The much-awaited downtown retail and hospitality precinct finally opened its doors last week. The hospo offerings have been hyped for years – so where should you head first?
It’s been a bit of a construction eyesore for a while now, but downtown Auckland’s waterfront area finally has its new shiny toy: Commercial Bay. Slats of wood, swathes of glass and handsome grey tiling house high-end New Zealand designer stores like Yu Mei and twenty-seven names, plus imports like COS and Tommy Hilfiger.
The shopping centre officially opened on June 11, just two days after alert level one came into effect. The vendors must have breathed a sigh of relief after a tricky lead-up to the big day – they suffered through delay after delay, made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic – but, luckily, Aucklanders seem to be loving it so far. Just last week, reports came back that central-city foot traffic was down 40%, so a boost is desperately hoped for, and desperately needed.
And that’s what Commercial Bay is apparently providing. Within the first four days almost a quarter of a million visitors streamed into the mall, with 64,000 on the first Saturday. It hasn’t been all smooth-sailing, though, with Black Lives Matter protestors holding signs turned away at the door (centre management swore it was a misunderstanding) and an economic recession looming over the initial boom.
Part of the hype can be attributed to the variety of food outlets within the precinct, including high-concept restaurants, casual eateries and takeaways joints, from a polished bar set inside menswear store Rodd & Gunn to the newest Burger Burger – killer harbour view on the side. Most of them can be found in Commercial Bay’s answer to a food court, the 650-seater Harbour Eats, which on the day we visited was elbow-to-elbow with people grabbing food at places like Sunny Town, Wise Boys Burgers and Fatima’s, all of which cater for quick lunch-break stopovers.
While many are second or third outlets, there are some that can be considered brand new, whether the first of their kind or the first in New Zealand. And with more than 35 of them, there are a lot on offer, so here’s a little round-up of what caught our eye.
If you’re even a bit familiar with New Zealand organic coffee roasters Kōkako, this little rocketship of a bar – snuggled around the corner after you walk in from the PwC tower’s pedestrian bridge – is immediately recognisable as theirs. It’s painted in Kōkako’s royal blue and complemented by cool cedar, with a speckled counter exterior made from over 8,000 recycled milk bottles.
Opening was a bumpy ride: the head fit-out contractor went into liquidation mid-project, adding to the stress of delays and compounded budgetary concerns. Still, this flagship conceptual coffee bar is the most interesting caffeinated joint in the mall, with a long list of thoughtful touches, like a station to wash your KeepCup and a Modbar (in-built coffee machine) facing seats so a barista can freely chat while making your brew.
We like that it introduces something new with transparency and sustainability at its centre; the only dairy milk used for coffees is creamy jersey milk from Jersey Girl Organics (no trim, God forbid) which is stored in a refillable dispenser and produces a richer cup. There’s also a focus on alternatives to the traditional latte or flat white, with a variety of soft brew methods, single-origin decaf and the unique Cascara flight, featuring products (a jelly, cold brew and kombucha) made from the dried skins of coffee cherries.
We first heard about Gochu over a year ago now, thanks to the buzz created by owners Oliver Simon and David Lee after they opened Parnell Korean-fusion cafe Simon & Lee together a few years back. The elevator pitch is “modern Korean with natural wine”, and it is that: not too serious, exciting, and a kind of cool Los Angeles sensibility in its plating and style.
The menu is heavily inspired by head chef Jason Kim’s Korean childhood, reimagined using New Zealand ingredients, which is obvious in dishes like Gochu’s take on mul hwe, using kingfish and dressed with shallots and tart apple, not in soup broth as is traditional. The charred chicken with gochujang and comte (cheese) alchemises into sticky, indulgent goodness, a definitive pairing which completely sweeps your palate: spice and umami.
One of Gochu’s desserts, bingsoo, is a version of a Korean shaved ice dessert, seen before in Auckland Asian dessert houses like Chancery Square’s Snowman Cafe. Gochu’s iteration is familiar, but not entirely similar: the shaved ice is more delicate and soft, giving way to a centre of dulce de leche, its richness calmed by all the ice. Pretty tasty.
AvroKO Hospitality Group
The Poni Room, Ghost Donkey and Liquorette
American hospitality is on full display at Commercial Bay, with the AvroKO Hospitality Group opening four of its award-winning bars and restaurants here in Auckland (Saxon + Parole, a steakhouse and cocktail bar, will open later in the year). Overseen by Michelin-starred chef Brad Farmerie, each has a different concept, but AvroKO is also a design firm, so you can be assured that at the very least all four places will look damn good.
Rosé-centric – think on tap, in self-serve bottles and signature cocktails – with a seafood-focused menu, The Poni Room’s fantasy decor aims to “evoke feelings of being tucked into a coral reef”. The whole thing is billed as an Asian-inspired American izakaya, flavours hailing from Japan, China, South-east Asia… or wherever, really. The menu is irreverent and a bit disjointed (prawn and shiitake dumplings in a tom-yum broth sit beside a tofu with truffle gochujang sauce), with a mix of small and larger plates, but united by a sense of playfulness and appetising buzzwords that make us want to try everything, if only for the novelty. I mean, truffle gochujang?
Ghost Donkey is a Mexican mezcal and tequila bar, all vibrant and neon lights. Its overseas counterpart has won a couple of big-time awards – Imbibe’s 2020 Cocktail Bar of the Year, for example – and is helmed by mixologist Nacho Jimenz. The spirits are served in cocktails, handmade copitas (for sipping mezcal, usually) or shot glasses, accompanied by some salt varieties. Finger-food, like nachos, is paired with non-traditional creations like carrot-chipotle chilli, while the rest of the menu is split into tacos and not-tacos, including ceviche and churros. Sold.
The idea of cocktail culture can sound a little intimidating, but all-American Liquorette aims to shake it up (ha) and loosen the concept of a regular cocktail bar. Pride of place: their Cha-Chunker device, which widens the opening holes of cans, inserting a mini bottle of liquor at its neck to dramatise the making of rum and cokes or gin and tonics… we can see the Instagram stories now. There’s on-tap batch cocktails and self-serve fridges of beer and wine, all with a focus on fun and accessibility which opens late into the night.
Don’t forget the ramen (Daruma Ramen); dumplings (Foo Du); hot dogs (Good Dog Bad Dog); Taiwanese fried chicken (Kai Eatery); empanadas (South American Oven); vegan baking (Tart Bakery); iced tea (Hitea); and, on the horizon, Ben Bayly’s New Zealand cuisine restaurant, Ahi. There’s a full list of bars and eateries here.
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