Phone: (09) 360 5050
We spent: $307 for four
Rating out of 10: Food: 8.5 Service: 9 Value: 8.5 Ambience: 9
My friend who knew that pants with elastic at the ankles were a thing before pants with elastic at the ankles were a thing, said Russian food was on fleek.
Of course she didn't say fleek. Fleek is last week. What she did say was that Russian food was having a moment. I was unable to verify burgeoning interest in borscht, but you'd have to be Donald Trump to deny that all things Soviet are, at least politically, en pointe.
So I booked a table for four at Vodka Room. Then I read its Facebook page that promised "themed spaces ... designed on the after-sunset stomping grounds of our homeland and its imperialist culture".
I emailed my companions to apologise in advance: "Please wear a sense of humour under your fur coat."
I'm happy to eat those words. I'm happy to eat every delicious thing I can at Vodka Room and then go back and eat it again. This is the restaurant you didn't know Auckland was missing. Over-the-top without being tawdry, its lush menu and gold-on-gold chandeliered opulence is going to appeal even more when summer properly segues to autumn and it's okay to love carbs again.
Because there's a new dumpling in town - and its name is pelmini. I consulted two food reference books about this ear-shaped bag of steamed deliciousness. One called it "Russian ravioli". Another suggested it was Chinese in origin, spread through Siberia by Mongolian invaders. Tradition dictates a ground meat filling. Here, the stodge of beef was foiled with a spicy kimchi - unorthodox, but excellent. We had the varenki too, a heavier, panfried potato and cheese (maybe a little more cheese next time?) cousin that dripped with butter and onions. Oh, those Russians.
Eastern Europe is synonymous with cabbage and beets. Yes, Vodka Room does borscht. But it also does that other stereotypical staple, the blini ($25). In this case, the thin, salmon-filled pancake was made lighter than usual with the addition of crabmeat. Perfect with a drink.
I counted 64 types of vodka, starting at $10 a serve for 42 Below and Absolut and rising to $16 for the likes of Crystal Head and Roberto Cavalli. It's worth checking the cocktail list - a damson plum caipiroska ($16) got top marks at our table.
The dumplings ($18 for a serve of six) were filling, but we had more eating to do. "Village potatoes" ($10) were the best expression of duck fat and spud I've had in Auckland (sorry, The Grill).
We were grateful for the acidity of a tomato, grapefruit and fennel mix ($12), because wait, there was more! We thought we'd need two "larger" dishes - a $28 mushroom stroganoff-sauced gnocchi and a $20 half-serve of plov (lamb and rice on paper, so, so much more on the palate), but then I saw a murderously long metal skewer of onions, bay leaves and pork belly ($19). We needed that too.
It was all good. In the absence of any comparative Auckland competition in this particular cuisine, we thought much of it was excellent. Some of the field mushrooms in the stroganoff were too dry, but the gnocchi itself was super-light. The pork had been rendered expertly gelatinous, and when the guy at the till told me they were getting late-night customers in just for the falling-off-the-rib-bone lamb and pomegranate studded rice, I wasn't surprised.
Vodka Room offers belly-lining comfort food (with a few twists) and our stomachs were stuffed. Could we get the leftovers to go? "Don't forget the potatoes," said my friend. "If you forget the potatoes, I'll kill you." The waitperson smiled. "You'll have to come back for those." Da!