With its seaside views of Rangitoto, Mission Bay is a pleasant stop for an icecream or fish and chips on the beach, or maybe a glass of something cold on a balcony. But by and large it's never been a culinary destination. So expectations for Black Sugar Grill weren't sky high.
On entering the restaurant, set just off the main drag, the decor did nothing to elevate anticipation but nor were we put off. Soft lighting, creamy yellow walls and a dark wood bar and dining tables help mellow out the concrete floors and black plastic cafe-style chairs. A little oddly, African relief sculptures adorn the walls. But if the interior doesn't scream contemporary cool, it's inviting enough.
The menu reads fairly traditionally but there are enough intriguing elements to lift it above boring - liquorice-scented lamb loin, duck with tamarind glaze.
Some of the entrees seemed on the heavy side and as I planned to get all the way to dessert, I opted for what seemed the lightest of the lot. Gravlax salmon, beetroot and a balsamic glaze arrived with a shot glass of horseradish creme fraiche in the centre and looked a picture. The gravlax process of cold-curing with sugar, salt and dill had rendered the fish smooth and very tasty. I'd probably have preferred a higher ratio of salmon to beetroot but that might just be greed. Despite the large portion of my dinner date's choice of duck livers, with caramelised Spanish onions, pancetta lardons, and burgundy wine sauce served with brioche, all was devoured and declared very nice. But on tasting a mouthful I found the sauce was definitely on the bitter side and it would've been far too rich for me in that quantity.
For mains, I had trouble deciding between that liquorice-scented lamb - which comes with muscovado olives, roasted fennel and celery jus - and the duck. The Gameford Lodge duck breast with roasted shallots with mulled wine pear won out because of its accompanying tamarind glaze - a favourite flavour.
The breast was tender and seasoned well and the sauce, while delicious with its full tamarind hit, was really rich, and I found myself using it sparingly on the meat to avoid losing the duck. My date was in raptures with his main of free-range pork belly with caramel apples, mustard leeks, red wine syrup and crackling, which was, again, a very generous serve. A little tired of that cut of pork, I tried a mouthful anyway and needed another for a second go at that delicious, robust mustard sauce with a hit of sweet apple and meltingly good pork. Mention must be made of the pommes william that accompany the mains - it looks like a crumbed pear but the fork goes in and lo and behold, it's a breaded potato croquette. Fun.
Portion sizes between main choices did seem to vary, with my duck on the smaller side. So I was grateful for our side of steamed veges with lemon oil. Something lighter to balance out those uber rich sauces was a blessing.
The sauces can't have been too rich, however, because we still felt able to fit in pudding. My date went for the tiramisu and loved it for its potent coffee blast, too much for me. I went for the special of choux pastry-battered strawberries, deep-fried and served with icecream. A light, crisp pillow gave way to a burst of sweet berry - divine. My request for a different flavoured icecream seemed no issue. And our wait staff were attentive throughout a busy evening (although we did have to ask for serviettes which had been left off our place settings).
Black Sugar Grill is obviously a popular local option, as looking around at the other patrons, we guessed the median age to be over 50, fitting the area's demographic. It's easy to see why; really tasty food, pretty good value and warm staff. If you find yourself hungry in Mission Bay, you could do a lot worse.
From the menu: Salmon gravlax $17, duck livers $17.80, pork belly $31, duck breast $34, steamed veg $7.50, tiramisu $13.50, deep-fried strawberries $14.50