Herald on Sunday Rating: 4.5/5
Address: 775 New North Rd, Mt Albert
Ph: (09) 815 1885
"What?" said the Professor over breakfast the next morning. "Another ecstatic review? People are going to think you're going soft in your old age." I forbore to mention that she has long since passed the point that the French elegantly describe as "uncertain age" and is less than 10 months my junior. Instead, I shrugged helplessly and said, "I cannot tell a lie".
And she has to take my word for it because she didn't eat at Parkside. She was busy doing whatever it is that professors do when they stay late at work, so I called my mate Andrew and, after a pint or three at Galbraiths, off we went. Parkside is across the road from Rocket Park, named for the tall welded-steel space rocket in the centre of the playground, which was great fun for the littlies to scale before some safety nazi with a passion for creating risk-free childhood got involved.
The premises' previous occupant, a nondescript Chinese joint, never attracted my custom, but the transformation wrought by the proprietors of the new place is striking. Uncurtained windows expose a light and cheery interior to anyone passing and it practically yells at you to come in.
By day, Parkside, which has been open since last winter, is all eggs benedict and pumpkin risotto, but as dark falls it gets down to business as a Vietnamese restaurant.
Vietnamese food has not made its presence felt in Auckland to anywhere near the extent that it should and is sometimes run by non-Vietnamese who serve a bland McChinese surrogate. More fragrant and less fiery than Thai, though still packing a punch when it wants to, and lighter and leaner than Chinese, real Vietnamese is my favourite Southeast Asian cuisine, so new authentic places are always welcome.
The folks at Parkside are the genuine article - chef Billy Dan is a Hanoi native - and our waitress, attentive and courteous but just sassy enough to be fun ("I don't think you should order the summer rolls," she said at one point, with a wink, "because I like the fried pancakes much more") was from Saigon, which she doesn't call Ho Chi Minh City "because it takes too long".
I was keen on the summer rolls, those cool and crunchy rice-paper-wrapped delights that I have always regarded as a compulsory part of a Vietnamese meal, but she was right about those pancakes. The rice flour batter had been quickly fried to a golden-brown crispness, not unlike the South Indian dosa, but the filling was pure Vietnam: zesty, clean tastes in which the braised pork and flash-fried prawn is accented by crunchy beansprouts. The chillies floating in a bowl of nuoc mam, stinky fish sauce brightened by garlic and lemon, sharpened things up a bit.
We'd started with a bowl of pho, the beef broth staple that is a measure of a Vietnamese place, and realised we were in good hands: the meat was lightly poached in the fragrant liquid and a squeeze of lemon juice opened out the flavours.
Parkside styles itself as an upscale neighbourhood eatery - the tables are nicely dressed and the crockery is not plastic - but the food delivery has the feel of a much cheaper place. The only fault I could find with the evening is that the dishes (which are, to be fair, billed as shared plates, not entrees and mains) arrive as and when it suits the kitchen rather than the diner. It added up to a slightly harried experience, as we were constantly having to make room on the table for the next arrival.
But it was hard to grumble, even for me, when what came was so good: a salad of delicately flavoured lotus stem, prawn and Vietnamese mint, so much subtler than its Kiwi namesake; pork belly caramelised to a sugary dark brown by long claypot cooking; small mouthfuls of tarakihi, marinated in turmeric and ginger's more mild-mannered cousin galangal and then quickly grilled and served with cold rice noodles. Perhaps my favourite was a richly sauced casserole of eggplant and large, agreeably leathery cubes of tofu.
Parkside has been open at night (Thursday to Saturday) for just a few weeks and one of the waiters told me they're doing "better than they expected". They're certainly not doing better than they deserve; it was packed the night we went - and rightly so.