From ox tongue to artichokes. Restaurant critic Kim Knight highlights the memorable moments in a year of interrupted eating.
Two hours after lunch, my bowels clenched. Inside my gut, a game of ping-pong was at fever pitch. Something had to give.
There are three women's bathrooms in my downtown office building and I laid waste to them all. These are the moments restaurant critics don't talk about.
My stomach is a cast-iron cauldron but autumn's Auckland restaurant vegetable du jour pushed it to breaking. On menus, the culprit appeared benignly as "earth apples" and "sunchokes". The one thing I wish I'd known before I ate an entire dish of roasted jerusalem artichokes for lunch? They are also called fartichokes.
The nutty, knobbly root vegetable with a pleasingly chewy skin and creamy interior contains inulin - a non-digestible carbohydrate, fermented by our gut bacteria. Not everybody's digestion will react as drastically as mine. Soaking, peeling or slow baking can all apparently mitigate the flatulent effect - but consider yourself warned: jerusalem artichokes are an easy-to-grow perennial and, as restaurants expand their vegetarian repertoires, I don't think we've seen the last of them. Top tip for 2022 date nights: approach the artichoke with caution.
Regular restaurant reviewing was interrupted this year. Figures for the calendar year are not yet in but the Restaurant Association reports that for the financial year ending March 31, Auckland sales were down $656.3 million, or around 13.6 per cent. Those numbers don't take into account the city's recent long lockdown. In total, Covid restrictions cost Auckland's sit-down dining establishments 17 weeks (around 33 per cent) of business-as-usual. Two long-standing and high-end big names permanently closed their doors - RIP O'Connell St Bistro and Euro. Saxon + Parole (Commercial Bay's glitzy steak-centric import from New York) also shuttered, blaming Covid-related border closures. The biggest Auckland food trend this year? Breakfast, lunch and dinner at home.
But this is not a story about how much cheese we put on our toast (answer: a lot). For eight heady months, Aucklanders let rip with their credit cards. Overseas travel was off, and the extra bottle of Bolly was on. What was on the city's menus in 2021? Here are six of the most memorable trends ...
PĀUA TO THE PEOPLE
You grow up with pāua and then you leave home and never eat it again. Until this year. Homeland put pāua on toast. Depot put it in a pie. Mr Morris sliced it thin and served it with okra, baby corn and Korean rice sticks. Ahi's had a hint of hāngī smoke. Onemata (in the new five-star Park Hyatt) served pāua in a miso butter-soaked risotto. Suppliers told me prices had come down, but also perhaps a pandemic-weary public was ready for a little luxury. Recently, ahead of Auckland restaurants reopening under red traffic light Covid settings, I asked chefs to nominate some favourite dishes from their newest menus. Early signs point to crayfish being this summer's pāua. How on earth will we cope?
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BITE YOUR TONGUE
The first thing you need to know about ox tongue is that it might actually be beef tongue. On the farm, oxen are a very specific kind of castrated and domesticated animal. In the kitchen, the language is less specific. The other thing about this organ meat darling? It's delicious. I couldn't get enough of the ox tongue souvlaki at Daphnes Bar Taverna, all thin-cut and skewered and scorched crispy on the edges. From souvlaki to the tacos at Mexico to the lamb's tongue at Onslow and on to the bravest iteration of them all. Alma did not attempt to hide the nature of the beast. The Spanish newcomer went full tongue - a giant slab, studded with dozens of tiny slices of green olive. Everything offal is eventually new again and, this year, Auckland enjoyed a civil tongue.
Specifically, Burnt Basque Cheesecake. It popped up on cheffy Instagrams during the first phase of the pandemic and made it on to multiple Auckland menus this year. The recipe is simple, but this is a pudding best left in the hands of experts accustomed to dealing with death-defying quantities of cream cheese and actual cream. It is the haggis of puddings. Tastes amazing but you really don't want to know what goes into it. Get your by-the-slice fix at Esther, Candela and countless daytime cafes.
A WHOLE LOTTA LAMB
In level 3, we killed the fatted lamb. I don't know what vegetarians ate when restaurants opened for takeout, because every menu I looked at featured slow-baked hunks of our national protein. Hello Beasty's red chilli and Szechuan sauce-soaked shoulders scored high social media praise but my taste buds were blown by Cotto's lamb ribs with honey and balsamic. It was my first restaurant-cooked takeaway and it invoked the sense of physical amazingness you feel the day after a hangover. Anything is possible. Everything is going to be okay. (Postscript: when we asked chefs for their summer menu picks, lamb was the most-lauded land-based protein - one of the prettiest was Andiamo's, pictured here).
When the chips are down, humans eat ... chips. Or, at least, carbs. Hospitality operators read the room and many of Auckland's recent openings have been built on a foundation of pasta and pizza dough (take a bow Spiga and, also, East St Hall for a tasty post-lockdown pivot). Italian was the flavour of the year. One of my favourite experiences was at Pici, the tiny eatery that scored a food trend double - its citrus cheesecake with olive oil and salt was like lying on a fresh-cut lawn under a lemon tree on a very hot day. And if you still haven't managed to score a booking at Ada, keep trying. I don't think they could serve a bad meal if they tried.
Find your centre. Donut worry. Many people spent this year glazed and confused, when every second cafe seemed to specialise in doughnuts. Meanwhile, in the round food-adjacent universe, two new and much more interesting stars: Pani popo - aka Samoan coconut buns - got a delicious fine dining makeover at Mr Morris. Across town, Bar Magda's albondigas - aka meatballs - combined duck and pork, with a velvety liquorice-spiked sauce that I still think about sometimes.
There's nothing new about the rise and rise of meat-free meals (see: artichokes). But in November, the big guns landed. California-based Impossible Foods launched its beef into restaurants in Auckland, Mount Maunganui and Christchurch. The plant-based "meat", which many consumers claim cooks, looks and tastes like the real thing, is being used in burgers, chawarma, lasagne and kofte at the likes of Burger Burger, Fatimas and Waiheke Island's Vino Vino. (If pork belly and seafood are more your faux-thing, head to Ponsonby's Khu Khu for a mock meat meal that is so visually meaty, you may want to leave bona fide vegetarians at home).