Lauraine Jacobs

Food Writer and Author of Delicious Books


1 March 2014


What a view! As you step out of the extraordinarily terrifying lift that whisks you to the fifty-third floor of the Sky Tower, the whole of the Auckland harbour lies in front of you. But within seconds your attention shifts to the comforting, cosseting entry foyer that is cool, sophisticated and very welcoming. Decorated in moody blues with the most fascinating silken textured walls it shrieks thoughtful design and delight.

At first I pondered the decision to move Peter Gordon away from Federal St and install him, his fusion cuisine and The Sugar Club, high in the sky. But having eaten up there and revelled in the ambience, the menu, the attention and the wines, I think this is a master stroke on Sky City’s part.

The Sugar Club first became popular in Wellington when Peter plied his fusion cuisine to that city’s appreciative audience well back into the last century. So good it was, that it upped-sticks and moved to London, where it enjoyed two reincarnations before closing. Peter Gordon, with restaurants in London and consultant chef in such places as Istanbul, has become a household name in both New Zealand and London. And, as anyone who knows him well will attest, he is one of the nicest guys ever let near a kitchen. He is the master, the inventor and the most recognised chef on earth of fusion cuisine, and in his new place he is at the top of his game.

If anyone thinks Sky City rules the roost with their restaurants and celebrity-style chefs, think again. Once the decision was made to move Peter Gordon from his ‘dine by peter gordon’ - that restaurant lurking well back in Sky City Grand’s foyer - the chef himself has made all the major decisions. Inspired by the Luca Guadagnino film I Am Love (which sets producer and star Tilda Swinton in the Art deco era of the 1930s) he charged designers Jonathon Goss and Judy Court with capturing a little of that magic he loved so much. It is gorgeous, and enhanced by some stunning glass art Peter picked up in Venice.

Peter Gordon of course, still has Providores and Kopapa restaurants in London and will continue to jet backwards and forwards. He’s worked closely with his new head chef here, Neil Brazier, to create a menu that suits the surroundings. It’s filled with classic Peter Gordon fusion dishes and some, like the beef pesto hark back to his very first menu in Wellington. That beef is tenderly marinated in soy and spices and then sautéed and served with the fresh surprise of Italian style pesto on top. He also has included his very famous take on laksa, this time a spiced smoky version crammed with duck, pumpkin and a golden egg, and vattalapam - palm sugar and coconut baked custard with mango sorbet and coconut praline, the essence of Asian-influenced dessert and about as moreish as you get.

Some of the enticing things about The Sugar Club are the weekend brunches, and the express lunch menu where you can score a $46 tab for two courses or at $56 you will get three courses. The bargain of the city when you consider the view, especially as all the tables have a view over Ponsonby and the western aspect of our city. You can spend your lunch time watching the poor folks at home.

A much fuller a la carte lunch menu is offered too, where the dishes are more complex and more fully garnished. There’s an Otago saffron linguine with crab, pinenuts and aged Parmigiano on that which I cannot get out of memory as it was so light and airy I almost felt it might lift off the plate. The other dish I adored was Yellow Brick Road’s day boat fish (snapper) with red tuatua, fregola, green sauce and miso beurre blanc.

Here’s the thing about Peter Gordon’s food. It is refreshingly different, remarkably audacious at times, and combines all the things we love to like in New Zealand.

At night of course, unless it is inclement weather, the lights sparkle, the menu changes and there’s a frisson of even greater sophistication. The dinner menu is made up of ever so slightly smaller plates, designed to give guests the experience of tasting more than just the usual old starter and main. Two courses $60, three courses $80, four courses $95, and five courses $105. And that’s probably as much as anyone could or should eat!

Other things not to miss on the menu include the seared yellow fin tuna (garnished with truffled yuzu, umeboshi dressing, goji berries, arami and a beer battered Bluff oyster), the tender merino lamb rack, a wonderfully aromatic five spice duck breast, and the extraordinarily daring peanut butter parfait with salted caramel, chocolate sorbet and crunchy bits.

Some fine staff have been lured from elsewhere to pamper diners, and as the first thing you see is the cocktail bar and a small wine library, there’s a good chance of excellent imbibing both pre-dinner and to accompany the food. This is a great addition to Auckland City’s dining scene.

Sky Tower, SkyCity, Federal St, Auckland

1 March 2014


It is not often I can say I’ve fallen in love with a café. This one is on K Rd, and is a café where both the atmosphere and the food are highly original. We’ve seen most things in this almost predictable culinary world, and there are far too many restaurants and cafés following the same old threads with their menus. So it is utterly refreshing to stumble across a cook who is totally innovative and dares to be different. And it’s even better when the focus is on healthy delicious food, catering for vegetarians, meat eaters and vegans alike.

The new favourite is Verona. “The old Verona on K Rd?” I can hear readers asking puzzledly. Yes. The very same place that was one of the ‘in’ places to go a decade ago, but which lost its way about five years ago after the legendary Hilary Ord sold up and moved on. The hip bohemian atmosphere vanished making Verona a shabby shadow of its former self, with only that sparkly sign out front to remind us of the faded glory. K Rd is, of course, the place that is currently where the happening cutting-edge young and arty stuff is; almost like Ponsonby Rd of a decade or two ago. (That grumpy raver in last month’s PN take note: K Rd is where you may be able to relive your memories of old – with not a pony-tailed-lycra-wearing-young-mum in sight!)

