the walls. Our waiter told us it looked like lava – and it does. (But in a previous life another waiter had told me the restaurant was Italian themed and the strongest feature was the “Italian marble” walls – funny how stories are made up and lose the plot!) And this newly appointed chef to oversee all the food served in the hotel including their premier restaurant Lava, is one of Auckland’s most talented rising star chefs. The French hotel chain is on to a winner.

Chef Honeyman, born in South Africa, comes with excellent culinary pedigree. He wandered about Australia when he left school, fell in love with restaurant life there and began cooking. Along the way he has worked in the restaurant of Japan’s much lauded Iron Chef in Tokyo, and then time working with Pascal Barbot who has the Michelin three starred restaurant L’Astrance in Paris, a mere stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower.

He has picked up influences from both, developing and refining his own style that is chic, complex and intricate. Don’t expect any plain old steak and chips or pumpkin soup here. The dishes are all made with market fresh ingredients, thoughtfully composed to make an impact with a veritable balance of colour, taste, texture and seasonal surprise. His first menu is not ambitious; Honeyman has chosen to present four first course choices ($23), four mains ($35-42) and four desserts ($16). There are also the very important oysters, and four side dishes; chickpea fries with roasted garlic aioli, hand cut potato fries, red cabbage slaw with boiled egg dressing and roasted broccoli with lemon olive oil. I wanted to celebrate the simplicity of those side dishes as they are delicious and not in any competition with the mains.

We opted for the degustation menu in order to get a real feel for the new menu as all the dishes were from that. We opted out of the wine matches however. That’s a personal thing as I always want to totally concentrate on the food and find that a different and often unfamiliar wine with every course is distracting and can be more than I need or even want. There was excellent bread and hallelujah, that bread stayed on the table, with more arriving, throughout the savoury courses. Bread is not a first course. It is a necessity to mop up the lovely juices at the bottom of any dish.

From the first sight of our first course I was in love. A couple of slices of vanilla cured Ora King salmon were delicately arranged with little piles of avocado, some crunchy rice tuiles and crumbs and silky icy coconut sorbet. Feathery herbs finished a dish as fine as you could find anywhere. Refreshing, delicious and light enough to hardly make a dent in my appetite.

We proceeded through six more courses, each as carefully thought out and balanced as that first dish. Honeyman dares to dabble in unusual combinations, and they work. His ‘tete de porc’ was tightly rolled piece of tender pork meat topped with a fleshy sea scallop with cauliflower puree some buttered popcorn (another of his signature playful garnishes), tiny pieces of smoked eel, lovely jus and some crunchy almost sherbet like crumbs on the top. Batons of fresh fish were cut with precision, and an array of paper thin beetroot sheets waved a pattern around them, supplemented by truffled onion and brie cheese. Lovely.

Other dishes revealed more great combinations. Soft beef sirloin with tiger prawn, ginger and smoked carrot; wagyu beef tartare on brioche with a cheesy custard; merino lamb rump with porcini crust, celeriac and Japanese mushrooms. Vegetarians are well catered for too. There’s a lovely Japanese rice congee with kombu, the perfect onsen egg and parmesan as a starter, and for a main course an open ravioli with soy milk curd, cooked and raw baby vegetables and purple carrot.
Gluten free and vegetarian dishes are thoughtfully noted on the menu and there’s an exciting option known as “de-Light by Sofitel” which is comprised of spa style dishes that are low in calories and ‘portion controlled.’ If you must...

That theme of combinations of flavours continues through the dessert menu. I cannot any longer say that I am over the very trendy and overworked foam for Honeyman is a master of this technique. My ‘pina colada’ dessert came with coconut crème brulée, pineapple, freezing cold coconut sorbet and a covering everything was a veritable mountain of beautiful clear bubbles of a colada foam. It was stunning and provided a sense of fun and lightness to end a superb meal. I understand the hotel has an excellent cellar and no doubt if we’d chosen the matched wine option it would have been put to the test. But for the reasons previously stated we just chose a decent chardonnay to accompany our meal.

