Restaurant review: Sen, Mt Eden

By Peter Calder

Address: 26 Normanby Rd, Mt Eden
Phone: (09) 630 5790

Sen Vietnamese Kitchen and Bar, Normanby Rd, Mt Eden. Photo / Getty Images
Sen Vietnamese Kitchen and Bar, Normanby Rd, Mt Eden. Photo / Getty Images

Perhaps I was not paying sufficient attention when I visited Vietnam, but I just don't remember being waist-deep in pigs everywhere I went. Chicken, yes; fish, you bet; snake (don't ask). But I can't recall it as being heavy on the pork.

I mention this because at Sen, a place that dances to authentic Vietnamese street-food rhythms, the menu suggests that pork is to the national cuisine what beef is to Argentinian and pickled fish to Nordic. Eight of the nine "small plates and nibbles" contain pork (mostly minced), including dishes that are described as squid cakes but tasted like pork rissoles, and crab spring rolls.

Making matters wincingly worse is that the pork is not free-range. I'd asked about the pigs' life before the mince stage, because, without being obsessive about it - I'd never eat dim sum again if I were - I reckon that any halfway upscale eatery ought to source cruelty-free chicken and pork.

Our waitress was quite unapologetic as she gave us the bad news but she was so down-to-earth and unaffected about it, it was impossible to object.

It's a rare skill being relaxed and friendly without getting in diners' faces and she nails it.

Sen is the four-month old reincarnation of the pan-Med tapas place C.A.C (which was named for the heritage bluestone building's former life as an ammunition factory; the information board outside is a good read). It has not been much fiddled with because there's not much to fiddle with. Cane lampshades and greenery add atmosphere in the mezzanine-level dining area, where couches have been deployed to make for booth-style eating.

And, the provenance of the meat aside, that eating is mighty fine. Auckland's long-overdue explosion of Vietnamese cuisine in recent years has set the bar pretty high but at Sen, the new venture by the people behind Parkside in Mt Albert, they clear it with ease.

I thought the bowl of pho, the noodle soup that is the national dish, was a little mean for the price, and it could have used some herbs, but the broth was rich and deep. The summer rolls (they held the pork) were fat and crunchy, though, and the fragrant vinegary dipping sauce was spot-on.

Braised pork featured in the banh xeo, the rice-flour stuffed pancake that is another street-food classic. I was glad of that: the combination of the rich meat, the delicate prawn and the crisp sprouts was a winner. And professional duty required me to park my principles and check out the pork belly dish, big fatty layered cubes in a dark, rich broth.

Desserts are only so-so: the puffed black rice is the pick of the bunch, particularly since the lotus pudding is actually a passionfruit number now, no matter what the menu says. But in general, this place gives the more fabled Vietnamese eateries around town a run for their money. Check it out.

Dishes $9-$27.50

Verdict: A superior Vietnamese newcomer, though not for the pork-averse.


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