: 12 Jellicoe St, Auckland
(09) 969 6986
Miss Clawdy, a new restaurant that deals in soul-food and Mexican standards, describes itself as "a walk-in restaurant". Having heard "walk-in" applied only to refrigerators, pantries and wardrobes, I was puzzled by this. Are there any restaurants, apart from drive-in restaurants, that you don't walk into?
What they mean, of course, is that they don't take bookings, but it's bad form to use words like "no" and "don't" in the hospitality business.
I thought I would try to game the system by calling when we were only a few minutes away and asking how long we could have to wait for a table. No wait at all, they said. We can seat you right away. So we swooped.
The maitre d' winced and peered about the place and said it was looking like 30 or 40 minutes at least. Now I am not saying that the initial promise of immediate seating was mendacious. As a connoisseur of bad luck, I find it entirely unremarkable when 40 unrelated couples descend on an empty restaurant while the Professor is parking the car. What I am saying is that if you think you can just walk in to this walk-in restaurant on a Friday evening, you are almost as stupid as I am.
I should add that the maitre d' was apologetic, welcoming and extremely courteous and found us a spot under heaters on the terrace, right next to a large window through which we could order straight from the bar. I made use of the time getting acquainted with the wine on tap. This rustic habit I first encountered at Al Brown's Depot and it is good to see it catching on: the Marlborough sauvignon blanc, Fat Tuesday, at $8.50 a glass and $25 for 500ml, is a perfectly acceptable pre-dinner quaffer.
By the time we were finally shown to a table - one of the high ones, with stools, which has a certain dignity-risk factor and argues against excessive use of the Fat Tuesday - we were faint with hunger. Fortunately, we had come to the right place.
The logo on the menu promises food of "South and Central Americas"; I suspect they mean the American South and Central America ("Dixie and Mexico" has a ring to it). There's nothing too unfamiliar here, though I had not heard of hushpuppies, which are deep-fried balls of cornmeal. As a judge summing up would say, you may think this doesn't sound appetising.
The menu begins with a selection of po' boys, the Louisiana submarine sandwiches, classically of fried shrimp or oyster. I ordered one of deep-fried battered oysters and asked them to hold the bread, and the result, though doubtless sincere, seemed a waste of good oyster to me, even with a dipping mayo of chilli and lime. The other options, of beef cheeks or pulled pork, look more promising.
The tacos (open-faced and soft-shell) were a different matter: one of grilled fish with the vivid sauce of tomato, onion and chilli that Mexicans called pico de gallo (rooster's beak) was terrific, as was another that used pumpkin, lentils and zucchini without tasting even slightly virtuous.
A salad of prawn and green papaya was a light and summery concoction but could have done with a heavier hand: the Professor's mate said "it would taste better with chilli and maybe some lime" and was astonished when I said that it was billed as containing both. The same fault afflicted a superbly fresh ceviche of snapper, which used coconut milk - something no Mexican ceviche-maker would dream of. It lacked the mandatory bright bite, though the shallots were a nice touch and the coriander was beautifully pungent. The jambalaya was also excellent, though the tiny fragments of crayfish leg, which looked like body parts scattered over the road after a bad car accident, just made you notice what was missing.
The real disappointment of the evening, though, was the desserts: a rhubarb-and-pear cobbler (like a crumble), the topping of which was gloopy and undercooked; dark chocolate cookies and icecream that seemed to have escaped from a soda fountain in Nowheresville, Ohio, in 1966; and a soft meringue pie of key lime which was very possibly authentic but bland and characterless.
In all, there's some work to be done here, but there is plenty of promise. Bottles of good chilli sauce on the table are no substitute for a bit more adventurousness in the kitchen.