The challenge in selecting a restaurant to review, from the hundreds of possible options, is to try and at least be in the ball park for what I imagine you, our esteemed readers of Viva, will enjoy. For this reason I steer clear of chain restaurants, am quick to leap on any newbies that look to be fabulous and have a great team behind them, and I keep my ear well to ground for snippets from trusted sources about who is doing what where because, let's face it, Auckland is a sprawling city and I can't afford the gas to get me everywhere. I also try to cover more than just the central city enclaves in an attempt not to become closed-minded about where all the good places to eat are. So, a few of these guidelines lead to a local Turkish restaurant, Paasha, in Pukekohe where I'd heard they had imported (okay, from Invercargill) a spectacular wood-fired oven from which they were turning out some wickedly good flatbreads, Turkish pizza and shish kebab. Recalling the fabulous flavours of Istanbul, where mezze platters of dips, grilled meats and soft, olive oil drenched vegetables were followed by syrup-soaked sweet pastries I was looking forward to the excursion.
Now it came as no surprise that Sunday night in Pukekohe bore little resemblance to any night in Turkey but at least we were greeted by the wafts of freshly baked bread and chargrilled meat and a cabinet of colourful sides and dips gave me hope, as did the packed dining room. Happiness came early, but so did disappointment, in the form of a dip selection served with fresh bread. Straight from the oven, the flatbread was evocative enough, as was the hummus and sundried tomato dips but the aioli was out of place. I'd expected the eggplant dip or perhaps the cucumber and yoghurt one I'd spied in the cabinet. The ground lamb Turkish pizza was tasty but a shame the lamb had been ground to a paste. More disjointing was that it came out circular when I was expecting the typical oblong variety of the markets in Istanbul. The muska boregi, filo-filled parcels stuffed full of spinach and feta, were divine and later I would wonder how these could come out of the same kitchen as some of the other dishes, as they appeared to have been made by someone who actually cared about the food.
Then came the mains, some of which, or rather parts of each, were outstanding. The vegetarian moussaka had a wonderful thick layer of bechamel resting on top but underneath the eggplant, potato and tomato filling was bland. I could have cried. There is that beautiful big, gleaming wood-fired oven and it would take nothing to throw a few pans of eggplant in it at the end of a night, rendering them soft and smoky and perfect for making moussaka. Then there's the tomato-based sauce that the layers of eggplant were doused in - store-bought pasta sauce had been used, I think. Again, dead easy to make a sauce that tasted amazing and it would turn this dish into something miraculous instead of average.
The grilled meat shish kebabs were much better for my mood. Meat, cooked over flame elevates me to a very happy place indeed. But hang on, what's this ... I couldn't believe it that this outstanding meat was being served on what tasted like Uncle Ben's, or at least a close relative, rice. Oh dear, Paasha was causing me to experience mood swings. The zucchini fritters were tasty as were the falafel, yet both were spoiled by having been pre-fried then reheated in a microwave so that they were soft and oily.
The baklava was fantastic - multiple layers of thin filo pastry sandwiching layers of ground walnuts and pistachios and drenched in syrup. I loved the crunch and rose-scented flavours but like a travesty, it was served with aerated canned cream. How dare they when, in Turkey, baklava is often served with a cream so rich it's almost butter. Here, it was the direct opposite.
So when I next visit (to give their shisha water pipes a workout, along with more marvellous baklava and a cup of sweet apple tea) I'd love to see less of the short cuts and more of the authentic prideful Turkish cuisine that I adored in Istanbul. This visit "abroad" was enough to send me packing back to the central city.
From the menu: Bread & dips $12, muska boregi (filo filled triangles) $15, lahmajun (Turkish pizza) $16, chicken shish kebab $20.50, lamb shish $20.50, zucchini fritters $19, moussaka $20.50, baklava $9.50, semolina cake $9.50, Turkish delight $1 per piece.
Drinks: Fully licensed