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Address: 19 Drake St, Freemans Bay
Phone: (09) 354 4030
I had a good feeling ahead of dining at new Caribbean restaurant Atico-cocina, the latest eatery to open in the Victoria Park precinct currently undergoing a major overhaul.
A friend had talked up his lunch there so I was looking forward to sampling the food, and when I rang to book a table I was courteously asked if we would prefer indoor dining or out (we chose in), then if the meal was to celebrate a special occasion. Two simple but polite touches.
We arrive just as the last few rays of the afternoon's sunshine are loitering, which is a pity because the restaurant's outdoor terrace area looks like a lovely place for a meal or a few drinks in the fresh air.
No matter, the interior of the restaurant, which once housed a historic stable, is just as nice, with its high ceilings and windows overlooking the construction site next door.
There are several different seating options including large trestle-style tables, one solid eight-seater with colourful dining chairs, and several smaller tables for two or four. A wall of sheer multi-coloured curtains hides what will eventually be a VIP area.
Atico-cocina's lighting is particularly smart - a mixture of pendant bulbs, and hanging metal shades reminiscent of kowhai leaves.
The room is dominated by a central bar area which is not the nicest piece of decor I've ever seen, but it does offer an excellent view of the bartenders whipping up one of the tropical sounding concoctions from the comprehensive cocktail list.
The walls are either dark wood or brick, and there are exposed red steel beams overhead. The whole effect is contemporary and fresh.
Caribbean cuisine represents the many cultural influences the islands have experienced over hundreds of years - from African to Chinese. Chargrilled is the preferred cooking style. Head chef Tony Eru's seasonal menu offers up a wide selection of starters and we opt for the honey mustard-glazed salmon ceviche with red onion, mint, mango and lemon, and the Jamaican chicken jerk - chicken and grilled seasonal vegetables on skewers.
The ceviche is full of flavour - the tart lemon and mango contrasts well with the fresh salmon. The chicken jerk is pleasantly smoky but just a little bland and could do with more spice.
Despite only being open for two weeks, the service is slick, and the food arrives quickly.
For our mains we order tropical pork chops, island's jumbo prawns and Yucatan tuna, with a side of coconut rice, which goes particularly well with the pork. All are generous portions and adorned with delicious baby coriander. The knife for the chops is so big it could have been used to hunt the pig.
The citrus-infused tuna is simply cooked - lightly pan-seared on the outside - and is served with rice pilaf and spicy salsa. It is as fresh as you can get and goes down a treat. The smoky prawns are jumbo indeed, and are served on a huge bed of salad which is lightly dressed with a tasty tamarind and coconut cream sauce.
The triumph of the night are the deliciously spicy pork chops which sit on a fantastic lemon, lime and sweet potato cake and are served with a passionfruit and jalapeno barbecue sauce. They are slightly dry, but one of my dining companions admits this is probably due to the fact he ordered them to be cooked medium.
We're so full after our meals that we can't even contemplate pud, though Atico's signature Cafe Y chocolate dessert - semisweet chocolate and Colombian coffee in a bread pudding - is tempting indeed.
We come away impressed - the service is excellent, the surroundings fresh, and the food well presented and full of interesting flavours.
We'll be back to sample some of those exotic cocktails - perhaps the pina loco colada or the maluquinho punch - in the sun on that deck as soon as we can.
Drinks: Fully licensed. Concise wine and beer list.
From the menu: Salmon ceviche ($16); Jamaican chicken jerk ($12); Yucatan tuna ($34); island's jumbo prawns ($32); tropical pork chops ($32), side of coconut rice ($7).By Shandelle Battersby Email Shandelle