As Viva turns 15, a fully fledged teenager of sorts, I am a toddler by comparison, having held this post of critiquing Auckland's dining scene for a mere fifth of that time. Last week though, was my own real birthday and instead of eating out, I chose to eat in. My family gathered around a large dining table and we feasted on a simple meal of rich bouillabaisse served with warm, crusty bread. It was magnificent. What we ate, however, is not the point here, what our conversation centred around is. We found ourselves enthusiastically reminiscing about the Auckland restaurants we've enjoyed over the years and the dishes that have endured in our memories came from unexpected quarters as often as they did from the expected.
To mark Viva's 15th birthday, here are the 15 dishes I continue, like a lovesick teenager, to hold a candle for. Some you will recognise and consider befitting of a restaurant critic I'm sure, and others may well surprise you, but dining, like any art, is personal after all.
My first choice comes from Cobb & Co. That's right folks, if you ever had the pleasure of one of their loaves of "homemade" bread, served straight from the oven, you will know what I'm talking about. They nailed it with these warm, pillowy soft beauties, each individual loaf served on its own wooden chopping board. There is nothing like food of this kind, which tantalises the nostrils before the tastes buds, to leave a lasting impression. Fast forward quite a few decades, the next dish I will always hold a candle for is O'Connell St Bistro's chicken liver parfait. Whipped to a light fluffiness, rich and unctuous in flavour, on the night I first tasted it, it came served with cake-like brioche, some crisp, tart cornichons and a dollop of sweet pear chutney. Unforgettable.
More recently, there are three dishes that I can't get out of my mind - Depot's sugar pie, the beetroot and duck "sandwich" at Merediths and, as if to prove that the best dishes do not always have to come from the high-end eateries, the butter prawns at KK Malaysian. All three dishes have in common the element of surprise.
In defiance of its name, the sugar pie is not cloyingly sweet but instead it is light and airy and tastes like a happy childhood. Michael Meredith's decision to introduce a course where diners must abandon the cutlery, instantly busts apart any preconceived notions of "fine dining" and engages the diner immediately in interacting with the food, in this case, by popping a bright purple meringue into one's mouth to have it collapse like candyfloss, releasing flavours of beetroot, duck and pecorino. A staggeringly good experience. At KK Malaysian there are no airs and graces whatsoever but the food flashes with brilliance. Butter prawns are served resplendent in their bright pink shells and scattered with chopped chilli, curry leaves and a most extraordinary garnish of fried milk and egg that adds the most thrilling, unexpected texture to the dish.
Unfortunately my memories will have to suffice for these next two dishes as the establishments have long since closed their doors. Westy's Restaurant (ok so it was in Queenstown, not Auckland) opened an important culinary door to me in the late 80s. They served a baked apple entree, with a stuffing of minced pork and green peppercorns, and the hot sharp flavours exploded in my mouth. A student at the time, I knew that this was the kind of imaginative food that I wanted to be able to afford more of. Anglesea Bar & Grill in Ponsonby was unbeatable and I've yet to find a bouillabaisse to rival their glorious tomato broth, thickened with a mayonnaise all fired up with garlic and chilli, and packed full of the freshest seafood you could wish for.
I consider pasta the ultimate comfort food and I've never tasted better than the pappardelle with lamb shank ragu that they serve at Delicious on Richmond Rd. Nor can I go past the spaghetti alla puttanesca at Prego, a salty kick to be sure.
A dish from the kitchen at Clooney well and truly seduced me one night. Baked then bruleed, the deep seductive flavour of a foie gras custard was brightened by scattered slivers of crisp granny smith apple. It was giddily good.
Then there are simple dishes that, in their country of origin, qualify as street snacks, yet the impression they leave is as lasting as the most sophisticated of dishes. In this category I'd count the zingy dahi puri at Satya, the meltingly delicious shaking beef at Cafe Hanoi, the succulent grilled prawn skewers at Ken's Yakitori and the smoky bruschetta at Coco's Cantina. Simple and divine.
The final dish leaves me with a dreamy smile whenever I think of it. Soft in texture, it seems to cloak you in its warm comfort; cheesy beyond belief, if reminds me of the piping hot mousetraps we made after school as teenagers; involving more than a few saucepans to make it, I'm happy to leave the washing up to the professionals. I'm talking about the twice baked goats' cheese souffle at the Engine Room. It never fails to bring me immense pleasure. And that, my friends, at the end of the day, is what eating out is all about. Pleasure, pure and simple.
Do you have any favourites not featured on this list? Which restaurant's dish would you encourage others to get a taste of, and why?