If you can't stand the heat, don't sit too close to the kitchen. Restaurant critic Kim Knight checks out a sizzling newcomer.
In their own words: Milenta is a South American bistro where chefs work "intuitively with fire and the best seasonal produce available to prepare dishes over wood coals in an open, outdoor kitchen."
First impressions: I don't know a soul at this party, but the room has a campfire glow that is making everybody louder and bolder. No person (or plate) could look bad in this light. I can smell wood smoke and, through the occasional gap, see glimpses of night sky. The roof has been extended against the rain and by the time you read this heaters will have been installed but I suspect that a seat at Milenta is always going to feel like late summer at your friend's bach.
In the kitchen: Head chef Elie Assaf moved from Beirut to Wellington with his family when he was 10 years old, cutting his teeth at his family's restaurant, Phoenician Falafel. He was, most recently, cooking at Auckland's Williams Eatery.
On the floor: A friendly welcome and detailed menu knowledge. (Though I'm still curious - was that a bit of mussel in my prawn ceviche?)
The neighbourhood: Long-time Aucklanders just can't let go of those weekends they lost to buying tie-dyed T-shirts and sandalwood soap from the stalls that used to occupy this historic municipal rubbish depot. Today, the Victoria Park Market is about good food and sleek, shared workspaces, but echoes of the 1980s remain. Milenta, for example, is situated near the Celebrity Walk of Fame. Launched 26 years before Instagram, the pathway is testament to the permanency of, well, concrete.
The menu: My vegetarian friend won't miss a new opening - even if the $75 main event is a 55-day aged piece of rib-eye, slow-cooked on the coals and served with an actual bone full of actual bone marrow. "Actually," she says, when I raise an eyebrow, "This menu really appeals." The waitperson advises a hungry diner could probably polish off a large plate on their own but I resist the urge to order half a chicken (no mean feat from a seat so close to the flames I can see the sizzle).
Best bite #1: Is okra this year's jerusalem artichoke? In these sneezy, snotty Covid times, it is a brave chef who makes a rockstar out of a vegetable most known for its mucilaginous centre, but the slim green fingers are having a moment. Milenta served them blistered - crunchy on the outside and slippery on the inside, with a sensational sesame mole for dipping. If you've only ever had okra gummy and gumbo-ed, this is a must-try (and, at $13, considerably cheaper than the beef).
Best bite #2: Is it rice pudding gone wrong? Is it pilaf gone right? A whole Pacific rose apple stuffed with rice and pine nuts was soft (with crispy bits), sweet (with a tart tomato punch) and utterly unique. Look, I'm not saying I'd order this instead of the pork belly, but I'd definitely consider it as a companion piece. The apple was one of two course-straddling conundrums we tried - a very fresh burrata, bursting with rich cream and served alongside pickled feijoa and sliced persimmon - could easily have done dessert duty.
The jury's still out: Raw Te Matuku oysters arrived in a (literally) smoking clay pot, studded with little jewels of salmon roe. Visually, it was the dish of the night, but it didn't quite work for me. The menu said "pōhutukawa smoked" (a nod to the big, overhead tree - a relic from back when this part of town was still a sea cliff) but smouldering cardamom and cinnamon dominated. The scent was warm; the oysters cold. I enjoyed the shock of that contrast but, ultimately, couldn't get my nose and tongue to work in unison. Oysters are too "clean" for this treatment and my taste buds were, simply, confused.
On the side: If you've ever been a Girl Guide you'll know there is something about a wood fire that renders potatoes insanely creamy and recommendable. Milenta takes the classic and goes "restaurant" (baby spuds, black olives). It doesn't scrimp on portions, so you'll only need one bowl between two (or four) especially if you also order (and you should) the parāoa with queijo butter. I've baked these tapioca-flour bread balls at home; deep-frying them and stuffing the butter with sharp cheese is next-level comfort.
Dessert: When the custard centre of the dulce de leche flan quivered slightly before puckering away from my spoon, I swooned. Just one of two sweet offerings on the menu, it was coated with a borderline-bitter slug of caramel sauce and was, for me, the dream ending to a delicious evening.
Milenta is perfect for: Barbecue-lovers and boundary-pushers.
How much: Snacks ($10-$13), raw ($19-$24), small ($14-$22), large ($48-$75) and sweet ($14-$16). Where: Milenta, Victoria Park Market, 210-218 Victoria St West, Auckland. milenta.co.nz.
Sip the list
by Yvonne Lorkin
Just a couple of weeks ago I swore that if one more person said to me, "Yvonne, you really need to go to Milenta," I would've burst a bung. "I know okay, I know!" I'd scream into the FOMO abyss. Yet it took just one glance across their crisp, compact, ultra-interesting drinks list for calm to descend. Most restaurants I've been to since lockdown lifted have had one, maybe two sparkling wines available by the glass. Not Milenta. They're rocking four. They're not cheap though, $20 for a funky Pet Nat or Moet to $25 for Veuve or Laurent Perrier, but they're the perfect thing to kickstart your salivatory South American sojourn. Pisco is my cheesecake of the cocktail list. If I see it, I have to have it. Milenta do one with calvados, agave, passionfruit, vanilla, lime and bitters, but you may wish to sample their mezcal and Aperol-based Smoke & Mirrors, their grilled pineapple G&T or the Colibrí. Crisp IPAs and pilsners from Sawmill and Hallertau dominate the beer section and, when it comes to wine, oh joy and jubilation, more than half the list is available by the glass. However, if you do have the means, $74 for a bottle of the Unico Zelo Jade & Jasper Adelaide Hills Fiano 2021, you - and everyone else at your table - won't regret it. Feel like a mighty, muscular red that you can chew through? Then the Pedregal Roble Tannat from Uruguay at $61 a bottle will more than cut the mustard. There are another couple of dozen wines that deserve a mention if space allowed. Nice list Milenta.