When Annabelle Guinness and Phil Randle bought Verona just over a year ago they had to work hard, long hours to restore the cool, the chic and the fun that regulars came to Verona for. They’ve really achieved that, stamping a new identity on the place. They’d successfully started the legendary Sawmill in Leigh in the nineties and there’s no doubt they have brought a touch of that with them back to the city. Verona’s walls are now softly decorated with silver, adorned with the magical art work of Annabelle’s sister, Nicola Guinness who runs the nearby Front Room where she crafts extraordinary furnishings and fabrics.

There’s even a distinct taste of the Matakana region on Annie Guinness’s menu. She sources free-range organic eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, and even the wonderfully unique Salumeria Fontana sausages (are they the country’s best sausage?) from that region, where the couple have lived for years. In recent years she was known in the Matakana farmers market for her wonderful small plates of food; food that had been inspired by overseas travels. No trip to the market on Saturday morning was complete for me without Annie’s breakfast polenta with freshly poached seasonal fruit, local honey, some lovely thick runny cream and the added touch of freshly picked mint.

Now at Verona, Annie not only offers fresh fare, she has one of the most originally laid out menus in town. If you’re headed there for breakfast (the kitchen opens at 7am and runs throughout the day till 9pm) the menu kicks off with a ‘Rise and Shine’ selection that includes that soft warm polenta. Or take your choice of two hot pressed sandwiches; croque monsieur or a tasty vegetarian version. The star morning dishes for me however, are the ‘Juliet’ and the ‘Romeo’. Both dishes have a beautifully poached free range egg with hollandaise sitting on a base of mash and fresh Matakana watercress: Juliet is garnished with grilled haloumi while Romeo is served with a pork and fennel sausage. Witty and appropriately named?

Other sections of the menu offer ‘Comfort’ dishes that include smoked fish pie with silverbeet and kumara, tender slow cooked venison with fig cavolo nero, mushroom stroganoff and a superb vegan tamarind flavoured three bean ratatouille with rosemary polenta chips and egg free mayo. ‘Raw & Healthy’ delivers terrific salads that are leafy green, Waldorf, and a lovely dish called Miso Pretty that turns out to be slaw of cabbage, kale, hijiki seaweed and avocado with miso dressing.

There are great snacks to share over a drink, including several superb tortillas wrapped around choices of clalmari and chorizo, coffee marinated bbef rump and the three bean ratatouille. I recommend everyone tries Annabelle Guinness’ lovely ‘Whisper’ before they die. For $4 you get this amazing soft ball of smooth kumara and herbs with a buffalo haloumi centre and an outer crisp coating of sesame seeds. I bet you order another one or two!

When Annabelle had her market stall she started a range of soups that were light years ahead of any other packaged fresh soups on the market. Luckily for Verona customers, she still makes her amazing shiitake tea soup, the most heart and body warming plate of soup I have ever eaten; it is savoury and sweet and is such comfort fare that I have been known to drive across town mid afternoon for a cup of it on a chilly day.

It’s advisable to eat early in the evening if you want dinner at Verona. Not just because the kitchen closes at 9pm, but also because as the evening progresses the music is turned up and young hip types come to linger over drinks and live entertainment. It’s almost like the Sawmill has come to the city. But all is not lost as the chilled cabinet out front is filled with more Annabelle magic. Choose from a selection of little ‘Verona Jars’ – free range sloe gin and chicken liver parfait, some pickled mussels, preserved bocconcini with olives and sundried tomatoes, pickled mussels or a very tasty garlicky herby hummus. They are all served with toasted bread. Or indulge in lovely desserts like winter fruit crumble, honey and kaffir lime pannacotta chocolate mouse or baklava.

Nothing is too expensive here with dishes mostly under $20. There’s a fully stocked bar with cocktails, beers including Sawmill, of course, a well selected wine list. Health loving foodies should not miss the two “revitalising Remedies’ a red juice with beetroot, carrot, celery, fresh turmeric and ginger, and the green which is a mixture of kale, sorrel, honey, banana and lime. Verona may be the only place on K Rd where you are going to walk out a tad healthier than you arrived. 169 Karangahape Rd, ph 09 307 0508

1 March 2014


Everybody I know who has eaten at Ortolana has been pleased. Pleased with the lovely setting in the centre of the Britomart Square, pleased with the terrific fresh food, pleased with the wine list and drinks (especially the free sparkling water from the tap) and pleased to find a new friendly place to choose breakfast, lunch or dinner from a sensationally simple but excellent menu.

And well pleased they should be. Owners, Jackie Grant and Scott Brown operate at the cutting edge of food. Of all the places in this city to eat, Ortolana comes closest to the superb fresh food I found in many restaurants on my recent trip to San Francisco. Over there I noted that chefs aren’t mucking about in the kitchen, torturing the hell out of the ingredients and fashioning them into something that resembles a scientific experiment on the plate. Instead they take time to connect with artisan food producers and small farmers to find very special produce to work with and present as simply as possible. I spotted chefs trundling through the farmers’ market, buying up terrific farm grown seasonal vegetables and fruits for their restaurants, something I’ve rarely seen here.

