Let's Eat: A hidden backstreet treasure

By Peter Calder

Queenies
Address: 24 Spring St Freemans Bay
Ph: (09) 378 8977
www.queenies.co.nz
Verdict: Splendid

Manager Bela Grimsdale has taken charge of the look of Queenies Restaurant in Freemans Bay. Photo / Doug Sherring
Manager Bela Grimsdale has taken charge of the look of Queenies Restaurant in Freemans Bay. Photo / Doug Sherring

I'm not sure that regular customers of this excellent eatery will appreciate having attention drawn to it. Tucked away as it is in the back streets near the apex of the triangle formed by Franklin Rd and College Hill, it has the feel of a best-kept secret.

Under the name Queenies Lunchroom, it has operated since 2008, offering much more than the muesli-or-eggs standards. The all-day choices, which currently include such exotic offerings as kedgeree (a fish-and-rice dish of Indian origin that was a popular breakfast in Victorian England) and a prawn-and-sambal omelette, all suggest an inventive approach. But I was drawn by the news that it began in October to open for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday.

It's a lovely part of Freemans Bay, this. When I first arrived in Auckland in 1969, I boarded around here with a widow who had a photo of Michael Joseph Savage above the fireplace. The houses on the lower slopes sat in the shadow of the big black gasometer opposite Victoria Park (there was another up by Howe St).

These were days when the whole area was still a proudly working class neighbourhood, where firebrand unionists and large Pacific Island families rubbed shoulders with university students seeking dirt-cheap digs.

The Queenies building is actually quite new, although it's been artfully designed and constructed to create an old-fashioned impression. Greenery spills from the parapets over the awning and little outside areas give the feeling of a pavement cafe, which is helped by the fact that it's not a main road and the street outside is so wide, it is almost like a small piazza.

The interior is even more charming. Manager Bela Grimsdale has taken charge of the look, which mixes the whimsical, the kitsch and the magical. Her father, the prolific artist and illustrator Murray, has painted some French screens and Tyla Va'eau's massive mural on the back wall riffs on the old paint-by-numbers colouring books that were the zenith of my artistic practice.

Striking touches abound, from little shelves of old-fashioned crockery and a postcard on the counter of a purse-lipped Elizabeth II with her eyes firmly shut to a chandelier sculpture of antlers. It really is a lovely room to sit in and it's easy to imagine yourself in a European back street.

Co-owner (with Allana Owen) and head chef Angus McLean has crafted a menu that lends a fresh and zingy feel to some bistro classics: lemon lifts the musabaha platter of hummus and pickles; pomegranate seeds sharpen a duck confit; around the scallops, a coconut dressing lightly spiced with sambal is balanced by cooling cucumber. The whole sense is of food that is light and healthy but certainly not at the expense of taste.

No forgoing of pleasure is intended, either. That much is plain from the first two lines of the menu, which suggest starting with champagne, with or without the blackcurrant that makes it a kir royale.

Further on, there are only four choices at entree and main stage which, as I remarked last week, is always a good sign. Robert was entranced by a warm salad of puy lentils and asparagus, freshened with a herb vinaigrette and lent a bit of body by pancetta.

The Professor had made a beeline for the house version of the caprese salad (mozzarella and tomato) and enjoyed its variation on the classic recipe: the mandatory basil infused a drizzling oil and caramelised peach added an attractive sweetness. Meanwhile my scallops, local and very fresh, added ginger and coriander to the mix to give it a nice Thai vibe.

Mains were equally impressive: juicy ribbons of skirt steak piled on a potato and kumara rosti became something special with cubes of watermelon and garlic yoghurt; kingfish came with butter beans and cider; pan-fried (and unfortunately misspelled) shiitake and other mushrooms served with crispy polenta were another example of the kitchen's intelligent approach to meat-free cooking.

Desserts included that decadent combination of cream, meringue, rhubarb and strawberries that is called Eton mess, though the way that school spells its name has eluded the menu writers too.

What the hell. This was such a pleasant evening that it made even this spelling nazi smile. A blackboard special might make for some more variety and the complimentary rolls would have been better warm but this place is cemented in my mind for a return visit soon.

- NZ Herald

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