An Auckland restaurant reviewer trawls the archives and spills the beans on where - and what - was good to eat in 2019.
Once I went to a restaurant and my boyfriend nearly broke his tooth on a rock.
He popped a smooth, dark river pebble in his mouth and bit hard. In the low light, that pebble looked exactly like the smooth, dark chocolate-covered ball of chicken liver paté that had been carefully placed on a base of baby boulders.
That won't happen again.
In 2019, the kind of restaurant that used to place its food on rocks switched to cereal. This year, I ate three amuse-bouches served on beds of barley. I suppose it was one way of using up all the carbohydrates we've stopped ordering.
Other observable trends: Nduja is a spreadable salami that restaurants are spreading on everything (especially pizza). Makrut lime is what menus used to call "kaffir" lime. If it could be wrapped in a nasturtium leaf there were probably 11 more courses to go. And yuzu koshu is the insanely delicious fermented love child of fresh green chillies and a citrus fruit that looks like a knobbly lemon. Step away from the sriracha and be three steps ahead of everyone else.
In Auckland, 2019 was the year food courts went flash. Everyone in hospitality held their breath for the impact of 10 new eateries on top of Westfield Newmarket - and they're still watching this shopping centre dining space - downtown's Commercial Bay will reportedly open in March.
The city's sexiest restaurant (Clooney) closed and new openings were big and gastro-pubby (The Brit) or small and perfectly formed (Bar Celeste). According to the Restaurant Association of New Zealand's latest report, the industry grew 4.2 per cent between 2018-19, reaching $11.7 billion in annual sales. It now employs 133,100 people and (think about this next time you're wondering whether to tip) wages range from an average $18.38 an hour for wait staff to $33.74 for an executive chef.
Another thing to think about: latest data shows that in Auckland in 2018, some 1116 hospitality businesses opened - and 930 closed.
Wondering what to eat and where? Here are a few highlights from the Canvas restaurant reviewing year.
BEST ICE(BERG) SCULPTURE
Pale green on a pale plate, the kimchi-packed burger at
was stunning in its minimalism. Less was more and more was delicious. Even the kale chips - which often feel like the restaurant equivalent of an austerity measure - made sense.
MEAT AND NO VEGE
It was a beefy stained glass window. Thick meat, transparent interconnecting tissue. Slow-cooked with five spice (and possibly even six or seven), cooled to set the gelatinous tendon firm and precisely sliced. A modest dish of beef shin that punched above its $10 price tag at Dominion Rd newcomer, Huai Yang.
MEAT AND THREE VEGE
The perfect spring roast came in a perfect little frying pan. Pink lamb, tender peas, elegant asparagus and a hasselback potato. Kingsland Social is the more family wallet-friendly offering from Phil of Phil's Kitchen. Go for brunch (the house-baked bread is excellent) and stay for dinner (the hasselback is the carb comeback you didn't know you were waiting for).
CONSIDER THE OYSTER
The best way to serve an oyster is raw, alongside 11 more raw oysters. The other best way is deep-fried with a side of black garlic aioli in something the folks at Saint Alice call an Oyster McMuffin.
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
Remember when everything was artisanal? Or deconstructed. Or kombucha. Anyway, now the buzz word is "spent". As in "spent espresso cacao brownie" (Emos) and "spent grain crackers" (Copia) and "spent more than I should have" (anywhere that serves oysters).
BEST WITH SUNSCREEN (AND A DOG)
Summer is stone fruit and ricotta and prosciutto as thin as a nylon pup tent at an outdoor table on a wind-free day at Wynyard Pavilion. The year's waterfront surprise has a delightful small plates menu and those outside seats are pet-friendly.
BREAKFAST AT DINNER
Arepas are maize flour flatbreads with a clumpy crumb that really give your mouth something to work with. At
a key attraction appears to be a $7 happy hour but line your stomach with the chorizo sausage, smoked cheese and fried egg arepa because breakfast is the most important meal of a drinking day.
You grew up in the provinces and on Sundays you ate yorkshire pudding or maybe a scotch egg. Then you moved to Auckland for work and it was all quinoa and kombucha and gravy was a sin. Go to
. The yorkshire pud comes with sausage and gravy and mashed butter masquerading as potato. (The scotch egg is stupendous).
