Address: SkyCity, 78 Victoria St W
Phone: (09) 363 6000
Cost: $215 for three
Rating: 13 — good

Taro custard with fried shallots and coconut cream is an acquired taste that I have failed to acquire.

I am not alone.

I really wanted to embrace the sweet-savoury profile of khanom mo kaeng ($10). I really wanted my guest's first night sans child or husband in two years to be special.

The next day, she emailed me politely: "It was so nice to get out and eat onion pudding like a normal person."


I wish I'd ordered the green rice fried icecream.

If Asian desserts occasionally confound, nothing else on this menu will shock. Consider Spice Alley the culinary equivalent of a Solid Gold Hits CD (with more larb gai and less Lionel Ritchie).

It's on SkyCity's third floor. Management like to call this behemoth an "entertainment complex" but you may also recognise it as a casino — take the lift, not the escalators, if you want to avoid the pokie machines.

Inside, it's all lanterns and lacquer, batik cushions and bird cages. Asia, made ubiquitous. You could easily draw comparisons with an upmarket food hall, but then a really enthusiastic waitperson might hand you a really delicious cocktail ($16). Also, there is no cabbage soup.

Head chef Panthep Sae Sue has done 15 years in the service of SkyCity's multiple kitchens and restaurants, and it must be nice to finally call a corner of it his own. One point worth noting — on the night we visited, there was no beef on the menu. I guess if you want cow, you go across the road to The Grill.

We kicked off with confit duck rice paper rolls ($14 for three). I got so distracted by that c-word. "Confit" sets you up for something luscious and luxe; these were, simply, tasty.

Meanwhile, approximately seven tonnes of food had been delivered to our table. I had over-ordered and everything I had over-ordered had arrived at once.

Choose your sticky pork rib ($14) carefully. Mine was meaty and tamarind-tangy, but I had carefully scoped the plate. The polite guest who doesn't get out much was (almost literally) left gnawing bones.

Spice Alley. Photo / Greg Bowker
Spice Alley. Photo / Greg Bowker

A Sri Lankan lamb shank curry ($38) was great. Redolent with cinnamon and just spicy enough, the meat fell apart and that rich gravy encouraged liberal use of two flaky roti. Also recommended, though absolutely unnecessary given how much else we had to get through, are the wok-fried greens with bamboo — excellent $8 value.

Something had to give, and it was the "dragon wings" ($15). A large plate of salmon fins came with hefty overhangs of fatty, crispy belly. I love this fishy crackle, but my companions prefered the onion pudding they couldn't eat.

Yes, there was even more. Recently educated in the way of the Vietnamese rice pancake (thanks MKR!) I carefully cut the chicken-stuffed omelette into strips which I then packed inside fresh lettuce leaves. I think this pillowy-crunchy combo could be a gustatory revelation and next time, my plan is to get it into my mouth in one piece.

There will, I am sure, be a next time because Spice Alley is filling a market gap.

It's a large, centrally located restaurant with table service, reasonable prices and tasty food that arrives fast enough to ensure you can eat, drink and still have time to nip to the bathroom before the curtain goes up at The Civic et al. I wouldn't come here as the main event, but as a prelude to a night out, it's a very decent contender.

"Thank you for inviting me," emailed my polite guest. "Or should I say 'thanks shallot?'"

It was becoming rapidly apparent that she needed to get out more.