Auckland's restaurants are improving all the time, writes Peter Calder, although there's room to improve.

Compiling a list that purports to define the year's best poses a real conundrum for a reviewer of restaurants. In all other fields - books, films, television shows, wines, even sporting performances - the field of candidates for any given year is already defined by the industries that serve them up.

Publishers release titles on specific dates (and ask reviewers to restrain themselves until those dates); film distributors have deliberate release patterns to ensure that Revenge of the Space Monsters and Monster Avengers from Space do not go head-to-head, so to speak; and there are only so many matches each year in which this Warrior, that All Black or the other Black Stick can make a mark.

Restaurants, by contrast, are always there. Reviewers do not limit their attention to new enterprises - though duty demands that newcomers, of which there have been many this year, get a visit fairly soon after opening their doors. But naming some establishment or other the best restaurant of the year is pretty naff if you haven't been to every restaurant open. I have known people in this game who pay an annual visit to The French Cafe just to make sure it hasn't gone off, but it has always seemed to me that the readers' interests are not uppermost in their mind when they do so.

That said, the last Sunday of the year seems a reasonable vantage point from which to look back and mention a few things that occurred to me over the past 12 months.


Star turns: As mentioned, it's been a busy year for openings, and notably quite a few of them have been of ventures helmed by star chefs. Peter Gordon brought his iconic London brand The Sugar Club home to the 53rd level of the Sky Tower; Nic Watt did much the same with his robatayaki experience at Roka to open Masu. North Wharf, which was a dining disaster area, came of age when Michael Dearth and Benjamin Bayly of The Grove opened the wonderful Baduzzi and, most recently, Josh Emett's Ostro has become the hottest table in town.

All these places were very pleasing developments in the high-end (and high-end casual) dining scene that suggest eating out in Auckland is becoming big-city sophisticated - and their evident success suggests that a recovery from the recession is well under way in the hospitality industry.

Asian accents: Mark Wallbank and Che Barrington, who had reinvented Rocco as Moo Chow Chow and brought the essence of Sydney's Longrain to town, spread their Asian inspiration into Ponsonby Central with Blue Breeze Inn. It was part of a new wave of such places, though at Mekong Baby the emphasis was less on the food than the bar, it seemed to me. Nick Honeyman took on the transformation of Everybody's into the Japanese-inspired Everybody's Izakaya and Mandarin opened a dumpling bar with few dumplings on the menu, though they were excellent. Ela in Elliott Stables impressed with the food of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Simple suburbans: More pleasing than all of this put together was the arrival of a new breed of restaurants where smart chefs aim at unfussy and wholesome food full of taste at very affordable prices. Twisted Tomato in Pt Chevalier and Queenies in Freemans Bay were recently noteworthy in this regard. It was a nice contrast to those establishments that are what might be technically described as up themselves, being very cool without being much good: take a bow Mexico.

Cajun cool: Not a moment too soon, Cajun and Southern cooking made its presence felt in Auckland. Bonz Cajun Kitchen in Elliott Stables and Miss Clawdy at North Wharf both impressed - the former is cheaper but the latter has more style. I haven't got to Orleans at Britomart yet - you can have too much of even a good thing - but I'll report from there early in the new year.

Hip hooray: The Hip group (Scott Brown and Jackie Grant) kept raising the bar with Ortolana at Britomart and the associated Milse, a dessert restaurant, which the Professor says is the nicest place I've ever taken her. Isn't she sweet?

Surprise packages: Oedo in Epsom is an unlikely venue for excellent Japanese food; La Fourchette in St Heliers gives an impressive account of the classic French bistro; and I hope that Mahurangi River Winery Restaurant is as good as it was last January because I'm planning to eat there next month.

Best dish of my year: A toss-up between the wild deer meatballs at Baduzzi, the tripe at Antoine's and the Alaskan black cod at Masu.

The worst: No contest. I didn't review Spice in Oneroa on Waiheke Island, but if I had, its breakfast "wholegrain" toast and jam would have earned it minus five stars. Bad supermarket bread, a single foil pack of butter like the ones you get on aircraft and in hospitals and a teaspoonful of crappy commercial jam for $8. The owner told me with a straight face that there are no bakeries on the island.