Viva eating out editor Nici Wickes celebrates the diversity of flavours in the central city.
I love travelling and for me it's always about the food experiences I have. The past four years of making TV food-travel show World Kitchen have afforded me loads of amazing opportunities to immerse myself in a country's cuisine and the culture that surrounds it. I've enjoyed delicious street snacks galore, grabbed on the run between filming, as well as lengthy, fine dining experiences in Michelin-starred restaurants - albeit with a camera in my face - and everything in between. Has it spoilt me? Is it hard coming back to little old NZ? Do I miss being so far from the cuisines of the world when I'm not travelling? Not on your life.
Because being a citizen of Auckland means you can begin your day with a petit dejeuner at a French-style cafe or creperie, then meet up with friends for authentic Chinese yum cha, moving on to a late and long Italian lunch if you wish, before a session where you graze on a selection of traditional, or modern, Spanish tapas, then head off to slurp on some ramen from a local inner-city noodle bar - and that's to name just a few of the choices we can access within the heart of this city of ours. The conglomeration of its restaurants is like a happy collision of cultural diversity. There's no denying that many locales around the world have mind-blowingly great food but sometimes, when I'm overseas and ready for a change of cuisine after say, day seven or eight, I'm out of luck. Three days into a two-week shoot in Mexico, I thought I'd found the best food in the world, but by day nine I was craving something, anything, other than Mexican flavours.
Similarly, on a trip to France, that hallowed ground of cuisine, I gorged myself on flaky croissants, crusty baguettes smeared with soft pungent cheese and rich Lyonnaise dishes until I found myself desperate for something lighter, fresher, spicier - and somewhat guiltily I insisted we all dine at a Lebanese restaurant where we revelled in plates of tabouleh crammed with parsley, grilled meats and sauces spiked with yoghurt, mint and chilli. Aah, the relief of it. In Kerala in the south of India, the film crew and I prided ourselves on ordering the traditional breakfast of masala dosa every morning. And we won the respect of the waiter who often commended us for "eating like the locals". Alas, we eventually disappointed him by breaking our routine, requesting yoghurt, cereals and fruit because we'd had enough, we needed a break, even if just for one day. You see, we New Zealanders are accustomed to eating from a wide spectrum of cuisines and flavours here on our own turf and because of that, my palate unconsciously seeks variety wherever I go. Unhappy to come back to Auckland? Never.
Auckland city is jam-packed with eateries and wandering around of an evening, breathing in the tantalising aromas wafting from the kitchens, can take your tastebuds miles away. Take the area around the Lorne and Kitchener Streets/Auckland City Library/upper Queen St neighbourhood - it's heaving with Korean barbecue and pancake houses, outlets hawking great Chinese, Thai and Malaysian food and Vietnamese joints where the steaming bowls of pho and baguette sandwiches on offer are as authentic as you'll find in the streets of Hanoi. For a modern take on Vietnamese though you'll always find me at Cafe Hanoi in Britomart - they keep one eye on authenticity and the other on making sure the menu sizzles with impressive interpretations of traditional Vietnamese dishes.
For a completely different flavour profile I head to a place where I had one of my first and most memorable encounters with an "ethnic eatery", more than 25 years ago. At 16 I visited the Middle East Cafe on Wellesley St where we dined on flavours that were foreign to my young palate, and from a land where, if the art works on the walls were to be believed, camels roamed free, pyramids jutted up from the sandy horizon and lush clusters of date palms swayed in the breeze. I found it all so exotic and fabulous and when I finally got to travel in the Middle East, some of my fantasies were indeed borne out (pyramids really do exist and camels do roam around) - but I have yet to find a chawarma anywhere that tasted as good as those from the Wellesley St institution. The Middle East Cafe remains almost unchanged but now there's plenty of choice in our city with Ima in Fort St, if it's Israeli food I'm hankering for, or the Mezze Bar in Durham St, as well as a number of other fabulous eateries when I'm after a taste of the Middle East or the Mediterranean.
A few years ago there was a distinct lack of Latin American and Caribbean food in our town but thankfully that gap is being filled by the likes of Besos Latinos in the cobbled confines of Elliott Stables, an enclave for a host of European restaurants, and Atico Cocina and Libertine in Drake St.
Probably testament to Auckland's history of being the gateway to NZ for huge numbers of visitors from Japan (heck I remember growing up in Auckland city when "tourist" was synonymous with "Japanese") our city has countless credible Japanese dining options. With everything from humble sake bars to more formal dining experiences, and dynamic teppanyaki restaurants, if you long for the precise and beautiful cuisine from Japan in Auckland city, the choice is vast. If you have yet to experience Kabuki Teppanyaki in the Stanford Plaza then treat yourself - it's a performance not to be missed. But if it's yakitori, sake or just a simple donburi or bowl of noodles you desire then we're spoilt for choice.
And back to Mexico... though I mentioned earlier in this article that I tired of Mexican food when I travelled there, I certainly recovered and it remains one of my favourite cuisines; luckily we're beginning to see some great Mexican eateries springing up in the city so I can satisfy my craving when I want food that shouts, punches, kicks and screams with flavour and texture.
And did I mention the fine dining, the Indian curry houses, the gelato, the fabulous Italian joints that we have? It is impossible for me to answer the inevitable interview question of "where is your favourite food" but one thing I can attest to and that is that we, in this city of ours, have a veritable world of flavours on our doorstep. The sheer variety is what thrills me the most about Auckland as a cultural intersection of cuisines.
Auckland Restaurant Month launches next week and many central city restaurants are offering special deals, events and menus. It's a great opportunity to try out some eateries you've yet to experience, as well as some of your old favourites. I can't wait!