It’s Restaurant Month in Auckland and the theme is Eat Odd. Simon Wilson, a more than occasional odd eater himself, identifies a favourite top ten food experiences you might not have tried.
Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Korean, Turkish, Cajun. High-end dining: Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Lebanese, Spanish, Maori. Unusual fish. Truffles. The best of the best: that whole fine-dining degustation thing. Maybe you have or maybe you haven’t, but if you’re interested in eating out, Restaurant Month is a great time to do it. Dozens of restaurants in the central city are offering specially priced meals, for lunch and/or dinner; there are also many special-event dinners. You can pay less than usual and try something new; or you can splash out for something really rather special.
Here’s my list: ten top places to eat in August.
1. The Kimchi Project
Despite its name The Kimchi Project in Lorne Street isn’t an ongoing investigation into the far-reaching possibilities of fermentation. In an elegant modern setting with a lovely big semi-enclosed courtyard out the back, TKP serves “Asian-insired” Korean food, especially but not only Korean and with a big dash of contemporary Kiwi: tempura chicken bao (that’s a bun), chargrilled ginger and hoisin pork ribs with a grilled corn cob and pickles. Big on flavour and with a friendly nod to authenticity. If you’re after a more traditional Korean experience, try the nearby Pocha, where the clay pot comes with fish roe and octopus.
When I reviewed Beirut in Fort Street, a bit less than two years ago, I wrote: “What I like: comfort and style, where you don’t sink into a banquette that’s too low for the table and are not sitting so close to the people next door you can hear their conversation more easily than your own. A welcome that’s so warm and friendly you never once think the staff might be competing with the customers to see who’s cooler.
“Cheap cocktails that taste delicious all the way to the bottom of the glass, as opposed to the drink lasting just a few sips before all that’s left is the slowly melting ice. A wine list that will tempt you with something new, by the glass, for a decent price. Food you haven’t tried before, and every dish looking far more beautiful than you imagined, and tasting, every single mouthful, absolutely glorious. And at the end of it all, a bill that’s smaller than you feared.
“I’m not a fantasist. I’ve been to Beirut.” The food is Lebanese, but not as you know it.
Cassia in Fort Lane is the second restaurant of star chef Sid Sahrawat. He conceived it as an informal place to present his versions of Indian dishes, complementing the European-styled fine dining of Sidart in Ponsonby. And indeed, that’s what it does, beautifully. But Cassia has become more than that: a benchmark in this city for what you might call new fine dining. Informality rules in the décor, the service, even the clothes of the staff, but the food is conceived with imagination, cooked with enormous skill and presented exquisitely. Cassia has won the Metro Peugeot Restaurant of the Year supreme award for the last two years running, and its Restaurant Month offer of six dishes for $90 provides a great chance to find out why.
4. Street Eats
It’s the annual event that brings us the best food in one place and brings the biggest crowds to our best public space: Queens Wharf. Street Eats with Holden Spark is a true culinary extravaganza: the city’s restaurants serving their own food all together under one roof, along with the best food trucks and outdoor stalls, lots of great entertainment, and the delights of the big old wharf itself, including the Michael Parekowhai sculpture house with the giant Captain Cook down the end. And all of it in the breezy sunshine of an Auckland day in spring. Well, it might happen!
Sherry with your dinner? You know you want to, and it’s hard to think of a better place than Bellota in Federal St for doing it. Start with the flinty robustness of something dry (fino or manzanilla), move on to the nuttier amontillado or the semi-sweet oloroso, and finish with a little glass of liquid Christmas cake – Pedro Ximenez is the most famous of these. If you’re doing this, don’t start with food choices and try to match: tell them you want tasting glass sizes of the wines and ask them to match tapas and pintxos dishes to each glass.
6. Dinner by Bike
There are so many advantages to a progressive dinner: you get to sample more than one restaurant, stretch your legs between courses, find someone new to sit with for the next course. Restaurant Month has several progressive dinners, but this is the only one with the added attraction that you do the leg stretching on your bike. It’s on twice more, on August 15 and 22, and it offers, in addition to the food and the company, the chance to ride some of the city’s bikeways and public spaces in a group and gain a different sense of the city. BYO bike.
7. Taste of Māori Fine Dining at The Sugar Club
Yes, you are allowed to eat pigeon. Provided you do it at The Sugar Club on top of the Sky Tower on August 30, where they’ll be serving it with piko piko, the curled shoots of young ferns. On a programme packed with special events, this is one of the most special. Chef Monique Fiso has worked at the top NZ-related restaurants in New York (Peter Gordon’s Public and Matt Lambert’s The Musket Room) and chef Morgan McGlone is from Sydney’s South American-themed Belles Hot Chicken. They’re teaming up with The Sugar Club’s Neil Brazier, not to reinvent the hangi, but to explode the very idea that Māori food must be hangi food.
8. The Little Things in Life at Scarecrow
In the shops, we buy tarakihi and gurnard. On the water, we fish for snapper, kahawai and kingfish. But what about all the other fish in our waters? What about the little fish that no one bothers with, the garfish and all their friends? Scarecrow on Victoria Street is celebrating the less-known small-is-beautiful bounty of our oceans – the event is booked out but get yourself on the waiting list, because you never know.
It’s not so long since chef Nic Watt returned home from London to open Masu, the Japanese restaurant on Federal Street that raised the bar for full-flavoured and exquisitely presented Japanese food. Now he’s gone over the road, into the SkyCity building itself, to team up with executive chef Jeff Tan and do it all over again with Chinese food. Duck is the menu star, done several ways, although the true measure of the place is likely to be in a less spectacular but more fundamental dish like XO chilli fried rice with shrimp and squid. Huami has a special offer right through Restaurant Month and a special taste-the-regions night on August 23 . (It’s sold out now but they might let you get on a waiting list.)
10. Vue restaurant and Attica bar
The best venue with a view in Auckland? There aren’t as many to choose from as you might think, but Vue and Attica are right up there. So to speak. The restaurant and bar on top of the Grand Mercure hotel on Customs Street have the feel of elegant secret spaces, with fantastic views of the harbour and fascinating sight lines down to the rooftops of the city centre. The cocktails are fine and the food’s good too: their offer for Restaurant Month is a three-course meal for just $60.
The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.