Waiter, there's something delicious in my soup. Kim Knight's year of eating out.
Soft-shell crab was the new salt and pepper squid. Bao was the new bread. Pork belly was still pork belly.
In 2018, if they could put it in a dumpling, they did. If it could be roasted, grilled, pureed, sauteed or steamed, then it was probably cauliflower. Oh, plants were the new meat. But if you ate out in Auckland this year, you already know that.
It was a big year for big names: Ben Bayly left The Grove, Judith Tabron left Soul, Michael Meredith left Merediths and Simon Wright and Creghan Molloy left The French Cafe. Sid Sahrawat bucked the trend and expanded his upmarket empire.
There were days when the entire city was a fried free-range chicken marinated in yuzu and sprinkled with furiyaki. Milk came from cows, deer and almonds, but there were no straws in our drinks. The fish of the day was pōrae and even the grapefruit had provenance (Herne Bay).
Canvas ate it all. But don't take our word for it. Hospitality is a risky business. In September, the Restaurant Association of New Zealand released its annual report. In the year prior, 654 cafes and restaurants opened in Auckland and 510 closed. Waitstaff made an average $16.58 an hour and head chefs earned $23.38.
Meanwhile, Statistics New Zealand reported that 26 per cent of all consumer food spending was in restaurants or on ready-to-eat meals. Wondering where to start? Here are a few 2018 highlights from Canvas restaurant reviewer Kim Knight.
BEST IN BOWL
Take a mushroom, find its soul, make a soup and it will still only be half as good as the shiitake broth from Sid at The French Cafe. A distillation of distinction.
FISH OF THE DAY
The Butcher's Son is neither fish nor fowl - and that is the point. Vegans rejoice and everyone else order the filet o'sustainability - cauliflower steak with lemon, caper and almond accents.
Five-plus-plus-plus. The garden bowl at Hopper's was an edible rainbow of diced, sliced and shredded joy (bonus points for strawberries and half a perfect house deposit/avocado).
The bartender was a blur, because he was also the maitre d', the waitperson and - literally - the runner. Guy Jacobson is the co-owner at Cuba Libre and, on the night we visited, was doing a single handedly good job of ensuring we came back for more of the city's best fried chicken. (Skin-on. Spicy. Stupendous.)
BEST CURE FOR A BIG NIGHT
All the small plates at Xoong were great, but it was the smoky bacon congee with teriyaki salmon and little fishy pops of roe that made us feel ok about a second bottle. Runner-up: the stuffed roti at Hot Hot Asian.
POTATOES ARE BETTER MASHED
. . . but they're doubly better when they're mashed and topped with mint yoghurt, tamarind chutney, onion and crunchy noodles. The street samosa chaat at 1947 Eatery sets the scene for an Indian menu that goes way, way, way beyond butter chicken.
TOFU X THREE
The deep-fried tofu at Love Exposure. The silken tofu at Hello Beasty. The agedashi tofu at Sake Bar Icco. Because bean curd doesn't have to be boring and sometimes it doesn't even have to be beans - witness the sesame goma dofu at Williams Eatery.
loveexposure.com, hellobeasty.nz, sakebaricco.co.nz
SPEAKING OF …
Williams Eatery in Wynyard Central. Officially one of our favourite new openings this year. Thoughtful and delicious food, fully engaged staff and a stylish aesthetic.
NZ ON A PLATE
What is "New Zealand" cuisine? Debate rages, but way back in January we found a contender when Lillius served cabbage and hāpuku with tingly coastal herbs, faint traces of mussel and a rich background note of bone marrow. Simultaneously rustic and elegant, a collision of land and sea and Aotearoa made very, very tasty.
BEST TAKE ON A TWISTIE
Smoky-salty-sweet. We're back at Sid at The French Cafe for a crunchy amuse-bouche that was a little fishy and a lot whimsy. Possibly the only time a fine dining restaurant will remind you how much you like Rashuns, Twisties, et al.
BEST NEW PANCAKE
Maple syrup and bacon is so brunch. The new pancake is flaky and spicy and covered in cumin-and-chilli spiked lamb. You order it at Belly Worship and they give you change from $10.
ZERO WASTE AWARD
Head to tail and everything in between the fried school prawns at Go Go Daddy are the whole food snack you didn't know you were missing.
BEST NEW CHICKEN
Spoiler: it was a duck. Remember when duck was French and a l'orange? Oh, how the Asian fusion restaurants laughed. This year, duck was in and on everything, but we liked it best during an autumn weekend in Hamilton when Palate Restaurant paired a Cambridge bird with beetroot, liquorice and a citrus-braised endive.
MEAT AND THREE VEGE
Red capsicum, yellow capsicum and onion brought the pretty but it was the smoky, tender lamb that starred in the entree section of the recently reincarnated Augustus Bistro.
If you can't stand the heat, serve raw kingfish. This year's best was at Clooney (where the canapes are a crash course in kiwi culinary identity that everyone should save up for and experience at least) and Sidart, where it came with scampi (because why not?)
BEST NEW GREEN
At R&D Kitchen, they called karengo "bacon of the sea". At Williams Eatery, tempura nori tasted like oysters. Hello Beasty combined wakame with miso and eggplant. Fang made super crispy cones. Seaweed has come a long way since your salmon and avo sushi lunch.
facebook.com/RichmondandDomain, hellobeasty.nz, williamseatery.co.nz, fangyumpunks.co.nz
JUST DESSERTS #1
You've quit smoking and what you really, really miss is that deep, dark, post-dinner inhale. Heaven is on the 53rd floor of the Sky Tower where, back in August, The Sugar Club's dessert menu included bitter chocolate, sesame wafers and Thai-basil scented icecream. Pudding as noir. Intensely and satisfyingly adult.
JUST DESSERTS #2
Or you could get the fried birthday cake soft serve sundae at Lowbrow and your inner teen will love you 4eva.
GO FOR THE 'GRAM, STAY FOR THE …
Chip. The sushi chip. Battered carbs have never looked as good as they do at Wu & You. Also pretty clickable: the cabinet at &Sushi.
DRINKS WITH A VIEW
Their cocktail cred is impeccable, the outlook from that waterfront deck is gorgeous, but what if you're feeling a bit poorly and it's only Tuesday? Enter the tea and sympathy aka house-made lemon and honey soda syrup and excellent service at The Parasol & Swing Company.
DRINKS WITH A VIEW BEFORE DINNER
Start your night on the narrow balcony overlooking Te Ara i Whiti, the bright pink "lightpath" that takes cyclists from K Rd to the city. It's the prettiest place in the city to wait for a table and you will have to wait for a table because the pasta at Cotto is handmade and the charred cos lettuce is the best use of lettuce this century.
BEST BACK STORY
"In a not-too-distant dystopian future, the government homogenises all food flavour profiles ..." Fang's creation myth is bonkers, but the Ant Sang art work is brilliant. There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy and one of them should be smoked gouda and mushroom dumplings (see also: Seaweed).