Victoria Park Market seems to have been "under renovation" forever but finally and quietly a number of promising bars and restaurants have officially opened in the new precinct. The one I was most keen to check out was the latest from hospitality group Pack and Company, which is behind the Imperial Lane development, Matterhorn in Wellington and plenty of others in our city.
The design takes good care of the century-old historic space, retaining the raw brick walls and giant warehouse-loft style windows, a leftover from when it was a power station. With different zones differentiated by clever design and lighting fixtures, it all feels dramatic, yet comfortable.
The menu takes up what has now become a standard offering - a selection of plates to share, many inspired by Central and South American cuisine. For those still resisting this latest trend there are conventional entrees and mains on offer. The kitchen also offers a daily rotisserie and being Sunday, lamb was on offer.
We were three hungry adults with two children in tow and thankfully our waitress seemed to understand we all needed food, like now. And this is one of the benefits of shared plate dining; generally the food appears fast, the logistics being easier to manage than trying to co-ordinate five separate entrees. We were relaxed about what and when different dishes arrived and I took note that the kitchen managed to find some coherent order to our chaotic, hunger-driven selection, starting us off with the ceviche and crab cake then moving us on to the heavier dishes.
Many of the dishes boasted spicy sauces or components and the wait staff were happy to accommodate us and serve these on the side, in deference to the younger palates at our table. Lucky I asked, as it transpired they were not of the toned-down variety.
The golden, crisp crab cake entree was splendid; the outer shell giving way to a filling of sweet, creamy crab meat. A thick, fiery chipotle creme fraiche and candied lemon made it complete, and though it may not have been designed for sharing, the forks were flying and we adults agreed it was marvellous. The ceviche of fresh snapper was prettily presented, soft and citrusy to the taste and again, there was plenty of zing in this dish with a liberal scattering of fresh, sliced red chillies.
Our parade of hot dishes then began to arrive; calamari that was tender and elevated with spicy chorizo sausage, prime beef meatballs that were rich, creamy in texture and hearty, jerk chicken bites that lacked jerkiness, chargrilled corn medallions which I suspect we liked mostly for the chipotle mayo and vegetable empanadas which were spurned by the young ones for containing pumpkin yet to me were divine little parcels that showed someone in the kitchen had seriously good pastry skills.
In general there was plenty of heat and spice going on in the food so we ordered a cooling cucumber and mint salad to calm things down. We picked out the chilli slices, and enjoyed it immensely. The rotisserie was the least impressive dish. Rosy slices of lamb leg meat were juicy enough, and the olive gnocchi was comforting, but we deemed it too expensive at more than $30; it lacked the x-factor.
It seemed as though we'd become too engrossed in keeping up with the parade of dishes to notice a burlesque group was amassing and getting ready to perform. Given the place is called Libertine, apparently after those devoid of moral restraints who value physical pleasures, we weren't sure where it might lead so hurriedly ordered desserts, scoffed them, then scooped the kids "up and outta there" before.
Despite the rush, the desserts were our idea of pleasure; beignets that looked like large tough pillows when they arrived, were anything but. Our teeth sunk into warm freshly fried soft dough, dusted in icing sugar. A pumpkin pie with a smooth delicately spiced filling was magnificent and showed off the fabulous pastry skills again, though I detected little sign of the promised salted caramel.
Despite the overall pleasant experience I couldn't help searching for the soul of Libertine and I'm not sure I found one. It's flash and new and they're doing some interesting food but it ran dangerously close to formulaic. Actions speak louder than words, however, and I'll be back for the goat shoulder rotisserie on my next free Thursday for sure.
From the menu: ceviche $15.50, crab cake $18, blackened corn medallions $9.50, calamari & chorizo $13.50, jerk chicken bites $13.5, hand-cut fries $8.50, prime rib meatballs $13.50, minted cucumber salad $8, vegetable empanadas $12.50, rotisserie leg of lamb $31.50, beignets $14.50, pumpkin pie $14.50
Drinks: Fully licensed