We had just been staying in a holiday town where the best restaurant, we were told, was Asian. It turned out to be an absolutely standard place with an absolutely standard bill of fare just like, sadly, rather too many of its counterparts in Auckland. It wasn't bad but so predictable that the menu practically bored us to sleep.
So in the hunt for a little more variety we headed off to the Viaduct and drifted into Monsoon Poon. This describes itself as a trading house restaurant and the idea is that it draws on cooking from all over Southeast Asia. The dishes themselves tend not to be hybrids, which is almost certainly a good thing, but there is an arsenal of options reflecting the diversity of the food from this large chunk of the planet. The unifying factor, if there is one, is the ubiquity of spice, which even the most Eurocentric of us now take for granted.
The signature dish which has been around from the first days of this Auckland offshoot of a Wellington enterprise is the "firecracker chicken" which is rubbed in Malay chilli spice and is apparently seriously hot. From Vietnam there is the "shaking beef" cooked in the wok with garlic, red onions, scallions and a lime sauce. South India is represented with a venison curry, although I didn't realise deer were a major part of the South Indian food scene.
Then there's Bali with prawns cooked with green beans, zucchini, broccoli and red peppers in a green coconut sauce. There are Singapore and Bangkok noodles and a Peking duck salad. You get the idea - you would be hard pressed not to find something that appealed.
We decided to be ludicrously cross-cultural with our first courses, mixing Vietnamese spring rolls with aloo naan and "imperial lettuce cups." All three were good. The crab, prawn and fish filling for the lettuce was full of taste, the spring rolls had that freshness of flavour that you look for in Vietnamese food, while the naan bread had a decent spiced potato filling and a lively mango chutney.
These three would have made a respectable meal and you can easily get out of Monsoon Poon well fed without too much damage to the pocket. But we soldiered on with a couple of main courses, the classic Indonesian beef rendang and the Sichuan claypot of vegetables including zucchini, eggplant and tofu in a hot bean paste. The rendang was reasonable without being memorable and the claypot was a little disappointing. It did have a little after-bite but was lacking in real character.
There are desserts but we felt unable to tackle such delights as sago pearls in coconut cream with palm sugar syrup.
You could, I suppose, have assembled such a meal in a food hall but the surroundings would have been rather less pleasant. This place is decorated with a distinctive and attractive jumble of artefacts justifying the trading house tag. The service, too, beats that of the food hall, being helpful, efficient and cheerful.
The cheerful label is perhaps the best way of summing up Monsoon Poon. It's fun and noisy with a good drinks and cocktail list, again appropriately reminiscent of those hot and steamy holiday destinations. It's not a place for the intimate supper, although the side room where we sat with its interesting view of the flyover was mainly devoted to tables for two. But if you wanted a venue for a mates' meeting this place would be worth putting on the list.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: Three starters, two mains, two beers and two glasses of wine set us back $119.
Our wine: A good selection with plenty of beer and cocktail options. My Galbraiths Munich lager was not exactly Southeast Asian but went well with the food the Spy Valley sauvignon blanc and Hunters gewurztraminer were dependable.
Verdict: Plenty of variety and honest food in a bustling but welcoming atmosphere.