A food critic's list of the best tastes in 2011

By Peter Calder

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Peter Calder rounds up the best places he's dined at this year.

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Besos Latinos in Elliott Stables. Photo / Babiche Martens
Besos Latinos in Elliott Stables. Photo / Babiche Martens

For a country weathering the worst recession since my late mother was a wee girl, we were pretty well served by our restaurateurs this year. When I look through the list of the favourite places I reviewed, I see that all but one were newly opened.

This does not purport to be a list of Auckland's best restaurants. My job is to alert diners to new(ish) good places and warn them off bad or overhyped ones. This year, Britomart came of age, Japanese restaurants surprised, and tapas joints were opened by people who know what tapas are. Here's a list, in alphabetical order:

Basque Kitchen and Bar
61 Davis Cres, Newmarket. Ph (09) 523 1057.

Ignore nitpickers who say a place that dares to call itself "Basque" must serve only dishes from the Pais Vasco (must an Indian restaurant called Taj Mahal serve only food from Uttar Pradesh, then?) These are excellent tapas, with the occasional Kiwi inflection, and the wine list is deep and wide as well.

* Read the review here.

Besos Latinos
Elliott Stables Ph: (09) 303 0217

Chef Luis Cabrera's menu, showcasing specialties of Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Cuba and his native Mexico, has fired the imagination of many city diners. The cheerfully garish interior and personable service are part of a winning recipe.

* Review here.

Cocoro
56 Brown St, Ponsonby. Ph (09) 360 0927

Japanese dining in Auckland has made a quantum leap beyond sushi and tempura in the past couple of years. This place was a revelation, serving food that references, but does not duplicate, the familiar tropes. Striking, original and a sublime aesthetic experience.

* Review here.

Depot
86 Federal St. Ph: (09) 363 7048

The Federal St refurbishment delivered some great dining (including The Grill). Al Brown was the first out of the blocks with this joyously chaotic eatery, serving unpretentious food and drink (the wine comes in tumblers). He does posh nosh par excellence at Logan Brown in Wellington. This is simple food that drips with pleasure.

* Review here.

District Dining
54 Customs St East, Britomart. Ph: (09) 368 5315

The Customs St frontage is unwelcoming and the snooty maitre d' put me off, but the food impressed at the Auckland incarnation of Warren Turnbull's popular Sydney eatery. From the crispy pig's ears with Szechuan salt through the tangy steak tartare to the prawn toast (a toastie to die for), it was smart and new and hard to fault.

* Review here.

Ebisu
116-118 Quay St, Britomart. Ph: (09) 300 5271

Another Japanese sensation. The "new-style mixed sashimi" says it all. This place flirts with tradition but engages passionately with new ideas. The deep-fried tofu has to be tried to be believed. If the service has relaxed a bit, it must be near perfect.

* Review here.

The Grill by Sean Connolly
SkyCity Grand Hotel, 90 Federal St. Ph: (09) 363 7067

It's bloody dear (from $35 for a sirloin to a $180 rib-eye to share) but you get what you pay for. A fine place to unleash the inner carnivore. Connolly took some stick for using mainly Australian beef, but a chef needs to use trusted suppliers. Things will change. Meantime, if there is a better steak in town than this one, I'm looking forward to it.

* Review here.

MooChowChow
23 Ponsonby Rd Ph: (09) 360 6262

RIP Rocco. The most purely enjoyable reinvention of the year was here. Chef Che Barrington brings fine-dining technique to bear on the street-market food of Asia, with the emphasis on Thai. Referencing Longrain in Sydney and New York's Momofuku Ko, but original and striking: traditional recipes, given a twist according to what's fresh.

* Review here.

Serafin
225b Dominion Rd, Mt Eden Ph: (09) 630 0228

A few paces down Walters Rd, in a small handsomely fitted-out building with an internal courtyard ideal for summer, a tapas bar with restaurant overtones has a small menu, ranging from mixed olives to lamb casserole or duck confit. They botched the paella the night I was there but everything else was droolingly, drizzlingly good.

TriBeCa
8 George St, Parnell. Ph: (09) 379 6359

My only seriously fine-dining experience of the year was a great one. Hayden McMillan (formerly Merediths and the French Cafe) uses plating to elevate the dishes into small works of art, yet the ingredients emphasise staples, and have the whiff of peasant food. Memorable occasion dining at a place that has never disappointed.

* Review here.

What are your favourite eateries for 2011? Do you agree with our list?

- Herald on Sunday

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