Grant and Brown been quietly chipping away at the Auckland hospitality scene, concentrating on opening or revamping fairly casual cafés under their Hip Group brand to offer very good coffee, fabulous fresh food to match and a warm welcome. They have their own gardens out in the west to supply their growing empire with produce, an empire that includes such good places as Richmond Rd Café, Rosehip in Parnell, Takapuna Beach Café, and St Heliers Bistro.

(As an aside, it’s interesting to note the rise and rise of restaurant groups in Auckland. We had the Nourish Group first (Euro, Jervois Steak House, Fish etc) and then along came the Sky City group of restaurants (The Grill, Depot, and the soon to be opened Masu and Peter Gordon’s Sugar Club.) We also have the Pack Group (The Commons, Everybody’s) and we’ve got all those cafés and restaurants supported by Britomart and the Wynyard Wharf lot. All these almost ‘corporatised’ places make it difficult for small operators to be noticed without shouting their little heads off, sadly.)

Ortolana is also successful as it is such a gorgeous place to be. Half of the restaurant is inside in a well designed comfy room with an open kitchen and there’s a lovely courtyard for outdoor eating, complete with plenty of heaters, a soaring glass ceiling and the thoughtful touch of blankets for anyone feeling a little chilly.

The menu is concise and designed for all day eating. If you go for breakfast you will enjoy the best granola ever made with organic quinoa and nuts and accompanied by fresh pears and a yogurt mousse. There’s also ruby grapefruit with demerara sugar, a surprisingly interesting vanilla bean risotto with tamarillo, and a silky crema fritta with rhubarb and macadamia. And that’s just the fruit and cereal section. There’s also a section of five eggy things, including a comforting mushroom and poached egg with porcini polenta, and a romano cheese, brown onion and herb omelette. Breakfast in the suburbs is not like this!

The real strength of the menu is chef Jo Pearson’s stunningly simple creations. She combines ingredients very thoughtfully and everything on the plate looks light, interesting and appetising. One of my favourites is her burrata (very creamy mozzarella) with walnuts, golden raisins and new olive oil. I also love the beetroot lasagnotte with hazelnuts and feta, the market fish crudo and a light-as-air hand made pasta with mushroom, parmesan and topped by a gently cooked egg yolk and lovely microgreens. Most of all I love the way that at the end of the menu there’s a list of the vegetables, herbs and fruit from the Hip group’s farm. Right now that means such interesting stuff as lemon verbena, kohlrabi, savoy cabbage and their own cow’s feta which is creamy and light.

Does all this sound tempting? Too right! But there’s more. Not only does Ortolana set new high standards, the Hip group have an interest in Milse, right next door with frontage on Tyler St. There, talented patissier, Brian Campbell has opened a state-of-the-art dessert store and restaurant with mind-bogglingly beautiful cakes, gateaux, tarts, chocolates and fabulous macarons of every hue and flavour. If you want a sweet ending to your Ortolana experience, the full menu of treats is offered and the waiter just pops next door to pick it up.

Milse offers exclusive dessert dining in the evenings too and it’s the new thing to eat on Ponsonby Rd and then pop down to Britomart for sweet dreams or even a degustation of desserts. During the day (and through the evening) there’s take-out service from the stunning display. There’s even a glass-fronted freezer with an absolute knock-out selection of desserts like Baked Alaska and other gelato cakes. But what has really captured my imagination is the frozen gelato sticks; icy gelato covered in delicious chocolate. The vanilla, chocolate and berry jelly may be the best “jelly-tip” in the world.

So what are the drawbacks? None I can think of, although the policy of no bookings can make life difficult. On the upside, you can front up, put your name on the list, disappear to down a few drinks elsewhere in Britomart and they’ll call you on mobile when your table is ready. Very nice.

Ortolana, 31 Tyler St, Britomart Milse, 27 Tyler St, Britomart

6 June 2013


June 2013

Occasionally a restaurant opens that is a game changer. With a Pacific/Chinese menu, cheerful atmosphere, intriguing décor and snappy service The Blue Breeze Inn fired from the moment it opened the doors on to Ponsonby Rd. Everybody wants a table and it doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re young, middle-aged or old, real estate agents, car salesmen or straight from Mad Men. It suits everyone and there’s even a little high chair, for heaven’s sake.

Mark Wallbank, fast becoming the most innovative and influential restaurateur in the area, has managed to grab the lead and the limelight again. He was famously involved with the popular café Blake St and Rocco, and then morphed the latter into MooChowChow, introducing diners to an eclectic take on Thai fare. And now his Blue Breeze Inn. If you’re going there, make sure your diction is careful and exact. My friend looked in vain for the ’Blueberries’ Inn until it dawned on her where she was supposed to meet me!

I loved the array of Chinese-influenced appetisers including some pretty smart dumplings. The pork and prawn shumai were tasty, a tad solid perhaps, but I liked that. There are soup dumplings xiao long bao that explode in your mouth with a rush of hot salty soup, some even arriving bathed in a tasty pork and black truffle soup that maybe the most comforting thing in the world on a chilly wintry day.

