Phone: (09) 638 6403
Rating out of 10: Food: 7, Service: 9, Value: 9, Ambience: 6
The first thing that bowled us over at Peasant in Dominion Rd was the hospitality. First came the complimentary fragrant jasmine tea to warm us up during one of the coldest nights of the year so far, followed by a generous plate of crunchy, skinny, shrimp-salty taro crisps, which got our taste buds racing while we studied the menu.
Typed small on a sheet of unadorned A6 paper, it was quite long, with some modern favourites interwoven with traditional Vietnamese dishes, just one dessert, and, under "drinks", a small but significant sentence: liquor licence pending. It's not that we particularly wanted wine with Vietnamese food, but a glass of Tiger beer would have been great.
The food selection was, however, terrific. We chose six dishes and the first to arrive was the crumbed egg tofu with almond satay and basil. Though it was for our vegetarian, we couldn't resist digging in - after all, there were about eight pieces for one person. That first small fried fritter changed my prejudices about tofu forever. This had the consistency of clotted cream. The crumb coating added all-important crunch and the almond satay and basil took the flavours to the edge of heaven. I'm ordering my own plate next time.
Next came the market fish: a large fillet nestling on a bed of vermicelli and fresh watercress. It was cooked just to the point of done, seasoned with plenty of salt and piquant hot pepper and doused in nuoc cham dressing, which transformed the underrated trevally into something quite fabulous.
The pho, or Vietamese soup, which we'd noticed from the lunch menu, was luckily still available and I scored the last enormous, fragrant bowl. It arrived deluged in a mix of greens: watercress, basil and others I couldn't identify except to say they were fresh and piquant. The next layer was noodles and down below, hiding in a fabulous, sweet, aromatic oxtail broth, were enough slices of tender beef to feed at least three of us. We shared and shared but still couldn't quite get to the bottom.
As is usual in Vietnam, everything arrived, with apologies to Lewis Carroll, "thick and fast they came at last, and more and more and more". Although the stuffed squid was a little chewy on the outside, its tender heart of pork and water chestnut more than made up for it. The caramel pork belly was right up to standard, if also a little chewy. It arrived, like most of the other dishes, cut into squares for sharing, bristling with spears of crisp green apple, with its flavours accented by a caramelised satay-style sauce. And although the angus beef sirloin was a little tough, it was saved by an electrifying flavour combination of confit garlic and rice wine.
As we reminded ourselves, we're not talking wagyu beef here. These dishes cost between $12 and $15 with only the sirloin and fish hitting $17, plus the plates were brimming and the flavours amazing.
Our black sticky rice desserts, with coconut and lemongrass icecream scattered with, of all things, Maltesers, were fragrant, sweet, sticky and warm. Somehow the rice managed to keep its shape after cooking rather than turning into the pallid sludge remembered from childhood. We loved every exotic mouthful.
As we left we were making plans for our next visit. Despite a huge meal we felt light, healthy and uplifted by the experience. Brothers John and Sam and their enthusiastic team present these Vietnamese dishes so well, even if you don't quite know what to expect.
My only recommendation: bring a warm jacket.
Sadly Peasant's floor-to-ceiling windows, which no doubt make it feel cool, clean and contemporary in summer, make it equally hard to warm in winter. We needed to keep our jackets on all evening while another patron was dining in her puffer. But take a coat and go now. When they do something about the heating and their liquor licence comes through, we predict Peasant will be booked solid.
Our meal: $130 for one large Pho, five sharing dishes, a serving of jasmine rice, a plate of taro crisps and three desserts.
Wine list: Non-existent although there are some interesting sodas to try. Peasant's liquor license should be through by the end of June.
Verdict: One of the most authentic Vietnamese restaurants we've found in Auckland. Flavours burst with that French flair and attention to detail I remember from Hanoi, making Peasant a real stand-out in a city flooded with restaurants. It's great for wheelchairs, there's plenty of parking around the back, the service is friendly and upbeat, the food is truly excellent, there's no pretension and it's honest value for money.