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Auckland between Christmas and mid-January is a wonderful place to be: the streets are sparsely used by people lucky or smart enough to avoid the queues of traffic heading north and south. The downside is that it can be tricky finding somewhere good to eat out.
So Soul it was: for more than 15 years, this 363-day-a-year veteran of the Viaduct has watched the competition bloom and wilt and die. The interior and the menu were refurbished in the spring and, as we had not been since 2005, a return visit seemed in order.
Soul's website describes the Viaduct as "the entertainment heart of New Zealand's largest city", which seems to me to overstate its merits, but I suppose it rather depends on what you regard as entertainment. It's been a pretty hit-and-miss dining destination in my experience.
It occupies a prime possie in the corner of the precinct and announces itself with a spectacular display of white flowers in hanging baskets (petunia, impatiens, snapdragons and more) over the terrace, which is where you should sit if you possibly can: in the westering sun, it's the ultimate Auckland city dining spot.
We were attended to by a terribly enthusiastic waitress, whose voice could certainly have earned her a job as a foghorn on wintry nights in the Rangitoto Channel and who filled our glasses with a frequency and enthusiasm that made me wonder whether there was an impending drought I hadn't heard of and she was determined to ensure that we left adequately hydrated.
I know I should long ago have given up objecting to the nauseating habit ("Can I get you another bottle?") of upselling the highest-mark-up commodity on the premises but it's my natural inclination and my job to complain about something, so there it is.
For those with long memories, the menu has preserved three Soul standards: the seafood chowder (in a proper tureen), salt-and-pepper squid, and whitebait fritters. I was sorely tempted by the last of these, though I doubted they'd have that pillow-soft Tip Top or similar white bread out the back, which is kind of compulsory with whitebait fritters, so we turned our attention to the main event.
There's a good vegetarian selection (a dozen dishes; half a dozen sides) and at the other end of the, er, "if it moves, kill it and eat it" spectrum, meat eaters get a decent treatment including a pork belly schnitzel that sounds as irresistible as it does cardiologically perilous.
We steered a middle course, opting for a selection that emphasised fish - it just seems the right thing to do in that part of town. Distracting the Professor's attention from the substantial oyster section, I managed to interest her in a crudo of trevally, a richly flavoursome fish that has made its presence felt on menus in recent years after long being undervalued as bait.
The crudo, a concept that is equal parts sashimi and ceviche, came with small segments of pink grapefruit and shavings of jalapeno pepper with a wasabi cream and was just the business, particularly paired with a modern take on the old shrimp cocktail - juicy chunks of scampi with lime, mild pepper and topped with a lattice of carrot, shredded as fine as saffron and deep-fried to sensational crispness. A big zucchini flower, bulging with creamy ricotta completed a good opening.
I remember being deeply disappointed with a Caesar salad on a previous visit to Soul and saying so at some length in print. I wouldn't presume to claim any credit for the fact that the one they're serving now is the state of the art: the croutons are luxuriously oily, the anchovy dressing tangy and the fine dust of parmesan adds a great top note.
Main courses proved the merits of the house policy of sourcing the best ingredients and doing as little as possible to spoil them. A generous slab of snapper, crisp skin uppermost, recalled that Provencal fish stew called bouillabaisse: heirloom tomatoes swam in a fishy broth with the garlic-chilli paste called rouille getting in on the action. The Professor showed fine dissection skills with a whole flounder done in caper butter.
I've run out of space to recommend the showy but excellent desserts, other than to say they will not disappoint. It's a pleasure to report that this teenager is still a star.
Starters $18-$28; salads $15-$35 (crayfish); mains $28-$56; desserts $16.50.