PRETTIEST ON PLATE
We live in the time of the dollop, but at
they still plate with tweezers. I ordered the octopus. Compressed capsicum, sprigs of ice plant, specks of licorice strap. It was an octopus' garden and it tasted amazing.
BEST BURNT FOOD
In 2019, no broccoli was left uncharred. Food was woodfired, singed or literally reduced to ash. But until I went to
, I'd never seen a menu deliberately describe something as "burnt". The half-shell mussels were dusted with burnt tomato powder and doused in a whey emulsion. There was a salty anchovy mayo and, in its entirety, the dish was a savoury triumph.
It's the little things that make or break a restaurant experience. Genuine warmth. Efficient service. A dessert menu you didn't have to beg for. A waitperson who knows the menu well enough to tell you that three of your four dishes come with the same side salad and that you may want to rethink extra rice. Canvas scores across several metrics (including food and ambience) but eight restaurants we visited this year left us 100 per cent happy with the service. Top marks to Saint Alice, General Kai, Udon Works, Khao San, Free Bird, Ginger, Conch and Bar Celeste. Snapping at their heels were the waitstaff at Puha & Pākehā, Bang Bang China, Epicer, Mike's Seafood, Oyster & Chop, Izzy and Haru No Yume.
YUMMY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS
In Sicily, the ultimate roly-poly comfort food is called a "baduzzi". When you're at a restaurant that translates as "meatball", order it. Specifically, the
venison meatball that is rich and gamey with a hit of liver that comes to the party like a rockstar.
THAT'S AMORE #1
Proper Pizza is not really, because one of the options comes with an entirely improper Nutella, strawberry, banana and kiwifruit topping; and the margarita has cream cheese but go with the madness and get the cheeseburger pizza - meatballs, chopped iceberg lettuce, ketchup and cheese. We loved it (in between the tears of laughter).
THAT'S AMORE #2
The subversion of the pizza continued in late 2019, when the apostrophe-crime that is Elmos opened on Ponsonby Rd. Tomato, mozzarella and slow-cooked brisket in a 24-hour red curry coconut cream? I had my doubts and then I ate my words until there was none of that pizza left.
MOST DELICIOUS USE OF A TOAST RACK
The ribs are stacked five deep - meaty, sticky and held in place by the toast rack. Or, you could get the lobster roll - best value crayfish and mayo within a block of the waterfront. Or you could get the devilled eggs and party like it's 1978. It's all good and it's all at the deliciously uncomplicated
We lost the rugby but gained a deeper appreciation of Japan in 2019, when our news feeds became saturated with cultural explainers of the World Cup host country. Meanwhile, in Kingsland, Japanese Lantern Street Bar switched on the pretty lights and invited the hordes in for "wara-yaki" (which the menu translates as food cooked over "roaring flames from burning straw") and a small plate of slippery, salty, garlicky chargrilled mushrooms that were so good, I ordered a second helping.
DISH OF THE YEAR?
Forget the flashy purple bao and the crunchy pork crackling (though they are also very good) and get ready to swoon at the Cinderella of
tapas menu. The longannisa is a skinless sausage, spiked with lemongrass, pickle and chipotle mayo and wrapped in a grilled wheat tortilla. One of the most unassuming - and best - things we ate this year.
LIFETIME ACHIEVER AWARD
The mushroom sauce tasted like brandy and nostalgia. The original Tony's opened on February 16, 1963. You can (and should) still get a carpetbag steak, a prawn cocktail and an apple pie that tastes a lot like the one from the Edmonds Baking Book. (The prices, obviously, have changed since 1963).
CAKE TO FINISH?
Of course! With grateful thanks to whoever had the foresight to freeze/preserve the out-of-season feijoa we ate in a clafoutis at
. Extra marks for a stunning, marzipan-ish pistachio custard.
THE DINER BITES BACK - FIVE THOUGHTS FOR 2020
No more shredded dehydrated red pepper garnish ever. It's like chewing Barbie doll hair.
The only hokey pokey that will survive Auckland's humidity is already in an icecream - anything else will just glue your jaw shut.
Cashew nuts are not cheese and that is certainly not a cheesecake.
It's dinner, not a doctor's appointment. Nobody needs a syringe with their food.
"Finish it in under 60 minutes and it's free." What kind of restaurant banks on the fact you can't eat its food?