Service was excellent but this was a hotel and I could only laugh when the excellent waiter brought an I-pad to the table and asked me to fill in a survey to rate the evening. Get rid of that crassness please, and rejoice in the wonderful experience this talented chef is delivering to diners.

Lava, Sofitel Auckland, 21 Viaduct Harbour Ave, Lighter Quay ph 09 900 9000

10 June 2014

THE ENGINE ROOM

Natalia Schamroth and Carl Koppenhagen scoured the city for months to find a site for their restaurant, The Engine Room. They settled on an old post office building on Auckland’s North Shore, in Northcote, and have had continual demand for reservations since the day they opened in 2006.

Eight years on the restaurant retains its place as the leading restaurant on the North Shore, and luckily it’s not much more than a stone’s throw from the harbour bridge. It’s ideal for a five minute trip from Ponsonby as long as you remember to take the extreme left lane crossing the ‘coathanger.’ Exit at Stafford St, make two left turns and you are ready to enter this informal and bustling eatery, a place where diners feel really comfortable as there’s no fuss and no pretension.

Recent alterations, incorporating the eastern side of the building that previously housed offices, now give The Engine Room a respectable bar to meet over a drink before dining or to perch at a stool if you dine alone. Vast windows have been installed with views to the east, with long banquette seating underneath and in daylight hours the sun streams in. (You can get a stunning lunch here on Fridays only.) The former cosiness of one-room dining has been lost a little in the process, but who is complaining when there are more seats, less noise, a larger kitchen, flash new bathrooms and that bar.

You won’t find food here that’s stitched up or unrecognisably played with, for as Natalia says, it’s about damn good honest food, cooked with heart and soul. The owners, both trained chefs, have worked together for many years and continue to travel frequently to draw from European and Asian influences for the inspiration for their menu.

Their menu reeks simplicity with dishes such as veal schnitzel, potato rosti, coleslaw and caper butter, tempura zucchini flowers with artichokes or the perfect steak with maitre d’hotel butter and frites. Reading through the menu, artfully chalked up on a large blackboard, diners might ponder The Engine Room’s food is rather reminiscent of good home-cooked food. But plates arrive, and it dawns that there’s no way any home cook could inject such flavour, such sophistication to make food this good.

A year or two back The Engine Room Cookbook shared a raft of the best recipes cooked in the restaurant. It has become a classic on the food scene and contains many of the lovely dishes cooked every night. Most of the Engine Room’s recipes are traditional cooking with a surprising twist somewhere and the kitchen displays a terrific knowledge of the influences on what is emerging as a modern New Zealand style of cuisine. Don’t miss such playful Asian inspired dishes such as the utterly refreshing Thai prawn and watermelon salad, or a meaty, spicy Hoi An chook with coconut rice, papaya salad and tamarind.

That blackboard menu changes regularly, but some dishes, like their untraditional but completely delicious churros con chocolat, the creamy twice- baked goat’s cheese soufflé, and a French country terrine with pickled cherries, have proved so popular they have remained since day one. To provide a seamless dining experience, Carl heads the kitchen while Natalia offers diners a warm welcome in front of house. They employ professional waiters who know their stuff and their wines. There are not many restaurants where you can find such treasured labels as Bell Hill, Millton or Pyramid Valley all on the same page. Look around for specials by the glass as this is a great place to check out hard to find wines listed by the glass. There’s also an interesting cocktail list, some very good sherry. Another admirable offering is a fine cheese selection limited to may be three or four of the best cheeses available in the city.

The large following from a loyal bunch of regulars is evidence of a successful restaurant that truly cares about its patrons. That’s exactly what The Engine Room is all about; delivering a surprisingly good experience that’s well ahead of most others in Auckland city, if not the whole country. The Engine Room, 115 Queen St, Northcote Point. Ph 09 480 9502 Open Tues to Sat for dinner, Lunch Fridays only.

