V.T. Station, Newmarket: 15.5 - Great
Curry and a cocktail? A Newmarket newcomer offers a romantic (and tasty) rethink of Indian train travel, writes reviewer Kim Knight.
The sign said "beware of pickpockets". I don't want to sound all white and alarmist but this was not the Newmarket I remembered from such incidents as buying a $40 tube of hand cream from Aesop.
It was the kind of sign you might see at a train station. Perhaps, specifically, the station that used to be called Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, India.
Linking your restaurant with rail travel is a fraught proposition in New Zealand. In this country, train stations are synonymous with weak tea and stale ham sandwiches but read the menu notes to make sense of this new-to-Newmarket eatery.
If the original VT connected people from all quarters, then the restaurant version is a hub for "traditional, authentic flavours from across India". Also, you can sit in a booth under a rack stuffed with more vintage suitcases than a hipster wedding shoot. (Sure, your flatmate's travel pics suggest the standard Indian rail commute is not so glam, but prepare to be charmed - the kitchen sounds a train whistle when your food is ready.)
We sat outside and watched other people drink cocktails. The Dancing Flamingo was the palest, prettiest strawberry rhubarb syrup pink, made grown-up with vodka. "Delicious," said the young woman sitting at the table next to us, who had earlier offered a taste of her chilli corn.
I mention this, because her gesture appeared so spontaneous and instinctive, it made me ashamed of my own ingrained predilections. I said no because, frankly, I struggle to share plates with people I actually know - but imagine a world where our first inclination is always inclusion?
Start your Indian journey with a snack. The fig chaat appears impossible to split between two, until you follow the instructions to smoosh it with a spoon. Life-changing. Why has no one told me to do this before? Crispy pastry flaked into creamy yoghurt, tamarind and mint chutney, fresh herbs, pomegranate seeds and, finally, soft and fruity fig ($10). Textural, floral and quite moreish, especially when you hit the minty bits.
According to the menu, the inspiration for this chaat is the "by-lanes" of New Delhi. Head southwest for the spice-battered prawns named for Mumbai's Koliwada fishing colonies. They arrive, a startling paprika red with a pea-green coconut sauce and pink pickled onions. Eat with your eyes and then get really stuck in, because the prawns are light and juicy and there plenty of them ($15).
Hāpuku was exactly the right species for the tawa fish in a meen molee ($19). The robust, spice-infused fillet (grilled, rather than fried) was plopped on top of a coconut curry that was light enough to ensure the dish's essential fish-ness remained. You'll want bread to mop the sauce. VT's naan was smaller, lighter and less yeasty-doughy than the doorstoppers you get from the Sandringham shops.
Vegetables? Pureed and pocked with roly-poly balls of paneer ($26). The cheese was super light, the sauce was super-spinachy - it made me realise how often I'd ordered inferior (albeit cheaper) versions of this. Colour should not be the only clue to a titular ingredient.
This restaurant is from the folk behind Fort St's 1947. It feels more inclined to a cocktail crowd - plenty of small dishes and a truly gorgeous fit-out, but I still wished we'd been a party of four or 10 or any other number that might have done justice to a biriyani. We had room for one just one more dish and it was always going to be the Railway Chop ($27).
In my book, there is no more evocative meat word. "Chop" says "summer" so lush and loud I swear I can hear cicadas. These were slow-cooked then char-grilled, sticky with tamarind and served with a splodge of hung curd and fried garlic (at least that's what the menu said - it tasted like yoghurt to me). The best chops I've had since our barbecue broke.
Actually, we did have room for one more dish. Daulat ki chaat was described as a "milky foam" but if you're thinking cappuccino froth, think again. I read later this dessert was once the result of hours of hand-whisking in the pre-dawn hours of a cool, moonlit night. Today I suspect a less romantic and more technology-driven recipe. It's kind of a dehydrated, room-temperature milkshake topped with pistachio and crunchy sugar and it dissolves to liquid on the tongue - light, and slightly mysterious.
Now we really were stuffed. Where, I wondered, were the sleeper carriages?
Sip the list:
I'm definitely more of an aromatic white wine fan when it comes to pairing one's liquid refreshments with the exotic, spices and textures in Indian cuisine. Cleansing ales work wonders but if I'm pushed, then a soft, fruity pinot noir would rock with the lamb rara. So it irks slightly that V.T. Station only have two "other" white wines (Loveblock Gewerztraminer [sic] and Escoda Chenin Blanc) while the red wine section has a whopping nine "other" options covering cabernets, Chianti's, Cotes du Rhones, zinfandel and Riojas to add to an already heaving red wine list. Personally, the tannins and higher alcohols in big reds like syrah, Bordeaux blends, merlot and malbec react with the spices and chili causing a big old car crash in my mouth and I can't taste for days. The Rockburn Tigermoth Central Otago riesling, Man O'War Ponui Waiheke pinot gris and the Clos Marguerite Marlborough sauvignon are total stars. Beer-wise, Deep Creek, Garage Project, Liberty, Panhead and 8 Wired have you sorted for pilsner, lager, pale ales, sours, goses, wheats, darks and lights (still no 0 per cent option though) and the Carrick Unravelled Central Otago pinot noir is the cherry-driven business. — Yvonne Lorkin
73 Davis Crescent, Newmarket
Ph: (09) 218 5269
WE SPENT: $191 for two
WE THOUGHT: 15.5 - great