Herald on Sunday Rating: 3/5
Address: 207 Symonds St, Newton
Ph: 09 302 3038
Traffic crushes the life out of big intersections. In European cities, roads tend to terminate at civic squares, which are people-friendly spaces. But Auckland's major junctions are blurs of speed, snarls of engine, fugs of fumes.
The place where Symonds St, Newton Rd and Khyber Pass meet was once a neighbourhood, albeit a slightly disreputable one. Newton even has a Wikipedia page, which quotes a 1926 NZ Truth story (it's well worth following the link) as saying that the area is "the haunt of many of Auckland's best-known crooks".
The intersection, where ugly apartments have replaced the old Astor Hotel, is now a red-light pause on a journey somewhere else. How many people passing through notice the architectural gems around the area: the art deco Post Office, now a bar; the Edwardian library, now Galbraith's alehouse; the exquisite wooden Holy Sepulchre Church; or the Orange Coronation Ballroom, the city's top music venue in the 1940s?
If they stopped, they might meet Bill Lattimer of Bungalow Bills guitar shop a few steps down Khyber Pass.
Never mind that he takes the apostrophe from "Bills" and puts it in "ukelele's"; he tells a great yarn and was on first-name terms with the Beatles.
If the Edwardian outlines of the row of shops running down the western side of the street are visible only above awning level, at least they have survived; if you don't realise what a miracle that is, you probably haven't been living in Auckland very long.
Sri Mahkota, one of three in a small chain of Malaysian restaurants (there are branches in Epsom and East Tamaki), occupies the premises that were for years home to Gina's, which has migrated down the hill. The open kitchen has been walled off, though I'm not sure the place is better for it.
Getting the look right in an Asian restaurant is a tricky business, I grant you. At KK Malaysia in Epsom, the decor could most charitably be described as absent and Secret Thai Garden in Otahuhu seeks to reproduce the restaurant at a tropical beach resort. At Sri Mahkota, they have gone for a third option: bland.
The interior, notable only for a pink-and-aqua neon strip around the top of the walls would be irresistibly reminiscent of hotel-chain corridor in Omaha, Nebraska, were it not for the tables and chairs.
I was meeting three mates and had made a booking at Wing Wah Chinese Restaurant in Avondale. But on an exploratory recce to try their yum cha for lunch (it was good without being great, but the place was packed with Chinese people, which is a good sign) I saw they had shark fin on the menu, which is reason enough to deny them my business.
The Malaysian alternative turned out to be much the same - which is to say good, without being great. The menu is helpfully divided by main ingredient - chicken, beef, pork - though the large photos sacrifices exoticism in the interests of efficiency, and seems an unnecessarily food-hall touch.
I was keen to try the Hainan chicken, a dish of Chinese origin but common in Malaysia and Singapore, partly because I'd only recently learned how to cook it.
It involves plunging the chicken in boiling water which is then turned off and left for 15 minutes. The process is repeated several times and the result is a bird both succulent and unfatty. Sri Mahkota's version was sensationally moist, though the unadorned plating (only a dipping sauce) was a disappointment.
The lemon chicken was puzzling - a battered confection that seemed more reminiscent of KFC than the tropics - but it was tasty enough. The chef's version of beef rendang - probably the foremost Malaysian classic - was agreeably spicy but the meat, cubed large as tradition demands, was distressingly dry. However, a dish of pork chop pieces was succulent and the honey sauce delicious.
Online comment suggests we made a bad mistake not ordering the fish head noodle soup, but our choice was wide enough to allow the assessment that this place is only moderately good in a field where there's plenty of competition. I enjoyed the relaxed service - we were plied with tea as we talked for an hour or more after eating - but I suspect this is a place for regulars and people in the neighbourhood, rather than one to seek out.
Cheerful enough, though neither as cheap as or noticeably better than nearby food halls.