Anglesea St, Ponsonby
Ph: (09) 360 9139
Set menu $45
479 New North Rd, Kingsland
Ph: (09) 845 1680
Starters $12-$19; Mains $32-$36; Desserts $14
Auckland diners are spoiled for choice, but we seldom see what the French call the table d'hote and the Spanish call the menu: a limited selection, sometimes with no choice at all, of entree, main and dessert, usually for a fixed price. Two places visited this week come close.
The first, United Kitchen, arrives courtesy of the very busy Luke Dallow, who used a hoax billboard to threaten Ponsonby Rd with a branch of the American fast-food chain Taco Bell before reopening Tin Soldier as Bar 151.
But the good bit is down the back, which you access from a door on Anglesea St (it's unnumbered; look for the 10m-long chef's knife).
Presiding over the kitchen, which also supplies bar food for the streetfront operation, is chef Tom Williamson, who has worked at Ebisu in Britomart and Oyster Inn on Waiheke. I have very fond memories of both. You will surely meet him, since the door opens virtually into the kitchen. Chances are he'll deliver a dish or two to your table; it's that sort of place.
The room, dominated by a large photograph of a couple of chaps inspecting a 60s car, is small - it seats 30 at a stretch - and simple: plain pine walls, white linen. And the food is to match: so gloriously free of affectation that it made me want to stand on the chair and cheer.
By the time you read this, the menu will have changed, I suspect, but think: seared scallops with Japanese herbs and yuzu foam or silky, paper-thin ravioli with a filling of caramelised onion and smoky potato, and heavy hints of truffle.
My lamb rump, as soft as a pillow, came with crumbed cubes of braised shoulder and a supremely fine-cut take on that sweet/sour Sicilian eggplant classic called caponata. The Professor's salmon was done sous vide, with baby beets and a garnish of ice lettuce, a lemony, slightly peppery succulent.
Feijoa tarte tatin (really a moulded compote with a thin lid of brioche) and a white chocolate mousse closed proceedings admirably.
Meanwhile, in Kingsland, Phil Clark, whose CV includes Sidart and Merediths, has opened on his own account in the erstwhile home of French restaurant Bouchon (and, briefly, a second branch of Le Garde-Manger).
It's significantly dearer than United - three courses will set you back closer to $70 - but the food shows an unassuming mastery of technique and a commendable distaste for flashiness.
The date at the top of the menu doesn't necessarily mean it changes daily, but implies a degree of deliberate choice, which is cheering. It offered four choices at each course and if some of the spelling (nastershum, chicken brest) was uncertain, the cooking wasn't.
Lamb shoulder, slow-cooked but not braised to disintegration, came with snow peas and roasted courgettes; the sweetness of a ceviche of kingfish, made pink by its curing with maple syrup, was nicely cut with wafers of radish.
The absence of a vegetarian choice is unfortunate: something proposed tableside by the waitress incorporating elements of other dishes smacks more of offhandedness than personal service. But this is a classy addition to the Kingsland strip. Let's hope more places learn the wisdom of keeping things simple.
Verdict: Two classy operators keep it simple
By Joelle Thomson, joellethomson.com
Tale of two whites "Is Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc as good as it is cracked up to be?" The person who asked was shocked to see this superstar white on a supermarket shelf for $38 right next to many other (good quality) sauvignons which cost four times less; $8 to $10 a bottle.
It's tough making money from wine. Unlike beer and spirits, wine cannot be churned out year round because it is made from freshly picked, fermented grapes, which ripen only once a year. This means the price of many bargain bin bottles is often a poor reflection of what they actually cost to make. Still, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc at $38 is a tad pricey in comparison. Is it worth it? At the risk of damning it with faint praise, it tastes noticeably more full bodied, intense and smoother than most Kiwi savvies.
So, yes, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon remains one of the best of its kind, thanks to its subtle bells and whistles -- a little oak here, top winemaking there. As does the barely known 2013 Te Mata Cape Crest; one of this country's quiet superstars; full bodied sauvignon that offers, in my view, great value at $29.90. X-factor? Tick. Complex taste? Tick. Intensely smooth, soft and drinkable? Tick, tick, tick.