The prawn har gau are light and fluffy, and the barbecued pork buns were so good I had to order another; soft silky dough, folded over and stuffed with a piece of marinated pork with crispy, fatty skin that crackled in my mouth with an accompanying smear of sweet spicy sauce, a couple of sliced of pickled cucumber and a wisp of lettuce had me swooning. Forget all those oh-so-fashionable sliders round the rest of the city and head for these amazing treats.

Other appetisers we’ve tried that stood out were the bang bang chicken - a cold yet spicy plateful of deliciousness; a pile of freshly spiced and smoked fish, redolent of five spice, ginger and shallots; and some extraordinary tea smoked duck breast, arranged in a circle of overlapping pieces with some pickled cabbage and mustard cress to cut the fattiness. You can eat your away through this section of the menu, be perfectly satisfied and not blow the bank.

However that would be a shame to restrict dining to appetisers only for there are more fancy and wonderful things for those with ’big appetites’.
Che Barrington is the talented chef in charge of the kitchen, and has a veritable army of workers crammed in there. He’s the proud owner of a battery of new kitchen equipment to produce such a varied menu, and in particular one enormous ’duck oven’ with a shiny hood where the whole roasted Chinese ducks hang and cook until the skin is a deep lacquered brown. This is another not-to-be-missed treat on the menu, along with another duck dish - crispy skinned portions that have been deep-fried and rolled in Sichuan pepper, chillies and cumin. As they say, finger-lickin’ good!

I also love the generous portion of steamed fish fillets with black bean and shaoxing wine, the wok fried green beans and chunks of tender eggplant, and a very black peppery pickled cabbage and coriander salad. It’s all great.

The wine list takes us around the world, although the husband, with pretty set drinking habits (he knows what he likes ’ chardonnay most of the time) lamented the lack of local chardys on the list by the glass. Is Ponsonby an ABC zone? Better then to settle for the gorgeous house made ginger beer, or a cooling lager to match the zesty, zingy food. Even perhaps, an exotic cocktail.

Occupying a long thin corner site, there’s plenty of natural light, big windows that will allow the blue breeze in on warmer days and some terrific décor that conjures up the Pacific Rim. I especially love the gabion of coconuts, the large solid wooden bar to perch at and the brightly coloured cushions everywhere. And with Mark Wallbank at the helm, rushing all over the place all the time, of course the service was swift and personable.

Situated on the corner of Ponsonby Rd and Brown St, The Blue Breeze Inn is officially part of Ponsonby Central, but luckily has its own entrance and balcony. I say luckily, as all the pizzazz of the market place disappears into the evening when those vast spaces feel very empty. I predict it will be months, if ever, that this snazzy restaurant suffers that sort of fate. 146 Ponsonby Rd, T 09 360 0303

  • First published Ponsonby News

6 June 2013


May 2013

Lucky Ponsonby. At a time where several little districts in the city are vying to attract the eating out set, Ponsonby Rd is a diner’s delight. Whether it’s casual food, cheap eating, takeout meals, a café to chatter and while away the time, bars to perch at, ethnic food of varying hues and flavours, find a good old-fashioned feed, splurge on a sophisticated special occasion meal or try out somewhere new and exciting, The Strip’s got it covered. There are a few old stalwarts (belated congratulations to SPQR and Prego on significant birthdays) and many buzzy places that attract those seeking the bright lights and some good chow. And then there’s the Ponsonby Rd Bistro.

For many years the site at 165 Ponsonby Rd struggled. Those of us who have always followed the comings and goings, watched as restaurateur after restaurateur, some well known names with plenty of experience, opened there with new direction, new décor and lots of expectation. Constantly it quickly faltered. But once the Ponsonby Rd Bistro team were up and running it seemed like exactly the place The Strip had been waiting for. Everybody wanted to go there as they always do when something pops up, but even better, they just kept on coming back and back.

A bistro should be a familiar neighbourhood place where you eat often, but PRB is so popular it’s necessary to book. The good thing is that there’s a bar that winds around the interior of the room so you can perch there for a drink or even eat there if the tables are all occupied. I like the ante room as you enter, with its lively feel rather than the dark intimacy of the dining space around the bar. There are also a couple of tables set street side, no doubt where smokers can rejoice, or those who like to be seen and watch passers-by.

The food is pure bistro; chef Sarah Conway changes her menu every three weeks or so, so it’s seasonal, interesting and up with current trends. There’s constantly a reliably good steak with chunky chips and parsley garlic butter, chicken cacciatore, a wonderful flounder (or South Island lemon sole when they can get it) and a pizza for main course choices. Additional listings are at the chef’s whim such as the Mexican marinated pork on black beans and chipotle with fennel orange chilli slaw and sour cream.

(As an aside, everyone’s obsessed with Mexico right now, but I have yet to find a genuine Mexican in the kitchen bringing the sort of deliciously spicy authentic Mexican food to our city like the feasts I have just experienced in Northern California. We’re doing tequila and Mexican inspired cocktails well but, oh dear, the food is pretty flaky here by comparison.)

