Phone: (09) 523 4554
Rating out of 10: Food: 7, Service: 7, Value: 7, Ambience: 7
Newmarket is fond of touting itself as the premier shopping destination in Auckland but its warmest advocates would have a job convincing anyone that it is a match for the city when it comes to range and quality of eating destinations. So the arrival of a well-publicised new venture justified a trip to see if a challenge might be forthcoming.
Cali certainly looks the part. The decor is striking, stark and chic, with a limited colour palette accented by large punctuations of spiky greenery. The look is, I suppose, California - bright and dry - and the food is described as influenced by the culture of that sunshine state.
This is very much an all-day eatery, with menus adjusted to the time of day although there are obviously crossovers. There are healthy lifestyle grains aplenty and Mexican influences, as you might expect, with tacos featuring alongside burgers. The head chef is Korean but the keynote is less spice and more of those sweet notes to which many Americans are wedded.
In the evening menu, you may find tacos with Korean chicken and pineapple. The beef short rib is pear and soy marinated.
I started in keeping with the recurring motif by going for the california roll, a packaging of cray with soft-shell crab, which was pleasant but surprisingly bland despite the presence of kimchi, nori and pickled ginger. Our other first choice was a good example of ceviche with snapper, prawn, avocado, blue corn chips of an unusual colour but familiar taste and pico de gallo, a fresh Mexican salad based on chopped tomato, onions and cilantro.
Determined to keep up with the theme, my main choice was the Napa Cabbage, a salad featuring a large quantity of greens with sweet notes from grilled prunes, almonds and avocado mousse. This started well but by the time I had eaten most of it the onion dressing had accumulated as a slightly unappetising puddle. I had decided to augment the salad with grilled chicken breast, which was generous and competently cooked but calling it fajita didn't shift my prejudice that ordering chicken breast in any restaurant usually guarantees a boring result.
Our other main, the 24-hour lamb neck was, however, anything but tedious, tender, tasty and accompanied by white quinoa, green beans, pickled prunes and an almond jus.
The service had been provided by amiable and smart young people, if not notably professional, and some clearly keener on socially interacting with each other and preparing to end their shifts rather than keeping an eye on the customers. But one hard-working and enthusiastic staffer went out of his way to praise the desserts.
We had room and they were, like most of the menu, reasonably priced. The apple crumble was rather more of a tart than a traditionalist might have expected but pretty good. My retro and plainly titled icecream sandwich was an acceptable but forgettable slice of vanilla icecream between two rather solid chunks of chocolate cake, which I suspect would be popular with many.
Cali is in large premises and, had it not been for a couple of cheerful, noisy tables nearby, we would have found our mid-week visit lacking in the vibrant atmosphere such a venue needs. But it has its own character and it will be surprising if it is not welcomed by the Newmarket crowd as a stylish addition to the scene.
Our meal: $138 for two starters, two mains, two desserts and two glasses of wine.
Wine list: An unexceptional wine list and they had run out of our requested Cotes du Rhone despite having been open less than two months. But there is a good range of cocktails and other drinks and the wine is offered in two glass sizes.
Verdict: Perhaps best suited for a daytime visit in bright, California-style sunshine, but worth slipping into during the evening if you want a casual and unassuming meal.