1 March 2014

ORPHANS KITCHEN

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.

1 March 2014

COCORO

There‘s a little hidden gem in the backstreets of Ponsonby that reeks of the sophistication rarely found in an area where most dining is casual and laid back. In a low slung, perfectly crafted space decked out with sleek timber and fashionable concrete, tucked under an old industrial brick building in Brown St, Cocoro offers a seriously good dining experience that feels and tastes authentically Japanese. It’s the brainchild of Ricky Lee, a thoughtful and dedicated restaurateur who we first got to know at Soto in St Mary’s Bay. His masterstroke there was, and now here at Cocoro, is the very talented and zany chef Makato Tokuyama who presides over the kitchen, attracting attention from some of the city’s most discerning diners.

Chef Makato has a passion for fresh fish and the parade of courses in his omotenashi or degustation menu leaves no doubt of his skill with any and every type of seafood. I called by one afternoon recently with some Japanese food writers who wished to meet him and typically he welcomed us and then proudly rushed us into the kitchen to view some gleamingly fresh fish. It had just arrived from the fishing boats of the revered Lee Fish company north of Auckland and I swear the fish was still almost wriggling. I lamented we could not return to feast on this but my companions were flying out.

The menu at Cocoro is seasonal. Japanese cuisine always stands out above all others for signalling the seasons on the plate, whether it’s the freshly harvested produce, or the accompanying garnishes and presentation that enhances the food and sets the scene. And that’s exactly what Chef Makato concentrates on.

To get the best experience, it is wise to make a reservation and book the omotenashi menu. A six or more course meal of exquisite tastes will be delivered and as the friendly and helpful staff will have ascertained any dietary requirements and food preferences, diners who choose this are in for a real treat. This may be the best value $85 experience around.

One evening we started with crunchy tender octopus, and another night it was paua. Our sushi and sashimi course appeared in the most intriguing hinged box, and opened up like a miniature wardrobe, revealing three shelves packed with delicate plates of perfect seafood. An oyster in it shell, garnished with seaweed and cucumber, some shiny fresh fish precisely cut into perfect sashimi, and delicate salmon nigiri and more.

Subsequent courses continued to delight, with the highlight being a meltingly tender gratin of scallop, prawn and oyster alongside the most wonderful chawanmushi I have ever had…silky smooth savoury custard that had a tiny queen scallop hidden within. You are also likely to be served grilled fresh fish, grilled beef and all will be garnished with vegetables of the season.

If you don’t book, or wander in at lunch time the more prosaic casual menu will be offered. There’s a large table that dominates the centre of the restaurant and it’s perfect to perch at for the casual eating of the extensive offerings which are called “Japanese Tapas.”

Makato makes some lovely salads, offers excellent sushi and sashimi, crisp light tempura, old favourites like teriyaki chicken and more. There’s also some fine donburi dishes that make a complete lunch on their own.

The wine selection is well chosen, emphasising excellent local and organic wines, but it’s also well worth exploring the sake menu. Who would have thought there were so many amazing flavours and textures to dive into that could match this food so well?

But for the very best experience, look out for the special degustation evenings that are held from time to time. One of my all-time favourite evenings was when a boutique sake maker presided over a sensational parade of different styles of sake matched to some beautifully thought out dishes by Chef Makato – a total revelation of food and beverage matching, complete with some fresh tuna flown in specially from Tokyo.

Another night the chef’s skills were to the fore with some fabulous food to match the stunning wines of Pyramid Valley. It was hard to decide which I loved best; Makato’s delicate food or the complex and aromatic wines.

56 Brown St, Ponsonby ph 09 360 0927 Open Tuesday to Saturday lunch 12-2pm Dinner from 6pm.

1 March 2014

CAFE VIET

What a joy to see a small, humble and independent restaurant open and enjoy immediate success at a time when Aucklanders are reeling from trying to keep up with the mega-spending on new glitzy palaces of eating with starry chefs at the helm.

