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It took me two attempts to get the brains at Bawarchi. I had heard they served them, but there was no sign of them on the menu and our waiter, who I think had been dragooned into service to cover for staff who had called in sick, didn't have the best command of English.
Then I saw it as we left, on a sign advertising "Weekend Specials". You don't ask for brains, but for bheja fry. There was nothing for it but to schedule a return visit, but if your tastes run to the more conventional, this place has plenty of options to keep you satisfied.
Bawarchi is the Hindi word for chef and the restaurant's logo has a puffy chef's hat on top of the "B". This made me chuckle; at the places I've eaten in India, the chef is unlikely to have shoes, much less a toque, which in this country suggests a bakery rather than an Indian restaurant anyway.
The decor, though, fairly bellows India: flocked black wallpaper, a pink LED tree and a TV screen filled with renewing still images ranging from the sublime (the Taj Mahal) to the absurd (beautiful women who look about as Indian as Madonna). The heat pump, set at a sweltering 24C, assists with authentic atmosphere.
We were the only non-Indians in the "eat inn" part (a takeaway branch is two doors down), which is always an excellent sign and the place's popularity with the Indian expatriate community may explain why there are no helpful explanations of what each dish contains. If you don't know the difference between palak paneer and kadai paneer, you may be shooting in the dark.
I was. Discombobulated by missing out on the brains and unable to get much assistance from the waiter, I ordered randomly - a risky strategy that had very happy results.
Bawarchi specialises in the cuisine of Hyderabad, a region whose position, at the north of India's south, makes it something of a culinary crossroads. The Persian and Arabic influences of the northern Mughlai style collide with the food of Szechuan (South China), and the South Indian influences are evident in prevalence of so-called dry (gravy-free) dishes.
The tandoor oven still gets a good workout: the paneer tikka was oven-grilled cubes of the deliciously halloumi-like cheese, interleaved with big chunks of capsicum and onion. Even the 5-year-old in our party thought it terrific. Meanwhile, lamb seekh kebab was a generous serving of lamb-mince sausages, bursting with spiciness, moderated by a dipping sauce of minted yoghurt,.
We were struck by the use of light batters - in the vegetable Manchuriya and the ginger fish, for example - that sealed the flavours of ingredients so that the sauce did not overwhelm them. A chewy eggplant masala was as good as any I've tasted and a lamb shank dish in which the chilli floated on the sauce's surface turned out to be much more subtle than expected.
Sandringham, as any fan of South Asian food knows, is one of Auckland's food centres of excellence. It's where I go for goat meat (which Indian butchers, for reasons I've never understood, call mutton) for curries and when I'm making dal and want ingredients I have never heard of, such as amchur powder or kasoori methi, the man at the spice shop smiles and fetches them.
It's also where you'll find Indian and Sri Lankan food as good as any in Auckland. Everyone has their favourites, I know, and Bawarchi just became one of mine.
And the brains (sorry, bheja fry)? Sensational. Ask for them by name.
Verdict: Smarter than your average Indian restaurant.
By Joelle Thomson, joellethomson.com
Fiery Thai ginger ale
The maker of East Imperial Superior Beverages has released a colourless but fiery new mixer called Thai Dry Ginger Ale, which adds complexity to winter cocktails. Add ice and several slices of fresh lemon and orange to a generous dash of Sipsmith Summer Cup, a gin-based aromatic liqueur, the new answer to that old beauty called Pimm's.
Spanish grape in NZ
It's big, it's smooth, it's 14.5 per cent alcohol, so it's not for the faint-hearted. Meet the first Church Road Tempranillo 2013. It was released this year by winemaker Chris Scott, who has a reputation for red wine experiments; he also makes an outstanding marzemino (pronounced just as it looks; an Italian red grape now growing in Hawkes Bay).
The new 2013 Church Road Tempranillo is $26.59.
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What: Champagne Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque 2007 grapes? It's all about chardonnay; 50 per cent of the blend and the defining crisp citrusy flavour here; the balance is pinot noir (45 per cent) with a dash of the black Champagne grape, pinot meunier.
How much: $350. Ouch.
Why: Because this year the makers of Champagne Perrier-Jouet sponsored the new Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Private Dining Room at Clooney restaurant in Auckland. And this tastes divine; super fresh with super persistent bubbles and superb flavours.
Where from: Specialist wine stores.