It starts streetside, with the blink-and-you'll-miss-it signage. Inside, an old-school overhead projector beams confirmation you're in the right place. Head up the stairs. The bannister is solid and ancient; the slashes of neon tube lighting against white brick walls are not.
You haven't spoken to a soul, you haven't even looked at the menu. Already, you are certain you are in the city's coolest new restaurant.
Kyle Street and Jordan Macdonald are ex- The Depot and Fed Deli. They know how to feed Aucklanders. But what they're doing here is surely the end-game every chef dreams of: cooking whatever they want and sending it out, yum char-style, on trays and trolleys. Take it or leave it. We, of course, took it all.
Quiz your friendly waitperson about how to order and how much you'll pay. We would never have independently figured out that those discreet numbered wooden blocks were actually the price per dish.
To make matters more confusing, there is also a menu with oysters, entrees and a handful of mains. You're encouraged to order off that to ensure at least a couple of dishes you really want. Turbot with crispy chicken skin, chicken gravy, grapes and crispy kale ($30) was superior comfort food, but we'd shown zero early restraint and were too stuffed to fully appreciate the $38 pork-stuffed Peking duck (mixed reviews: two out of three diners said they would come back for more).
Honestly, what you'll really keep coming back for are those random kitchen offerings, that range in price from $3-$12 a plate. For us, the tone was set early with a salty-spicy steak tartare served with waffle-cut potato crisps and a sour cream panna cotta. Taken together as a single mouthful, the effect was the cleverest burger and chips you'll eat in this burger and chips-obsessed town.
A parade of good things followed. Pumpkin and duck tortellini served in a small crystal glass (so cute!) with an extraordinarily savoury roasted duck bone stock. A chunk of smoked kahawai cooked into an almost crispy blini. Heirloom tomatoes and in-season asparagus. A kingfish kokoda cut with tiny squares of sour jelly.
Actually, even before all of that, there was celeriac with sesame lavosh. The menu described it as "koha". A gift from the kitchen. Suddenly the phrase "amuse-bouche" seems hopelessly outmoded and completely inappropriate for a kitchen in this part of the world. That's the thing about Culprit. It gives you things you didn't even know you were missing. That "yum char", for example, is really a degustation - minus a 45-minute tableside explanation and matching wine. Smart, but not smarmy.
Why not score a perfect 10? A crumbed, fried liver was, in contrast to what had come before it, inelegant and gummy in the mouth. And after that tartare-tortellini exquisiteness, dessert was ordinary.
In my opinion, Antarctica, Deep Space or three days into the Heaphy Track are the only places you should be subjected to freeze-dried fruit, and its presence was unnecessary in a tangelo trifle ($8). Just a trifling complaint really, in the grander scheme of a grand eating experience.