As in so many restaurants, PRB’s appetisers and entrees really appealed on a recent evening. So much so, that we ate our way through that part of the menu. And we loved it all. We had deep-fried Brie de Meaux with poached quince, chicory (witlof) and almonds. This dish showed chef Conway’s style at its best – perfectly rich, ripe creamy French cheese oozing from its crust and a perfect seasonally inspired salad filled with lots of crunch and differing textures.

Next a smoky, spicy fish and potato pakora with a refreshing mango, coriander, chilli and lime salsa that was just the thing for to perk our tastebuds. A platter of Otello charcuterie followed, and it is great to see a kitchen that recognises and supports artisan producers. Otello small goods are mostly only found in farmers markets and one or two retail outlets.

But the piece de resistance of the night was a risotto of slow cooked merino lamb, made with porcini and red wine and finished with parmesan. If there was ever a flavour explosion in the mouth, this was it. The dish was really really tasty and wonderfully comforting. I hope it becomes a menu staple through the coming cold weather.

Melissa Morrow, part owner and manager of front of house is a consummate professional who knows her food, knows her customers and most importantly knows and loves her wine. PRB serves cocktails of course – they have to, for the Strip is the trendy cocktail capital of Auckland. But my money is on the wine list which is extensive, eclectic and has wines to suit everybody. The wines offered by the glass are superbly chosen (I loved that Bellbird Spring aromatic white blend which reminded me of the ‘field blend’ of Alsace’s Marcel Deiss.)

To finish the desserts are true bistro classics; a warm chocolate pudding, apple crumble tart, crème brulee and affogato (a shot of hot espresso poured over a ball of ice cream – if you’ve never had it, you haven’t lived!) We settled for the little plate of sweet treats which were all chocolate – fine if you love chocolate but I don’t. Everyone has failings, even me!

One more detail worth noting; The kitchen is open through the afternoon with a limited dinner menu. Maybe that’s for those who missed lunch because they were working, or did they just sleep in?

Ponsonby Rd Bistro, 165 Ponsonby Rd, ph 09 360 1611 Open lunch Mon to Fri, Dinner Mon to Sat. * First published Ponsonby NEws

6 June 2013


APril 2013

Time flies when you’re eating well. Ten years ago I wrote a rave review about the tiny South Indian café, Satya, in Hobson St (for Cuisine.) A decade has passed and I am still enjoying the simple cuisine served up by Swamy and Padmaja Akuthota. A lot has changed in that time. Their café moved from Hobson St to K Rd, and the Akuthotas have opened a string of restaurants and cafés in Sandringham, Mt Eden and Great North Rd around the corner from Ponsonby Rd. And you’re reading it here first that there are plans afoot to open a spice store in Ponsonby later this year.

In that first review I wrote, “There’s nothing quite like a home cooked meal, with its attendant nurturing flavours. That is exactly what has made Satya such a popular place with those in the know. Owners Swamy and Padmaja hail from Hyderabad in Southern India and are dedicated to cooking authentic food from their homeland. They grind their own spices regularly for their dishes and also import special pastes and ingredients. The dishes are influenced by the owners’ Ayurvedic philosophy and are mainly deliciously light and healthy.” It’s all still true today.

My favourite is the Great North Rd branch. It has a friendly feel with the brick walls and roof of the old shop front restaurant adorned with colourful saris, and the comfortable chairs all backed with bright silk covers. It is constantly busy with an eclectic parade of regulars; couples dining away for a night out away from the kids, groups of bright young things sharing palates and bottles of wine, Southern Indian family groups, and locals who pop in for a quick Thali plate (a inexpensive set selection of curry dish that includes rice and chutney).

The menu is almost bafflingly extensive, and features lots of vegetable choices as the Akuthotas are steadfast vegetarians. Not to be overlooked are the specialties in the lighter entrée section. I couldn’t eat at Satya without ordering the dahi puri, crisp little squares with a topping of potato, yogurt, spices and tamarind. These treats are famous but there are several other snacks to share including light-as-air little puffs fiiled with curry and the wonderfully crisp samosas.

Wafer-thin rice and lentil pancakes called iddlies arrive at the table rolled up in an impressive display of kitchen art, served with accompanying condiments of chutney and yogurt. The same delicacies are folded into dosa with carrot and coconut chutney tucked between the layers. Yogurt is an essential ingredient of many Satya dishes; the kitchen staff make their own yogurt, and it’s used for sauces, marinades and in many of the curries and dishes.

Diners can choose from a vast range of dry and juicy curries and Southern Indian specialties, including many chicken, prawn and lamb dishes. There’s the ubiquitous butter chicken and it’s a fine example. Fish and vegetarian dishes are plentiful, and I especially enjoyed a very spicy Apollo yogurt marinated fish enhanced by wonderful smoky flavours. The cubes of fish sat on top of a riot of crunchy raw vegies, but I did think it was a pity this food had been presented on a larger plate. However this is all simple home-style fare and food presentation and styling is hardly the number one attribute of the restaurant. It’s all about tasty food.

Indian breads, whether the crisp poppadoms or the flaky paratha and stuffed naan arrive at the table fresh and hot, with accompanying raita and chutneys and make a great starter for large group or while waiting for friends.

