Ready to stretch your taste buds with some tempting delights? As today's Curious Food Festival gets under way, Chris Schulz samples five items on the menu.
When Weekend arrives at Sumthin Dumplin's O'Connell Street shop, it's just after the lunchtime rush and there's a cardboard sign on the door that reads: "Sold out."
Owner Shane Liu is standing out front, enjoying some fresh air. He opened his small shop just four weeks ago, and he's sold out of his hand rolled dumplings every lunch time since.
He sells out at dinner time too. Popular? One surfer chap drove in from Piha seven days in a row to get them.
There's not enough space in Liu's shoebox shop to make more dumplings - he says he's already at peak capacity. He and his small team go through 400 kilograms of dumpling dough a day.
"I refuse to freeze them," he tells Weekend, as staff prep for dinner by rolling pastry wrappers on a small bench.
To Liu, authenticity is key. There are no shortcuts taken when it comes to his dumplings, which use his mother's recipes cooked when Liu was young.
"As a kid, I dunked them in tomato sauce," he laughs. They've come a long way since then.
Today, his beef and cheese dumplings are made with wholemeal dough and two types of cheese. It's served with crispy chillis, peanuts and spring onions.
His vegan option, The Monk, comes with a tofu, shitake mushroom and bok choy filling, wrapped in pastry tinged green by spinach. They're the ones customers take Insta photos of as soon as they get them outside.
Liu's mother Lan Ni is still involved, working in the kitchen, hand rolling the pastry.
"They're made by my mum, designed by me," quips Liu. The family connection doesn't stop there: his brother helps out between university lectures, his aunt's in the kitchen too, and his dad, a plumber, occasionally pops in to help out.
It's a necessity: Liu's dumplings are massively in demand. There are often people standing at the door when Sumthin Dumplin opens at 11am, and queues can stretch down the footpath. In the hour Weekend spent there, Liu turned away a dozen people, telling them to return for dinner at 5pm.
At today's Curious Food Festival, he'll sell four packs of his beef and cheese dumplings, as well as his vegan option. He'll also offer a new scallop dumpling that's still being taste tested.
Liu's attitude is it's not worth doing something unless his heart and soul goes into it. He chucked in his high-stress tech job - he says it "turned into Game of Thrones" - to open Sumthin Dumplin, and he couldn't be happier.
Ask Liu if anyone else should follow his lead, quit their day job and chase their dreams, and he points to the neon sign greeting his customers.
It reads: "Sumthin we shoulda done a long time ago."
• Sumthin Dumplin, 12 O'Connell St, sumthindumplin.co.nz
"Snails aren't for everyone," admits Le Chef's duty manager Edouard Le Goff. "But everyone in France eats them."
Le Goff should know: the French native started his O'Connell Street bistro four years ago, and it's become a popular destination for those seeking traditional Parisian fare. It's since expanded into a second room over the footpath.
Snails aren't on the menu all of the time, but Le Goff says customers complain when they're not there. Imported from France, he saves them for special occasions, like the Curious Food Festival, where he'll sell a plate of about a dozen snails for $12.
They'll come with sliced pears, walnuts, garlic, parsley butter, sourdough, and a red wine reduction. As he serves them up to Weekend, Le Goff predicts a sell-out.
Today, it's our first time eating snails, and we made a nervous start that was noticed by a table of rowdy neighbouring diners, who saw the bowl of snails and chanted "Escargot! Escargot!"
For the first few mouthfuls, those nerves got the better of us and we disguised the snails between slices of bread and pear. But we soon got our confidence up and by the end, they were being spooned in and chewed up by the forkful.
"It's just like eating beef," said one of those diners. He's not wrong, but, cooked properly, Le Goff's snails are closer in texture to a firm mushroom. The flavour is more delicate than beef too, and that herb butter really sets them off.
We'd happily devour another plate - but maybe not as a Christmas entree, grilled with butter and spooned straight out of the shell as, Le Goff says, they do back home.
• Le Chef, 13 O'Connell St, www.le-chef.co.nz
Bheja fry, says Sahil Patel, is the "street food of India". "It cooks very fast," he says. "It's very traditional. We're going to make a slider out of it."
For those who don't know, and Weekend certainly didn't, bheja fry is made out of brains - usually lamb or goat. Today's it's goat brains on the menu, and it's the dish we're most nervous about trying.