Café Viet in Grey Lynn has been welcomed by many, with diners flocking in nearby and afar. It’s the first foray into the hospitality scene for Darryn Bell and his partner Joni Hong Hoang and they’ve struck a chord that has quickly developed into a happy song. When I mentioned to one foodie friend who lives nearby I’d ‘found’ somewhere wonderful, she told me she and her husband had already been there about eight times. In six weeks? Now that’s some recommendation.

Joni came from Viet Nam to study and work in New Zealand ten years ago and has abandoned her desk bound career for cooking some of the most delicious food from her homeland that I have encountered here. Her mother is often in the kitchen at her side and when you see that you just know the food is authentic and prepared with love. (As an aside, if you’re headed to Wellington don’t miss Nam just off Willis St in a little courtyard where Nikki Chung also has her mum in the kitchen making fresh Vietnamese food that is well worth checking out too.)

I was stunned by the bright flavours and textures of the starter we munched on, chā gio tom thit, otherwise known as Café Viet spring rolls; three crisp spring rolls filled with tasty pork and prawn mince deepfried and then wrapped together with a crisp iceberg lettuce cup and shredded carrot, bean curd threads and Vietnamese herbs in soft translucent rice paper. At $10 a plate this may be one of the best bargains in the city when you consider the loving care that’s poured into every one of these treasures.

The other item on the excellent ‘small plates’ section of the menu that is a must for me is the Bang Bang Prawns. Crunchy crumbs cloak delicious fat prawns and the accompanying coconut lemongrass sauce is light, fresh and oh so delicious. I even took a portion home. For lovers of delicate food the selection of other starters will delight for there are several wonderful variations on fresh spring rolls, some fried battered squid, rice cakes and lovely mussels with coconut lemongrass dressing.

When it comes to mains, the caramelised pork hotpot reached absolute perfection and had me swooning; tender slow and long braised chunks of pork belly that were rich and sweet, served in a salty sweet broth with a deep fried hard boiled egg and accompanied by rice and a shredded salad. The crisp rice flour crepe stuffed with braised pork, prawns, sprouts and fresh herbs might be the most perfect lunch in the city and grilled lemongrass chicken with two little curry puffs on the side is well worth ordering.

Here’s the thing about authentic Vietnamese food; there must be an abundance of herbs. Pho, the clear beef broth that is the essence of Vietnam, was fragrant and filling but the generous portion of herbs atop the bowl are what made it truly wondrous eating. Lots of coriander, Vietnamese mint, and other pungent greens on every dish give this cuisine a unique and authentic perspective. Café Viet serves everything with a profusion of crisp fresh herbs and salad, so it gets a major tick from me.

The restaurant interior is charming. Hand-painted walls and a variety of furniture make this a comfortable, colourful and casual place, despite the fishbowl like front windows that overlook the street. Children are welcome, and sensibly the locals seem to bring them in at 5.30pm so they’re hopefully out by 7pm. The one jarring note is the very limited wine selection but host Darren is working on that.

Don’t miss the Café Viet coffee. To me this was an indulgence worth going out for. Drip coffee boosted by a very liberal serving of sweetened condensed milk – very Vietnamese I am told and very toothsome. I am going back, often!

Café Viet, 2 Surrey Crescent, Grey Lynn ph 09 378 8738 Open 6 days lunch and dinner. Closed Tuesdays and the full menu available for takeouts.

1 March 2014

MASU

Move over salmon and avocado sushi. The current trend for Japanese food around the city is about to be overtaken by the ancient tradition of the robata grill. It’s not new to Auckland - Nishiki in Wellington St, Freeman’s Bay and Industrie Zen in the Viaduct Harbour have offered menus featuring robata food for ages. But Masu, the new kid on the Sky City block of eating until you die, takes robata to a whole new level. Prepare to be startled, for Masu not only offers an impressive array of these tasty grilled treats but is set in as dazzling a space as we’ve ever seen in New Zealand.

