An air of excited anticipation fills the air and bubbles through the lounge bar and dining area. This I attribute to the fact that most patrons are, like us, here for a show of some description and therefore looking forward to being entertained. We're at Auckland's stylish theatre venue, Q Theatre, at the in-house restaurant Citizen Q.
I'm as excited about dinner as I am for the show we've come to see because Citizen Q is under the management of Hillary Ord, the hospitality queen responsible for establishing the terrific and well-loved Verona Cafe on K Rd and later, the Musket Room on Ponsonby Rd. Ord has the knack of creating venues that invite you in, cloak you in their warmth, and gently nourish you with good food and wine. I note her trademark style is in evidence with her latest venture in the cosy atmosphere, a menu that touts "ethical produce" and plenty of choices for those of vegetarian persuasion.
A quick squiz around the building and I'm deeply impressed: a bar area with an eclectic mix of well-worn leather armchairs and soft sofas, bar leaners and lower tables, all with views through the huge windows to the bustle of Queen St; a wall studded with illuminated blocks blink with the names of individuals who were generous in their support to get this new theatre to fruition (and you'd be surprised to see who's there); other walls are scrawled with artsy script acknowledge those organisations that support the performing arts venue; even the bathrooms are fabulous with their cute tassel lampshades lined up like cabaret dancers.
Seated, we were keen to find out if this was an eatery that could operate as a stand-alone dining option, as opposed to a support act for the main performance. The menu appears slightly hotchpotch with sections dedicated to bar snacks, South American tapas, from the kitchen, sizzling pans, larger deals and just desserts, spanning at least five different international cuisines as far as I could tell. This isn't a bad thing in itself, to offer a broad range of cuisine styles, but unless done extremely well it can play havoc with one's sense of cohesion in a meal. Heading up the kitchen is chef Kirk Lafferty, a chef with considerable international experience including working in our embassy in Mexico and years of cooking on superyachts all around the world, and when I find this out, the fusion menu makes more sense.
We start with a plate of empanadas de hongos and these little Argentinian pastries, stuffed with mushroom, spinach and feta, were tender, tasty and perfectly adequate but the salsa roja that they were served with reeked, and a mouthful confirmed the harsh burn of too much raw onion with insufficient chipotle to balance it out.
Mexican food is all the rage right now so I had no fears ordering the negro nachos, especially as the menu enticed us to "purr your way through frijoles negro". The tortilla chips were the better quality, 100 per cent corn variety but they unfortunately erred on the stale side, particularly those that had missed out on the heat from the grilling. Any hopes I'd had for a bowl of velvety smooth black beans were dashed when the plate arrived with the tortilla chips already smothered in beans and cheese, having had a brief encounter with a grill. By this stage we were not exactly applauding or shouting for more in the food department, but we remained optimistic about the "second act" and it paid off with our mains.
Each night sees a different "Artists' Pot" feature on the menu and tonight's creation was pollo de Yucatan, billed as chicken in sour orange and mayan spices, served with Mexican rice. It was a delightfully citrusy affair with enough heat to just tingle on the tongue and the rice, flecked with cumin, had the nutty chewiness of oiled and baked rice. At $12.50 this was not only a bargain, but a true crowd pleaser in the flavour department. The lamb shank, a secret West Coast recipe apparently, was full of red wine and stock, deep and rich in flavour with the shank meat tender and gelatinous. Served on a mash, supposedly spiked with horseradish and truffle, and a chunk of bread to soak up the gravy, there were few surprises with this dish but that was just fine with us - it was a true comfort dish and well executed.
Desserts were a selection of cakes but we were feeling too well satiated and besides, the PA system was announcing that our night of rock 'n' roll was about to begin and we needed to leave room for the music.
The food may be a bit hit-and-miss but I'll welcome an encore dinner at Citizen Q when next I have a show booked, either there or at one of the neighbouring venues - it's all so irresistibly cosy and convenient.
From the menu: Empanadas de hongos $15, black bean nachos $14.50, artists' pot $12.50, lamb shank (single) $18.50
Drinks: Fully licensed