Restaurant review: Carmen Jones, Auckland CBD

By Kim Knight

1 comment
Address: 382 K Rd
Phone: (09) 9745500
Rating out of 10: Food: 5, Service: 9, Value: 7, Ambience: 8

Carmen Jones on Karangahape Rd. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Carmen Jones on Karangahape Rd. Photo / Jason Oxenham

He was old and bald and wore ridiculous yellow pants. She was young and slim and minding her own business on Karangahape Rd.

I don't know where she was going, but I knew where he had been: two tables over, sitting outside with a group of men loudly ranking the sexual attractiveness of female passers-by.

It was about to get worse. He was about to bust a series of dance moves even more absurd than his peacocking pants, deliberately blocking the path of the young woman minding her own business. It was sad and tired. It was also, unfortunately, a living metaphor for some of the food we were about to receive.

Carmen Jones is a beautiful addition to K Rd in the refitted space that used to be Kamo Bar. All ochres and reds inside and glossy green tiling on the outside, it offers multiple seating configurations: stools in the window, banquettes, regular tables, intimate break-away areas and a sheltered outside frontage for the see-and-be-seen crowd. The menu promises unfussy cooking with a Mediterranean influence that extends to the decor - candles, succulents and clusters of eclectic art.

The service is outstanding. I'd been here a couple of times before Christmas, initially won over with happy hour bubbly, thick-sliced cauliflower fritters and excellent oven-hot bread and butter. A return visit, with a much larger than earlier-advised work group, was a huge test of the staff's commitment to table service, but they delivered with aplomb, right up until closing.

This place really works as a bar for grown-ups, offering a selection of local, Spanish and other international wines priced at $8-$15 a glass, three craft beers (Golden Lab, Black Dog and Hallertau "Deception" schwarzbier) on tap, cocktails and the obligatory sherry.

Buy sangria by the jug and order more interesting hot chips than usual - french fries served hot dog style with mustard, ketchup and aioli, or the "crackle dawg" version with pork crackling.

Eclectic art is a feature of Carmen Jones. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Eclectic art is a feature of Carmen Jones. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The range of small-plate vegetarian offerings is broader than most (rice, currant and pine nut-stuffed cabbage; baby lettuce cups with a selection of salads, garlic labneh and walnuts).

The ubiquitous prawns and calamari are, respectively, garlicked and Cajun-ed.

In summary, past experience meant I was looking forward to a Tuesday night dinner for two.

But a "smoky" eggplant dip needed to come to room temperature before it revealed any depth of flavour. Slabs of cold-cut ox tongue extended from the organ's fatty root to its visible taste bud tip ("unfussy" yes, but not for the faint-hearted). Seared rare tuna was okay, but the anchovy mayo was garlic-saturated, and the accompanying white bean salad was bland, weirdly watery and - total disaster - contained a hunk of twisted plastic wrap.

The really charming waitress duly chopped the tuna from the bill and hoped our mains would be more satisfactory. They run from pizza and flatbreads (including a mince-topped lahmajun) to chicken schnitzel on sauteed pasta and grilled lamb with a pomegranate, pistachio, apricot and bulgur wheat salad.

The fish special - pan-fried hapuku on cubed pumpkin, potatoes, wilted spinach and buttered walnuts - was exactly as described. Nothing flashy, but the huge slab of fish was moist, the root vegetables cooked to caramelisation and the bitter greens a lively foil.

Across the table, more good news in the form of a massive slab of pork belly: juicy meat, melting fat and properly crackled crackling. But it was served with tasteless, lukewarm pinto beans and a fennel and apple slaw distinctive for its lack of either.

We shared a pretty good frangipane and plum tart (buttery short-crust and tender fuit without being mushy) and declared the evening a mixed bag.

Everything that had been cooked to order was completely delicious. The problem, I think, was the large, pre-prepared components of our choices. Like the man in yellow pants, they were a flaccid version of what a colourful menu had promised.

The bill: $142 for bread and dip, two "smaller" plates, two "bigger", one dessert and four glasses of wine.

The verdict: A gorgeous, well-staffed space for socialising and snacking that needs to up its game in the kitchen.

Bookings: Available for groups of five or more.

- Canvas

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