Address: 161 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby
Ph: (09) 378 9908
Verdict: Dumplings to die for
The first restaurant I can remember eating in was Chinese. It was on K Rd near Grafton Bridge and you could tell it was a restaurant because it had "RESTURANT" on the front in big letters. The owners were forever scrubbing off the helpful corrections that passersby had added in ballpoint.
Auckland had Chinese restaurants before we discovered the expression "ethnic food", but you never saw Chinese people eating in them. They probably wouldn't have recognised anything on the menu.
All that has changed now: successive waves of Chinese immigration beginning in the latter years of the 20th century have spoiled Auckland budget diners for choice. I've eaten in places where there is no English writing on the windows or door, and it's not hard to get a one-bowl lunch for under $10. Even excellent yum cha doesn't cost a lot.
But really good Chinese food is a different matter. I mean no offence here, particularly to Tony and Ming in Mercury Plaza, whose wonton soup is my winter lunch staple. The city and suburbs are full of consummate practitioners of Hong Kong barbecue. But it's hard to find elite Chinese dining experiences in this city.
A friend I eat out with a lot says that elite Chinese dining may be a contradiction in terms. I suspect that is an overstatement. Certainly, superb food is available - at a price - in Hong Kong where the great restaurants are almost all associated with hotels. At the budget end, though, the menus are all pretty much identical, both here and there. It's the round-eyed chefs at places like Blue Breeze Inn who bring fine-dining skills to Chinese food.
Xiao Dan is named after the co-owner Xiaodan Lee and I think it means "little dawn". She and her husband Johnny (well, that's his European name) are the couple behind Flavour House, a couple of doors along from the Capitol Cinema in Balmoral.
Flavour House was the first of the "I can't believe it's that cheap" places I tried in that Asian cheap-eats precinct about 10 years ago and although some of the fishes (fish-head broth; fried kumara in sugar) were a bit of a challenge, it soon became a must-eat destination.
Balmoral is littered with such places now, but Johnny told me when I dropped into the new place to try his dumplings that he had noticed there was no Chinese restaurant in Ponsonby, which is "good place for business". The liquidation of the upstairs pan-Med restaurant Troy presented him with the chance to establish one.
The couple's move in doing so is a brave one. Xiao Dan is definitely more upmarket than Flavour House, although the look (Corinthian columns, anyone?) owes much to its predecessor. But despite the classy decor, the dining experience is still closer to the low-rent tradition. Each item on the handwritten menu - which is headed with the reassuring words "no MSG" is numbered. J1 is sweet and sour pork, G7 cashew nut chicken, and when I went to order, the (non-Chinese) waiter asked me to give him the numbers only.
This was a shame since the dish that took my fancy was "sweet and sour fish fillets like a yellow chrysanthemum petals rolled up", which I found much more evocative than M8.
It would take many visits - or a single visit with a very large party - to provide a comprehensive assessment of the menu here, which contains, by my count, 89 separate items. I will say that the dumplings, highly praised on the Facebook page, are sensational, freshly made and bursting with flavour. I particularly recommend the duck and beansprouts.
That fish, which lives up to its poetic name with a batter that looks like corn ears, was damn fine, too. It was a large baked slab of (I think) monkfish, and the sauce was deliciously subtle, not the shiny glug I associate with sweet and sour.
Cold beef shank sliced thin and dressed, Szechuan-style, with fiery chilli, was more of a challenge and a dish of pickled vegetable tasted incredibly salty to me - but I should add that I deliberately avoided the obvious while ordering.
The excellent dumplings aside, the food I tried was unexceptionable, yet unexceptional, but the enthusiastic service is impressive. It remains to be seen whether a Chinese place sandwiched between Tin Soldier and Ponsonby Rd Bistro will catch on with diners on the strip.