48 Fort St, Auckland
Ph: (09) 309 3990
East meets east in the kitchen of the latest addition to the small eating-out precinct at the eastern end of Fort St. The "shared space" zone still seems a bit dead, but this new place should soon start pulling some serious custom.
Korean co-owners Michael Choi and Simon Cho, joined by New Zealand-born Filipino Kevin Puyat, turn out food that quotes the cuisines of China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines and doubtless a few others I missed as well.
These boys have run up serious kitchen miles between them: names like Otto's, The Grove, Vinnies and Ortolana feature in their collective CVs and Cho has a successful sushi business to his credit as well. Together, they have come up with a terrific menu, full of boldly tasty and inventive dishes that would make for a special mid-price midweek lunch but are interesting enough to fill an evening out for dedicated foodies.
Occupying a bright and quirkily designed space that offers tables for two, communal dining and counter spots, the place takes beer seriously " the list includes several from a small Japanese craft brewery and a Chinese drop that bears the same name as the restaurant.
The food is just as unconventional, conjuring crafty combinations out of familiar ingredients, and giving a fresh twist to ideas you thought you'd seen before.
The menu prices run from $6 (for the classic Thai snack called "son-in-law eggs", which are boiled, then deep-fried and given a crust of crispy shallot and chilli) to $35 for a serious chunk of rib-eye, so most appetites are catered for.
But even the more substantial tastes are lightened by accompaniments, usually of crisp combinations of raw greens that foreground refreshingly astringent vinegary tastes.
"Thai bangers" were actually patties of pork sausage meat in the northern Thai style that the locals call sai ua: the meat is finely minced with lemongrass, coriander and chill. Meanwhile, nhem are crispy Lao rice balls, like Sicilian arancini, but bursting with coconut flavours.
Slices of seared tuna (white on the edges and bright red at the centre, they looked like little lollies on the plate) sat on a base of aioli flavoured with smoked mackerel and were topped with wasabi-flavoured avocado: seared tuna is a dining-out cliche now, but this treatment reanimated it.
The raw salmon, on fragrant rice studded with crunchy popped clumps, was topped with a miso and bonito foam. A dish of silky raw beef was a perfect demonstration of the house style, which emphasises contrasts of texture (more popped rice) and flavour (big black cloves of pickled garlic).
The least successful dish was kari kare, a Filipino stew of beef in a rich peanut gravy that drowned the taste of the meat and greens it contained (none of the promised burned eggplant was in evidence). Doubtless authentic (although lacking the calves' feet and offal that are evidently de rigueur in its homeland), it didn't reinterpret tradition, in the way that so much of the food here does.
Case in point: luxuriously fatty and meltingly tender lamb ribs had been slow-cooked in a marinade of Chinese black rice vinegar (like soy sauce), which had deliciously caramelised.
Desserts were fun too: the dangerously stinky durian put in an appearance but only in the safe form of ice cream (with lychee and pineapple) and Puyat's version of the traditional Filipino halo-halo erased the shocking memories of a brutally authentic one I tried out west a few weeks ago.
This place opened barely a fortnight ago but the word is getting around.
Plates: starters $6-$8; share plates $16 to $35
By Joelle Thomson, joellethomson.com
Cider breaks new records
Kiwis are taking to cider like ducks to you know what. It is now this country's fastest-growing alcohol category. Andy Routley from DB Breweries says the 10 per cent growth in supermarket cider sales over Christmas is supported by AC Nielsen figures which show a 25 per cent rise in the volume of cider sold in January this year compared with last year.
Unsung white wine hero
And while we're talking about all things fresh, crisp and intensely tasty, let's hear it for the 2014 Mud House The Mound Vineyard Riesling, $24 of deliciousness, thanks to a string of recent wine awards that is too lengthy to list. This single-vineyard wine is made with grapes grown on the Mound Vineyard in North Canterbury; a sun-drenched, gently sloping site that has long been home to many of this country's greatest rieslings. This one was made by a team of winemakers whose talent for making top whites shines through in this wine. Cleighten Cornelius and Ben Glover have created a riesling here that drinks beautifully now, will age well for at least 10 years and is widely available. No mean feat.