Patel, one of the founders of 1947's Federal Street restaurant, says we shouldn't be. "It's like a burger, but Indian. It's everywhere in India - but not in restaurants. It's a fast dish, you get it in little stalls, a hand cart.
As he brings the dish to the table, Patel says: "The rich people would come and eat on the streets because you can't find it in the restaurants."
Served as a medium-sized slider, Weekend realises there's nothing to worry about. The brains are silky and soft, the texture of cottage cheese, and with plenty of spices added, it's a more-ish
But there's another dish on the table that Weekend has our eye on. With three activated charcoal paneer balls nestled in a potent tomato sauce, we're keen to try it.
Patel warns not to eat the second dish too fast: you want to experience the flavours, he says. Take your time, let them hit you at the back of the mouth, and then in the chest.
He's right: it's a delightful combination, the smooth texture of the paneer playing off against the spicy sauce that packs in so much flavour Weekend is still licking our lips half an hour after leaving.
At the Curious Food Festival, they'll be serving two bheja fry sliders for $10, and two charred paneers for the same price. They won't adjust the heat, and 1947's dishes don't come with rice. But if you're willing to listen, Patel says they'll happily tell you their story about where their food came from, and what it means to them.
"We wanted to bring change," he says. "We want to create awareness about Indian food."
• 1947, 60 Federal St, 1947eatery.co.nz
Open the doors to Daikoku's North Shore restaurant and you'll be greeted by a screen showing chef Masaru Morita wielding a giant blade as he chops chunks off a towering block of ice. It's mesmerising.
Walk through the restaurant and into the kitchen, however, and Morita's being a little more delicate.
He's testing the three dishes Daikoku will be serving up at the Curious Food Festival: a teppanyaki prawn and paua plate with escargot butter ($12), a scotch fillet with wasabi salsa ($10), and a salmon slider served with pesto in a charcoal bun ($8).
He's making all three at once, gently frying the salmon, then searing the beef and frying up veges separately, preparing serving plates with sauces and parsley, then delicately plating each one up to perfection.
Weekend's surprised to learn we're not being served snails again: that "escargot butter" is a term used to describe butter infused with garlic and herbs, then used on steak. Morita cuts thick slices, places them over the paua then melts them with a blow torch. Cut into four, they're chewy and packed full of flavour.
The beef is up next, a tender, melty cut of steak slightly seared but left rare, served with Daikoku's in-house wasabi salsa. Weekend quickly falls in love with that salsa: Morita explains it's a 50-50 mix of wasabi and jalapenos, and it's delicious and versatile.
We chase that with the salmon slider, and it's our favourite dish yet: warm, delicate pieces of salmon smeared in pesto nestled between a soft charcoal bun. The flowers placed in a perfect arrangement around the plate prove Morita can be gentle when he needs to be.
• Daikoku, 156 Hurstmere Rd, daikoku.co.nz
A steaming bowl of pho arrives at Weekend's table first, a picture-perfect bowl of noodles, sprouts and soft beef in a salty beef broth that's been simmering away in the kitchen for six hours.
"If the beef's not quite cooked enough, push it back down and it will cook some more," the waitress at in Le Vietnamese Restaurant (YNOT's sister site) tells me.
If you like, she says, you can also stir through in a bowl of vinegar infused with chilli to add a little heat. I do. Of course I do.
It's a wildly addictive combo, but as I'm slurping up that broth like an addict, we're interrupted by the banh mi. It lands on our table packed full of melty caramelised pork belly, tightly packed pickled vegetables and fistfuls of coriander.
The pho is instantly pushed aside in favour of the banh mi. Once we start, we can't stop. It's a medley of contradictions: both sweet yet sour, dark yet colourful, soft yet crunchy. As we're eating it, we're dreaming of the next time we can order another one.
But we haven't forgotten the pho. As soon as the banh mi's finished, we return to the still steaming bowl, and continue on our mission to finish it. We get there - just. It's a lot of food.
The waitress says most diners order just one of those things. Those people are silly: if you're heading to the Curious Food Festival, they'll be sold for $10 each, and you should absolutely choose both.
- The Curious Food Festival, 12-8pm, Shed 10, entry fee is $5 (children under 12 are free with a paying adult; first 2000 people get in free)