Feeling lucky? Restaurant critic Kim Knight takes a chance on Food Republic - SkyCity Auckland's foray into food court-style service.
The year was 2019 and the bill for six was $18,000.
At SkyCity's Huami restaurant, the Chinese New Year "Super VVIP" menu included a premium sashimi platter (crayfish, scampi and tuna) alongside abalone, scallop, black truffle and wagyu beef washed down with more than $10,000 worth of alcohol.
The year was 2020 and the bill for six was $131.
At SkyCity's Food Republic, the Mongolian beef from Huami's "Chef Ray" included snow peas, onion and tenderised beef washed down with exactly $5 worth of Coke Zero.
This review will critique one of those experiences.
Luke ordered sweet and sour chicken. "A South Island classic," he proclaimed. I was born on the better side of Cook Strait and can tell you with some authority this dish needs tinned pineapple and a lychee soaked in red food colouring if it is even going to begin to compete with the stuff I ate growing up.
Sweet-and-sour anything relies on the rule that opposites attract. Luke confirmed well-balanced flavours, but he thought the rice was chewy and the $13.50 portion a little small. A BBQ pork bao ($6) "tasted as good as it looked". From where I sat, it looked bloody delicious.
You get to Food Republic via the bells and whistles of SkyCity's gaming floors. Soldierly rows of hard luck and good fortune; you have to be 20 years or older to enter but that's the only concession to concepts like space or time. Where am I? How long have I been here? It's 11.30pm but can I still order a seafood basket and a mango lassi profiterole? (Answer: yes).
"It doesn't make any sense," said Tom. He was referring to the chandeliers and the tinkling-blinking maze of machines or, maybe, his ramen. It came with sweet corn. The noodles were skinny and the broth was light. Half a hard-boiled egg, pink pickled ginger, and glossy nori made for the prettiest plate at our table. At $12.50 it was approximately 1000 times more expensive than a packet of instant ramen but, sometimes, you just have to treat yourself.
It's been a tough year for restaurants, particularly those reliant on international tourists. SkyCity's high-end offerings, the likes of The Grill and Masu, have reduced their opening hours. Tapas bar Bellota simply never reopened post-lockdown. Sammy's Lounge is gone, and in its place, Food Republic. Three cooking stations, one cashier counter and a food court by any other name. I duly called in the experts. My dining companions were Herald news reporters - former denizens of Albert St's Food Alley (RIP) and long-time connoisseurs of the cheap eat.
Consider this, from Nicholas, who ordered the chicken and prawn dumpling basket: "Lifting the lid brought disappointment - there were only six shumai-style dumplings. Used to 20 pieces for about $14 at my local, I'd hoped for a couple more. They were tasty, but it felt like a $15 entree, not a $15 lunch."
And this, from Caro: "I didn't realise the chef was making three portions at once. The presentation was good but the protein proportions were like Russian roulette. One plate had more prawns (firm to the bite), the other two had more chicken (a bit on the dry side). Extra points for fresh bean sprouts, finely sliced capsicum and spring onions. There was not enough 'wok hei' - heat in a wok that creates the flavour when stir-frying the noodles. Generous amount of noodles but the seasoning was bland."
Consider yourself critiqued, $12.50 Singaporean chicken and prawn fried noodles.
Natural light is a rarity in casinos. After the darkened gauntlet of the pokie machine room, Food Republic's big windows remind you there's a whole world out there that doesn't smell like hotel perfume. The ambience is very clean and very bright. We queued to place our orders and collected our trays when our numbers lit up. Without exception, the service was warm and friendly.
And so (finally!) to that Mongolian beef. Exceptionally tender, if a little tasteless (bicarbonate soda was, I think, the secret ingredient here - a process called "velveting"), the $13.90 dish was packed with fresh, crunchy snow peas. Once I'd liberally applied more of the help-yourself chilli oil, it was a pretty satisfying lunch.
Food Republic's location indicates its main function might be to feed gamblers. Prices indicate said gamblers are probably subsidising their own lunch but at least they're getting plenty of fresh vege and the largely "cook to order" approach makes the most of that lovely produce. Hot woks beat a bain-marie every time in my book.
In summary: quick, some relatively healthy options and - if you can avoid the money traps placed strategically en route - it won't break the bank.
Food Republic, SkyCity Auckland (main gaming floor, R20 entry), cnr Victoria St and Federal St. Ph (09) 363 6000. We spent: $131 for six.