191 Dominion Rd,
Ph: (09) 638 6403
At long last, Vietnamese food is making a mark in Auckland. In 2009, I lamented in print that there were so few restaurants serving that fragrant and delicate cuisine, even though emigrants and refugees have been coming here for two generations.
Places run by expatriate Chinese served a greasy counterfeit, but if you couldn't find pho, the spicy beef-and-beansprout broth that is the staple of Vietnamese food, on the menu, you were well advised to keep walking.
Now derivatives of summer rolls and pho bo appear on many cafe menus and Cafe Viet in Surrey Cres and Parkside in Mt Albert do a deservedly roaring trade.
This newcomer, at the north end of Dominion Rd, sits in an elevated spot formerly occupied by one of those McViet joints. It would be too much, however, to say it delivers on its initial promise.
That's not to say that the Vietnamese influence isn't plain, but it exists more as grace notes, really. The menu features a version of banh mi, the French-influenced stuffed baguette, but it doesn't call it that and even the pho is pho only as a bracketed afterthought. Other dishes are food with Vietnamese accessories - rice-paper wrappers here; nuoc mam dipping sauce there; Vietnamese mint, watercress and coriander everywhere. But even with holy basil oil, sliced skirt steak is just sliced skirt steak.
Of course, Peasant (which calls itself an Asian restaurant), is not required to be pure Saigon. Grace notes are just fine. But the food - most of which no peasant, Vietnamese or otherwise, would recognise - is devoid of boldness and character.
The offer of dried chilli flakes or Sriracha sauce as condiments suggests the kitchen knows it is being a bit timid. Through the whole meal I was waiting for something to make an impression and it never came.
It's a shame, because half-Vietnamese owner brothers Simon and John Yip are terribly nice, as was the Korean waitress who looked after us. And it's a lovely place to be: the minimalist room (bare light bulbs on knotted cords; polished concrete floor; miniature tabletop pot plants) has a stunning view of Mt Eden, only slightly spoiled by the TAB in the foreground.
The Coca Cola sign outside, advertising Steve's Chinese and European takeaways next door, is superfluous, since Steve's emits a fried-food miasma that you practically have to kick your way through to get to Peasant, but once seated, the service is efficient and we were soon fixed up with coconut water and watermelon soda (the liquor licence was still pending).
The menu is mouthwatering enough; almost everything we ordered involved passing over something equally tempting. The cold rice-paper summer rolls we started with were monstrous but most of the bulk was noodles. Fish buns had the fish-to-bread ratio all wrong, although the fish bites were lovely and the watercress added zing and crunch.
Stuffed squid had been cooked to a leathery chewiness, and the pork-and-chestnut stuffing seemed more Spanish than Indochinese. A quarter duck was pretty badly overcooked - although other reports have praised the dish's succulence. Meanwhile, the pho (tried on a separate visit; oddly it is a lunchtime dish only) was a mixed blessing: the noodles were a clump as solid as the Gordian knot and the beef (four miserably small pieces) was certainly not rare as the menu promised. Still, the oxtail broth was lovely and the piles of fresh herbs an intoxicating addition.
Dearer than cheap eats and blander than ethnic standard, Peasant is pleasant enough, but it needs a bit more character.
Verdict: Bright ideas let down by blandness