Nic Watt, a talented chef who grew up in Auckland, has returned home to head up Masu. He learned his trade at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, was recalled to New Zealand for a brief stint at Huka Lodge and then spent several more years overseas, in London, as executive chef of the world wide Roka group of restaurants. He is a master of flavour, simplicity and artful design - the major components of Japanese cookery and presentation.

Sky City Grand Hotel has always had a vast space in the foyer that has ached for something useful. For years it was a sort of art gallery with Karl Maughan’s bold and vast rhododendron paintings that could be viewed as diners approached the Peter Gordon restaurant before it closed. Now the space has been transformed, enclosed, is constantly busy and very accessible with a bar spilling out onto Federal St and marking the entrance. Inside there’s a vast robata grill that is central to the restaurant with swanky seating for dining and casual seating along a counter face to face with the chefs. A the back there’s a private room graced by what may be the heaviest wooden table ever constructed.

Robata is a method of cooking derived from the simple idea of Japanese fishermen returning to shore with their catch from the north Japan Sea and immediately grilling fish over live charcoal. Masu, under Nic Watt’s direction and with his head chef Darren Johnson, takes this to new heights; terrific dishes involving vegetables, seafood, chicken and meat including wagyu beef are prepared in full view of the diners and the aroma of the sizzling dishes pervades the room.

The show stopper for me is the saiko miso and yuzu marinated black cod. It is everything that there is to love about Japanese food; the freshest fish obtainable, a delicate blend of flavours that are absolutely mouth-watering and careful presentation that is as important as the taste. A leaf wrapped around the fish reveals a glazed and tasty thick fillet of fish within. It is Watt’s signature dish, one of many dishes I tried when he first cooked for us in London about six years ago. On that occasion my husband declared that was the best meal he’d ever had in his life and he’s continued to say that ever since. (What about my own cooking, Murray?)

The menu is extensive. A vast selection of sashimi is offered according to whichever fresh fish the kitchen can purchase daily. I cannot think of anywhere else in the city you could choose from fatty, semi-fatty or fatty, or yellow fin tuna, along with kingfish, king salmon, snapper, trevally, clam, prawn, scampi or eel. My advice is go for the Chef’s selection, or even better try the nigiri selection where the expertly cut fish is draped over a little parcel of sushi rice. There’s also a section given over to maki rolls, and my pick of these is the soft shell crab, daikon, cucumber and wasabi roll. To sit at the bar and watch these delicate morsels being prepared is my idea of heaven.

But it doesn’t stop there. There’s a selection of unusual dishes from the kitchen that include those little dumplings called gyoza, a wonderfully comforting king crab hot pot with wasabi tobiko giving a little subtle crunch, along with lemon and chilli, and some fine tempura dishes that almost float off the plate with their crisp lightness. There’s a Masu tasting menu at $88 per person which may sound a bit stiff but is superb value when you consider the quality of the ingredients, the complementary accumulation of tastes and the superb presentation.

To drink, there’s a selection of fabulous cocktails, Japanese beer, some superb artisan sakes and a wine list that is loyal to New Zealand producers. Yay! A real feature at the bar is the large block of de-oxygenated ice and the theatre of this ice being sawn into blocks for patrons drinks. For the sweet toothed there’s this fabulous almost liquid chocolate dessert that appears in a Japanese pine box and accompanied by a dusting of green tea (sancha) powder.

Heading the front of house team house is the debonair Matthew Aitchison, known to French Café diners. He’s a consummate professional and manages to attend to every detail and more. I’m picking this new venture is going to be the jewel in the sparkling crown of Sky City’s array of great restaurants.

Masu, Sky City Grand, Federal St, Auckland Open daily for lunch and dinner. Book online at Sky City or call 09 363 6278.