The staff are pleasant and helpful but not always particularly highly skilled. In conversations with Swamy Akuthota over the years I have come to recognise he and his family are very humble people and magnanimous in the care and support of others. I asked him once how he finds staff and he told me that when someone comes in seeking a job and they really are in need, he hires them. He is also the only restaurateur I know who opens his restaurant on Christmas Day to the needy and lonely and serves a slap up banquet at no charge. Very, very admirable!

Satya never turns away anyone who brings their own wine in, but there is a wine list. Can you imagine the mentality of the diners I spotted leaving the table, rushing along the road to purchase their own BYO bottle and carrying it in clad in a paper bag. Some people just don’t get it! Do try the traditional Indian drinks like lassi, masala tea or south Indian coffee. A meal here is a real treat for those with an adventurous palate and do not be afraid to ask them to go lightly on the spices if you’re wary of hot spicy food.

Satya 17 Great North Rd, Ponsonby ph 361 3612, 57 Mt Eden Rd, ph 551 1000, 515 Sandringham Rd and Karangahape Rd. * First published Ponsonby News

6 June 2013


March 2013

I think I’m pretty good at making whitebait fritters. Mine are simple; puffy little pads chock-full of delicate whitebait bound together with free-range egg, with a simple seasoning of salt and pepper. Everybody loves them, but they fade into insignificance beside the amazing pre-dinner nibble we were offered at The French Café recently; little round toasted sandwiches filled with whitebait. Those managed to be buttery, crunchy and very whitebaitey at once, almost stealing the show from everything that followed for our dinner. But that’s to be expected at The French Café, where the menu is filled with deliciousness and you want to try absolutely everything on offer.

The restaurant has become a flagship dining destination for discerning Aucklanders and it seems like it’s always been there. Under the ownership of Simon Wright and his wife Creghan for more than fourteen years, it’s been kept at the undisputable top of New Zealand’s dining scene, through continual attention and re-invigoration of the business by this talented pair.

It’s a well known fact that the very best restaurants are like this, places that continually work at reinventing themselves. Not changing direction nor completely modifying every single detail of menu and décor. Rather, a canny restaurateur knows how to refresh, tweak and invigorate constantly while retaining the things that loyal customers love best and return again and again for. Just like Simon Wright and Creghan Molloy Wright do at The French Café.

Their latest initiative has been to take over the interior courtyard, together with the building across that space on the far side, creating a lush kitchen garden and their brand new room, The French Kitchen. The garden is filled with fresh-for-the-plucking herbs, vegetable plants and fruit, dictating the direction of the menu rather than ordering in whatever takes the chef’s fancy. And the new state-of-the-art airy separate kitchen has space for dining, cooking demos, parties and events for anything from 10 to 30 people. There are white walls, big glass doors, a great Electrolux modern kitchen, a fantastic pale wooden floor (made from floorboards in the old Orange Coronation Hall where my mother used to dance with Bill Sevesi in the forties), and some well chosen art from Gow Langsford.

Simon Wright will cook exclusively for parties who book this space and there will be wine dinners, special events and more. What there won’t be is distraction from the regular business of the French Café where diners are pampered and looked after with some of the most professional service and deliciously thought out food offered in Auckland.

The restaurant does have an á la carte menu option, but to order from that would be a travesty as diners really need to experience the breadth and depth of Wright’s cooking. For his kitchen team work quietly and confidently to send out food that’s expertly crafted, gently cooked and arranged on the plate so every dish is picture-perfect. There’s a tasting menu of about eight superb courses at $140, a set menu at $100 which offers choices for a three course dinner, the á la carte where you can pick and choose, and an eight course vegetarian menu at $140.

The vegetarian menu will certainly make the editor of the Ponsonby News a happy and satisfied soul! (It’s an interesting comment on the position of Auckland restaurants to note that our very best chefs, Sid Sahrawat of Sidart, Ben Bayley at The Grove, Michael Meredith, Des Harris at Clooney and Simon Wright are all offering superb vegetarian tasting menus. There’s something going on here!)

Many of the dishes appear on all the menus, and those I particularly loved were the kingfish ceviche with crème fraîche, caviar and garden greens, an heirloom tomato, melon and lobster salad with ricotta and a ball of gazpacho granite, and an inspired perfect egg yolk confit on smoked potato with peas and parmesan. Duck has always been my number one choice at The French Café and I positively swooned over a perfect seared duck breast garnished with spiced fresh cherries, parsnip and red wine. It’s lovely food that shows exceedingly complex work behind the scenes and yet when it arrives it is simple to savour and devour.

Desserts, and there are two included in the tasting menus, included a frothy sweet concoction of strawberries, meringue, cream, raspberries and mint, and a chocoholic’s delight that had flavours of mandarin, milk toffee, hazelnuts, malt and, of course, lots of chocolate.

The wine list is extensive and perfectly pitched to the audience. Some guests save up for a once-a-year splurge night out or a special celebration, there are regulars who turn up once or twice a week, and there are those who are willing to travel to the end of the earth for the finest food and wines. So the list offers wines to meet any budget and every single one of them, whether it’s a sauvignon blanc at $58 or a Burgundy at $800 is well chosen. There are also great choices by the glass and every varietal I could think of was there, on the list, from pinot blanc to gruner veltliner.

