Everything is going to be okay. Restaurant critic Kim Knight finds comfort in a bowl of beef cheek curry at Takapuna's Tok Tok Kitchen.
Time has no meaning now. In lockdown, we ate when we wanted to and that was all the time. Out of lockdown? It depends when you can get a booking.
If the Covid-19 response has a silver lining, it's that (in level 2, at least) restaurants are taking reservations. The flipside? Leave it too late and you'll be eating really early.
The only slot available was 5pm. I anticipated a restaurant full of us and, well, us. I'd clearly underestimated how desperate we all were to eat something other than our own terrible sourdough. On the first weekend they could open, Takapuna's Tok Tok Kitchen was as full as the rules allowed and a steady stream of walk-ins was turned away. Social distancing is tough on restaurants but at least there are spare tables to accommodate your doggy bags.
I've wanted to eat at Tok Tok since it wowed me with an exceptional small plate at Taste Auckland (RIP). The North Shore always feels so far away but after six weeks confined to Chez Home it was a glorious adventure. We walked on the beach, drank in the late afternoon sun and quietly anticipated someone else cooking our dinner and clearing our plates. (Our dishwasher died during week one of lockdown. I cannot overstate how much I wanted someone else to clear the plates.)
Cane light shades are interior design shorthand for "Asian fusion" and so it is at Tok Tok where the water comes in a canteen, not a carafe, and the menu stars ingredients like betel leaves, pandan and pork belly.
I have, previously, banned myself from reviewing pork. It is too delicious to criticise. Ten years ago, when my new boyfriend told me his family preferred pork to turkey at Christmas, I resolved to marry him. (We're still totally doing that, BTW, just as soon as venues, caterers and international border crossings can be co-ordinated.)
So we had the pork belly ($31). Four substantial pieces of meat with soft skin, luscious fat, smoky background heat and slightly pickled pineapple. It was a bowlful of happy place but there were so many more bowls to consider. Best dish: the beef cheek curry ($35). Kūmara for sweetness and a pervasive dark and woody aroma throughout. Cassia or cinnamon, maybe some star anise? Flavour that can only be created with time and care. I wanted to snuggle close and breathe deeply. It was a curry that said everything was going to be okay.
We had started light with the most "fusion" of the fresh rice paper summer roll options ($16 for two). Salmon was prettily beetroot-cured, but the flavour somewhat lost in a jungle of vermicelli and salad. Salt and pepper squid ($18) was pricey and needed more salt for my palate. To be fair, both of these entrees had an almost impossible act to follow.
The menu said "lamb bites". They arrived, mousy-brown and humble. Then the slightly crisp exterior gave way to slow-cooked amazingness. Lamb bites ($19 for four) are the ugly ducklings of Tok Tok's menu; unassuming mouthfuls that explode into an entire Sunday roast condensed into a canape that would have been too rich without an accompanying perfectly piquant yoghurt sauce. Go now, order many.
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We really did over-order. One flaky, puffy roti ($6 each) would have been plenty. A shitake salad ($19, refreshing, with added chewy mushroomy interest) survived surprisingly well into lunchtime the next day, and the dessert ($15) probably should have gone into a doggy bag too but it was just too good.
The pandan tapioca with pineapple and lychee is vegan. You wouldn't know this unless you were paying attention - it's super (coconut) creamy. I loved the bland chewiness of the starchy little tapioca balls against a crunchy puffed rice and chilli-toffee topping. The fruit added little punches of sweet-and-strangeness. If early 80s experiments in fusion put you off lychees for life, this is the dish to convert you. Pretty and clever and so refreshing.
Actually, the entire night - by which I mean very early evening - was refreshing. Our waitstaff were beyond eager to please; the one-server-per-table-only edict thwarted, I think, by sheer habit ("how is your food, can I take your plate, would you like another drink" is ingrained and second-nature).
Customers were mentally checking their distance from other diners and more than one handbag contained hand sanitiser. But there were cocktails and hugs and belated birthdays and family gatherings all around us. We were like small creatures emerging from our burrows, blinking in the sunlight, wondering if it was safe. While the world didn't feel entirely normal, every bite of lamb, beef cheek and pandan pudding made it feel immeasurably better.
Tok Tok Kitchen, 129 Hurstmere Rd, Takapuna, Ph: (09) 489 3988. We spent: $219 (including four drinks).