Phone: (09) 620 8730
Cuisine: Focus on wild game
Cazador is Spanish for hunter, or huntsman, and it's also the name of a restaurant on Dominion Rd which specialises in serving game. It's been there for 25 years, but now there's a hipster in the kitchen and another one front-of-house and it's going through something of a renaissance.
Chef Dariush Lolaiy and his wife Rebecca Smidt have taken over the family business from Dariush's parents, Tony and Barbara Lolaiy. I'd say we're seeing just the beginning of Cazador's imminent and magical upheaval. You can sense the enthusiasm and fresh air flowing through the place.
Physically the space hasn't been changed much, so prepare yourself for seriously, charmingly dated decor. The walls are plastered Spanish hacienda style, doorways are arched and there's a cute bar area with dinky seat and table set-ups that would look just as at home in a 70s' caravan. In the dining room, the wall-mounted lights have been upgraded to those trendy, oversized clear glass bulbs which may be a sign change is on its way but one thing's for sure, the taxidermy and trophies are there to stay as this is what Cazador is all about - the quest to hunt and fish for your supper.
There's venison, duck, hare and hapuku and - as the original owners hail from Iran - there's a Middle Eastern influence too.
We began with a plate of outstanding babaghanoosh. This grilled aubergine dip was smoky, smooth and deliciously layered with the flavours of parsley, garlic and a sour note of za'atar, that essential mix of Middle Eastern herbs and spices. We smeared generous amounts on to warm wedges of pita bread and were very happy indeed.
Rebecca declared the special of the night - a pig face salad - was a must-have, so I had it. Tasty meat, teased from the cheeks and the tongue, dressed with a parsley, boiled egg and caper dressing added up to a marvellous combination. My dining companion, slightly more squeamish, settled on calamari, marinated and tossed with broad beans, tomatoes and toasted almonds and again we were impressed with the result. Dressed for success and heavy on flavour from fresh herbs and olive oil, it was a plateful of imagination.
I loved that the food wasn't offered in a too-fussed-with manner; instead relying on robust flavours and rustic presentation, befitting for the type of eatery this is.
We ordered a nectarine salad, too, and this was the same - beautifully jumbled, the fruit grilled to maximum flavour, plenty of mint and fresh seasonal walnuts. Immensely satisfying.
Slices of perfectly rare venison, from a red deer shot around South Head, north of Auckland, melted into a sherry sauce for my main course. The hapuku had run out so tarakihi was substituted for the fish main. However, it was served on a bed of braised celery, plenty of olives and coriander, which - although it would have been fine with the hapuku - dealt a hefty blow to the moderately delicate fish.
A yoghurt cake for dessert was extraordinary - light, fluffy, creamy, gorgeously sweet and sour, hard to define as a cake really. Served with grilled apricots and bright green pistachios, it suffered only in the presentation, as did the sherry and poached rhubarb trifle. This was served in a wine glass which, although not an issue in itself, would have been better had it come on a saucer so that one could rest one's spoon on something other than the table between each delectably creamy, boozy, fruity mouthful.
I'm so happy we have Cazador. It makes me want to wear a coat and hat just so that they'll take it at the door, drink sherry just so that I can experience the fabulous parlour-like bar area and more than anything else, it makes me pleased that I eat meat. What's not to love about a restaurant that isn't afraid to put heart on the menu, or hare, or pig face for that matter? I like it. A lot.
Restaurants like this one, promoting nose-to-tail dining and cooking the old-fashioned way - by touch, taste and feel - while keeping it fresh and seasonal are going to be the greatest contributors to the evolution of our dining scene because they're offering something different and adventurous, yet it's not in the slightest bit intimidating. The young folks running the show make sure of that.
From the menu: Babaghanoosh $9.50, grilled nectarine salad $15, pig face salad $16, marinated calamari $16.50, tarakihi $32, venison $32. Sides: beans $6.50, sherry trifle $13, yoghurt cake $13.