Service at the French Café has always been both friendly and attentive. And now it’s combined with the theatre of the French Kitchen. It’s a real treat to watch the intensity of Simon Wright and his chef, with their complete focus and concentration on cooking and plating the food, only metres from the tables. Like so many of the alterations, additions and fine-tuning they’ve brought to the restaurant over the years, this new project should catapult them even higher on New Zealand’s restaurant scene. Do not miss The French Café experience.

The French Café, 210 Symonds St, Auckland City T 09 377 1911 Dinner Tues-Sat, Lunch Fri

  • First published Ponsonby News

6 June 2013


Feb 2013

Sometimes, and I have to say they are exceedingly rare times, you encounter service that almost takes your breath away. In the past twelve months, I experienced two dining occasions in New Zealand where this happened. And it may well be significant that both were not your typical Kiwi experiences, nor delivered by locals.

The first was at Herzog, a stunning European-styled restaurant set amongst the vineyards and gardens of the Hans Herzog wine estate near Blenheim in the sunny but windy Marlborough region. The elegant restaurant offers a tasting menu that�s upmarket, completely delicious and perfectly pitched to match the stunning wines crafted by the owner Hans Herzog. Service was decidedly European too, and although kind of formal, the sommelier had a twinkle in his eye and that wry sense of humour. A great evening and as they say, it was �worth the detour.�

The second occasion of amazing service was totally on our doorstep, and �worth the detour� from the Ponsonby Strip, albeit just over to Symonds St. Symonds St, you say? Must be the French Café? (Actually the service is pretty exceptional there too, I must admit.) But no. It was at a small place with a totally unprepossessing street frontage in the strip of shops that extend from Newton Rd towards the Southern motorway where it crosses below Symonds St.

This occasion of amazing service was at Kazuya, and despite a couple of odd reviews, this restaurant remains one of Auckland�s better kept fine dining secrets. Owned by Japanese chef, Kazuya Yamauchi, the menu is French/European with hints of Asia, and a distinct Japanese influence is evident in every aspect of this stunning little restaurant. Kazuya only seats about 24 people, in fairly intimate spaces, and is staffed by very smart Japanese professionals, including the whizz-bang sommelier, Mojo Horiuchi. This is an oasis of style and sophistication where Mr Horiuchi adds a touch of theatre to his extensive knowledge of wine, beverage and food service. He�s gathered the best of French and local wines for an inspired and classy wine list that ups the ante on smart lists around the city.

I reckon that whatever you pay there for the meal, (more of that later) it�s worth going there to order a beer to start; just to see this clever sommelier deliver it, open it, check the clarity of the glass and the temperature, and then pour the golden liquid for you in front of your eyes with flair and panache. I guarantee you have never experienced such amazing attention to detail and style when being served a beer!

Chef Yamauchi offers three tasting menus; a simple $65 menu of five courses, the seasonal $85 menu and a degustation at $125 that must be ordered at least 24 hours in advance. I recommend choosing the seasonal menu, which kicks off with a play on Caprese salad; a delightful concoction of tomato, basil and mozzarella that�s full of textures and intrigue, signalling the care, attention and passion that is poured into every bite emerging from his kitchen.

�Textures� is the signature dish, and the large plate arrives, with more than 30 seasonal vegetables and herbs, artfully arranged and a total visual delight. If there�s anyone that tucks in immediately, they�re in the wrong place as this is like an artist�s palette produced by a chef with a superbly sensory palate. It needs serious viewing before devouring, like any good painting. Yet once started, every tiny bite is there for a reason and is not to be missed.

The menus include Cambridge duck, Wagyu beef, scallops sourced form the chef�s home town in Japan, the wonderful Cloudy Bay diamond clams, the freshest of fish and more. You could order from the á la carte menu, but you�d be crazy to do so. In the past few months I have read a couple of put-downs of dégustation menus by local chef/foodwriters who should know better. Actually, the chef in charge of any given restaurant does know best, and diners should put their appetites in the hands of the master in the kitchen. Kazuya�s menus are an example; perfectly pitched, perfectly balanced and perfectly paced. No-one could leave hungry, nor bursting, and all will have experienced a well-planned evening that includes a variety of carefully sourced and exquisitely treated food that will remain in your head for weeks.

I�m not sure if I would have appreciated my Kazuya experience so much if I hadn�t just returned from Tokyo. In Japan, in fine dining places, in sushi restaurants and even in every casual place we ate, it seemed that everything was ever so carefully and thoughtfully placed on my plate for a reason. So it is at Kazuya. From the moment I stepped in, I knew that this was as close as perfection as I could find. There�s an element of Japan about the place that will have me going back again and again.

Highly recommended for a very special and unforgettable experience.

Kazuya, 193 Symonds St, Newton T 09 377 8537 * First published Ponsonby News

6 June 2013


Dec 2102 It’s all about creating the setting for a fine meal; lighting, soft surfaces and seating that gives diners enough space to feel special. Geoff Scott’s recent revamp of his Herne Bay fine dining restaurant Vinnies ticks all those boxes. There’s thick carpet on the restaurant floor, luxuriously upholstered chairs, dark moody walls and just enough distance between tables so you don’t have to listen to others’ intimate conversations.

