It's the weekend, you've had enough of cooking for the week and you're keen to wrap your taste buds around one of the many incredible menus on offer in Auckland. Deciding where to go can be half the battle. Restaurant critic Kim Knight has done the hard work for you. Here are a few suggestions for you to try this weekend.
Swashbucklers: Where time (and prices) stands still
Culinary fads come and go and Swashbucklers happily ignores them all. Restaurant critic Kim Knight visits twice in one week, just to make sure.
In 2008, the scallop mornay entree at Swashbucklers cost $21. More than a decade later, the same dish is $22.
I ran those numbers through the Reserve Bank's inflation calculator. To keep pace with contemporary food and beverage prices, the restaurant should be charging $27 for those scallops.
Swashbucklers is a glitch in the matrix, a snag in the space-time continuum. If Dr Who ever made a Christmas special in New Zealand, some of it would surely be set in this dining room where the fish is always fresh but absolutely nothing else changes, not even the taxidermied Canadian bear.
"How did that get here?" I asked the waitperson.
"I don't know if it was a plane or a boat," she replied.
The plaque at the bear's feet says it died in its sleep in the 1980s. Swashies (as the locals call it) is the home of tall tales so who knows if this is true and who even cares? You're here for the seafood, not the bear or the mermaid or the underwater murals or the outboard motors as objets d'art. (I'm lying. You are, also, totally there for those things because they are as integral to the Swashbucklers' package as the friendly staff and the fresh-from-the-trawler catch).
The restaurant, by the Westhaven Marina, is famous for fish and chips on the outdoor deck, but two visits in the same wintery week has convinced me this place is not just for summer. That creamy, cheesy scallop mornay in which the shellfish keeps its rich orange roe and the chowder-like sauce could command its own price tag is exactly perfect for the current conditions.
I was a little shocked to discover the phrase "garlic is optional" next to the listing for calamari. I tried to imagine squid rings with only olive oil and lemon and it was like Queen without Freddie or breakfast without toast. We got the garlic. The flash-fried softness of the squid (which also costs only $1 more than a Herald reviewer paid in 2008) was impressive.
The single most surprising thing about Swashbucklers is that it didn't open in the 1970s or even the 1980s. With its pirate-font logo and seaside kitsch it feels like it might have been here forever and the food reflects that theory. The side salad contains sundried tomatoes. Blackbeard's steak comes with a green peppercorn, wine and cream sauce. The restaurant (actually opened in 1997) appears to have happily ignored molecular gastronomy, shared plates, vegans and the actual price of fish.
Young, old and everybody in between eats here. The clientele wears overalls, lavalavas, dresses, jeans and suits. Bare feet and singlets are banned from the dining room, but otherwise this might be Auckland's most democratised dining space. And if you're in the market for fish, it's one of its most delicious. I watched an 8-year-old demolish a shellfish-packed $26 spaghetti marinara twice the size of his head and can honestly say that the plain pan-fried hāpuku ($30) I ordered on my first visit was the single best fillet I've ever eaten in a restaurant anywhere in the world.
I loved that hāpuku so much I ordered it again for lunch later that week. It was not quite as amazing - the lemon slices not as gleamingly fresh, the fish not as perfectly just-cooked. And, sometimes, we need saving from ourselves. Second time round I said yes to the garlic butter. If (in my opinion) it's compulsory on the calamari, it was too much for the fillet. The fresh, meaty flake was complicatedly clogged with the extra flavour. Less would have been more.
The same was true of a whitebait fritter. It was from the just-add-egg school of cooking (personally, I prefer a little flour in the mix) and the bait lay loose and separate. Less egg and a more compact patty would have given the diner more bang for their $30 bite.
A deconstructed prawn cocktail ($22) arrived on a metal divider plate that lent a disturbingly medical vibe to the dish, exacerbated by the sheer volume of glistening, plump, pink protein. Close your eyes and go with it, because the sauce has a pitch-perfect tabasco kick. We demolished the fish. And then we had chips. At $6 a bowl they were as cheap as chips.
Swashbucklers, 23 Westhaven Drive, Auckland, ph (09) 3075979. We spent: $116 for two.
SWASHBUCKLERS DRINKS LIST
The Swashbucklers drinks list is the great equaliser. It's not the place to go should you be intent on seeking out all that's new and groovy in craft beers, natural wines or hipstery sour ciders, rather use your time there to reacquaint yourself with a $10 handle of good old Lion Red or Mac's Gold. A 200ml bottle of Lindizzle will set you back $11 and there's a solid, supermarket-style selection of sauvignons, chardonnays, pinot gris, pinot noir, rosés and "others", all available by the glass to keep the crowds happy. Think Trout Valley, Fat Bastard, Soho, Mud House and Squealing Pig. Should you be looking for something on the fancy side of the street to sip while at Swashbucklers, then I can steer you toward a bottle of Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir, Gibbston Valley Gold River or Pol Roger Champagne for $120. One expects to pay that sort of cash for the real deal in any establishment. What is a bit raw (and I've worked in hospo for enough years to understand the costs involved in storing and serving drinks) is when a bottle of shiraz which commonly costs $16 in the shops, sells for $14 a glass and $62 a bottle. Or the $19 supermarket Saddleback pinot gris from Peregrine sells for $64 a bottle. There's a line between what's a realistic service charge mark-up and what's robbery. Also I'm not sure why the Coopers Creek Gisborne albarino ($58) is not available by the glass? It's the perfect seafood wine! I could be wrong but I doubt someone who's never tasted albarino before is going to lay down that sort of cash to take a risk. Offer it by the glass for $12 (better still, a free taste) and watch it roar out the door.
— Yvonne Lorkin
Spoilt for choice....
A reincarnated community hall with hummus at its heart will wow anyone after a Middle Eastern feast. East St. Hall was once a community hall for the Samoan Church on the corner and the new tenants appear committed to keeping aiga and aroha at the heart of this incarnation. Falafels and carrots are a must get here. In fact, the carrots at East St. are, definitively, the best carrots in Auckland.
Almost a decade after the first Mexico opened in Britomart, the popular restaurant proves why it's an oldie but a goodie. The menu features margaritas, wine-soaked sangrias and tequila tasting flights. With succulent, spicy-but-not-too-spicy fried chicken, tacos and quesadillas to soak the alcohol up. After all these years Mexico still manages to feel like somewhere you could bring almost anyone, while still being somewhere you might want to bring almost anyone.
Plant-based eating is not the ground-breaking deal it used to be and Ponsonby Road's vegan restaurant Khu Khu proves this by favouring fake meat over no meat. It would be indisputably better for the planet if we all ate a little less meat. Yep, I know there are disputers and you should take them to Khu Khu, where I swear they won't even notice they're eating slaughter-free spring rolls.
If vegan food isn't what you're looking for this weekend then the beef tartare from Nook in St Kevin's Arcade might be more up your alley. Nook takes its culinary inspiration from Japan and the food is stupidly good.