Raise a rosé-tinted glass to a playful Commercial Bay restaurant, writes Canvas restaurant reviewer Kim Knight.
This is, perhaps, what it's like to be a gannet. Beak poised, beady eye on the kaimoana prize. Seen from above, the sea urchin custard is a rockpool. It smells, unmistakably, of the ocean. It tastes like night-swimming.
We take turns with teaspoons, dredging up scampi and salty blips of caviar. I'm a sucker for Japanese chawanmushi but this kina-infused version is thicker and creamier, more rich mousse than steamed savoury custard. It has divided our table. One person likes it best and another likes it least but only the former is writing this review. For the record, the sea urchin custard ($18) is fantastic.
It took three attempts to get a seat at The Poni Room. The economy might be fragile but there's no sense of that in the Commercial Bay restaurants that have buzzed since opening. If you can get a window table you'll be rewarded with the best of both views: the inner harbour at night and a dining room that is very pretty in pink. Sure, you can get a sav, but the main alcohol story is rosé - on tap and stashed in the try-before-you-buy ice buckets. Ultimately, my cheeks would turn pinker than the decor.
The original Poni Room is in New York, in the bowels of Bowery restaurant Saxon + Parole (another of the AvroKO Hospitality Group offerings en route to Commercial Bay). I googled the American menu and ours is better because it has crayfish, lamb and brussels sprouts.
The lamb was described as Szechuan. I recently ate an eggplant dish featuring this northern Chinese peppercorn and couldn't feel my mouth for the next hour. Approach with caution or find a kitchen (like the Poni Room's) where they go for mild blurriness over total anaesthetic. The pull-apart tender lamb shoulder meat was soaked in sauce and we piled it in baby cos lettuce leaves and steamed bao - a DIY hamburger for our times ($42, serves four).
It was our second round of bao. Duck buns ($18 for four) that looked like sausage rolls were dense with meat but that dough won't weigh you down. Twice risen, explained our waitperson who also tried to tell us we'd only need one large plate. We successfully ignored him, gutsing down a laksa-like pumpkin curry, crunchy with beansprouts ($28). Pleasant but next time I'd skip it for a double order of prawn and shiitake dumplings ($20). The wrappers were tissue-delicate and they paddled in a pool of hot-sour tom yum broth that was a slurpy delight.
The executive chef who has devised this menu is Brad Farmerie. He's Michelin-starred but, in this neck of the woods, probably gets more cachet for a 10-year cooking connection to the kitchens of Kiwi culinary genius, Peter Gordon. (Is that kina-by-any-other-name custard making even more sense now?)
My ongoing adventures in bean curd (see the recent Cafe Hanoi review) continued with an inspired dish of salt-and-pepper crusted tofu, tossed with mushrooms and a truffle-oiled gochujang sauce ($18). You know that old sock smell but they're your own socks, so it's weirdly okay? Trust your nose, this dish of funky ferment is outstanding. (A week later, one guest who read this review declared, "It makes me want to go straight back and order tofu and I can tell you that's the first time in my 49 years I've ever said that.")
We couldn't manage dessert (perhaps I should have listened to the waitperson) but I couldn't fault our Poni Room experience - tasty and interesting food, knowledgeable and friendly service, a lively and louche ambience. It's no mean feat to make a customer forget they've walked through a mall before dinner. We pushed through those Japanese noren curtains and entered a completely new world. Maybe, come summer, you'll want to be on the waterfront instead of looking at it but right now The Poni Room is the perfect option for a boisterous night of rosé-tinted hedonism.
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The Poni Room, Level 1, Commercial Bay, 72 Quay St, Auckland. Ph (09) 869 7148. We spent: $331 for four.