But it’s the lighting that’s really special. Small spotlights can adjust to the configuration of the tables so that the light falls on the tables, illuminating the white tablecloths, making menus easy to read and ensuring the food becomes the hero. (That the soft reflected light is quite flattering to the diner was not lost on me.)

Chef Scott was one of the first to jump on the foraging trend. Years ago he’d scour the countryside around Auckland in search of the freshest, ripest vegetables and fruits and new and unusual artisan producers and growers. A menu in a fine restaurant should tell a story and Vinnies’ generously mentions these special suppliers he continues to find, and has such lines as “we love oysters and will only serve live ones, shucked from the closed shell, when you say.” I say bravo!

Another thing that’s not expected, but is always a delight when doing the fine dining thing, is the unrequested treats that emerge unannounced, from the kitchen. In our case it was a miniature milk bottle, to whet our appetites, filled with a creamy potato with a hint of hazelnut soup sipped through a little straw. Then, once we’d ordered, a munificent warm sourdough bread roll with butter and grassy South Auckland olive oil turned up, and later in the meal, the tiniest glass of properly-made blood orange granita. All welcome gifts received with gratitude.

As is the mode, the listings on the menu are a little oblique. Who knows what ‘citrus oil poached gamefish, garlic puree, tapioca and Coromandel scallops’ or ‘buffalo shoulder, sunchokes, papaya white chives, peanuts’ might look like?

Well I know as that’s what we ordered for our entrées. The buffalo shoulder was not the hulking great chunk of meat that my mind had conjured up, but rather a perfect nugget, probably cooked confit style and served with an almost south-east Asian salad of ribbons of green papaya and Jerusalem artichoke, peanuts and a few judiciously chosen herbs, all artfully arranged and dressed. The gamefish was poached tuna, and the tapioca was cleverly flavoured with crayfish – a standout on the list that also included another dish I may return for. ‘Manuka smoked kahawai, pickled mussels, seaweed jelly, granny smith and kiwi mayonnaise’ sounds to me like the ultimate expression of everything that Chef Scott seeks in his pursuit of local and unusual.

Main courses choices were wagyu beef, beetroot and mascarpone risotto (for the vegos, hurrah,) venison, snapper, lamb and wild hare. No birds, interestingly. The portions are not large but they’re perfectly formed and there’s hours of work in the accompanying garnishes, sauces and vegetables. Two dégustation menus are offered. That’s probably a very good way to go here as that’s where real value lies and you get to see the depth of the kitchen’s talent and thoughtfulness. Next time I’d take it as the pace and portioning is ideal, and eating that way introduces a little drama to the evening.

The wine list is a goody. The list is not extensive, but a tight well chosen selection of each varietal. Sommelier and maitre d’ Rachel Haughton has a fine palate and was right on the button with her suggestions of Two Hand shiraz for us. She flits about like an excited butterfly and charms diners with her Scottish lilt, advising and hosting everyone. It was a lively evening; although only half full, the private room was occupied by a business group, and a large table of ten in the restaurant included three nine year-old boys who had been there all afternoon for a cooking lesson. “I made this seaweed jelly,” one proudly boasted.

We finished with a shared dessert, quince and croissant bread and butter pudding with mint ice-cream. It was a delight. The pudding was as light as air and accompanied by a cone filled with minty green ice cream topped with hundreds and thousands and serendipitously plopped upside down onto the plate. I was told one of Geoff Scott’s young sons was handed an ice- cream and immediately managed to drop it on the ground. Amazing where chefs find their inspiration!

Vinnies, 166 Jevois Rd, Herne Bay ph 09 376 5597 * First published Ponsonby News

28 June 2012


There's a new breed of chef, a new breed of restaurant. It's youthful, purposeful and with a focus that's different from the old establishment-type places. And I love it!

We ate at Tin Soldier tonight and everything about the place is right - delicious food that's presented mostly as small plates, kitchen-as-theatre with lots of youthful energy captured by the players attired in smart t-shirts and striped aprons, bright and welcoming casual atmosphere, terrific list of beers and wines by the glass, and best of all you don't need small mortgage to eat there.

Stephen Smith heads the kitchen and he almost knocked me out with his Tin Soldier's Fish Pie - scooped out crisp potato shells filled with very smoky fish with chives and lemon, and topped with a silky potato puree. And so original I wish I'd thought of it. We also loved our other starter plate, the smoked beetroot (lot of smokin' goin' on here!) which turned out to be three varieties of beet with jazz appple, Gruff junction goat's curd and sweet onion. It was fresh, sweet and very interesting.

My master-stock poached poussin was sticky and spicy, as it was served with a fascinating concoction of peanut, chilli and ginger toffee-like popcorn, some fresh shoots with fine julienne strips of green beans and red peppers. Finger licking good, indeed, especially as there was someting resembling fluffy coconut whipped cream in there too. Husband's fish (he always chooses fish) was fresh snapper served on cauliflower cream with caperberries and Serrano ham. "I love surf and turf," he said. Well, yes.

All that, plus a glass of Champagne, a 500ml bottle of Boundary Road Ein Stein Munich style beer, two glasses of wine (Atarangi Celebre & Man O' War chardonnay,) some warm crusty bread and olive oil, and we were out of there for $145. We'll be back, for sure.

Tin Soldier 151 Ponsonby Rd, T 09 378 1719