Take a seat and adjust your assumptions. Not all noodle shops are created equal, discovers Canvas food critic Kim Knight.
302 Dominion Rd
Ph: (09) 888 9034
WE SPENT: $70.80 for two
WE THOUGHT: 15 - Good
Is Dominion Rd Auckland's most misunderstood dining district?
It is synonymous with dumplings and date nights. Bright lights, bubble tea and a stereotypical assumption about the price of fried rice (cheap).
But that's just one version of events.
Behemoth Brewing, for example, is running a crowdfunding campaign to build a new brew pub, butchery and nose-to-tail eatery. Cazador - the city's very best neighbourhood restaurant - is on this road and so is a major supplier of the Freedom loaf, the most gluten, dairy, refined sugar, egg and yeast-free hipster bread in the known universe. At Belly Worship, the main drawcard is the fusion-fantastic Chinese burrito. Flavours include spicy sliced potatoes. Is it vegan? I'm quoting directly from the menu when I report, "Oh yeah, it is. We got you fam."
My point? The gentrification of Dominion Rd continues apace. It is probably only a matter of time before the Frizzells paint a mural outside a noodle shop.
Oh, wait ...
The thing is, you shouldn't judge this road by its cheap eat cliches and, also, the noodle soup at Huai Yang was more to my taste than said painting.
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Dominion Road home to new mural project
I ate here before I did the reading. My soup ($13.90) was elegant and delicate, packed with beautifully tender vegetables and smokily-sweet slices of pork. The flavours were subtle but soothing. I had, initially, thought the restaurant was called "a noodle less ordinary" but that's just its English catchline. Huai Yang is its actual name and, it turns out, a gastronomic reference point.
Back to the reading. Huai Yang is one of the four main cuisine types in China (the others are Cantonese, Shandong and Sichuan). It is described as "slightly sweet and almost never spicy". Food tends to be braised, steamed or stewed, rather than fried. One of its hallmarks is the deployment of meticulous knife skills.
Based on the above, and with no knowingly consumed point of comparison, this new restaurant is, ergo, the best example of Huai Yang food I've eaten.
The restaurant is in the old Love a Duck building, a few blocks north of the Balmoral strip, near the Valley Rd shops. Upstairs used to be a Valentines, but now it's a yum char restaurant. Lots of customers wandered in looking for the latter and I wanted to tell them to go no further, to stay and slurp the soup with the chewy housemade noodles and those perfect vegetables.
Spicy sauce is available free and on request but I reckon go with that meaty, blurry, five-spicy broth for a bit. Sometimes, less is more. (Huai Yang cuisine is sometimes referred to as the food of poets - if you're more of blank verse slammer than a scholar of sonnets, then Huai Yang restaurant also serves popcorn chicken.)
There is no wine list but they do serve Garage Project beer, Antipodes sparkling water and a bunch of sodas including a nectarine mint julep, which sounds exceptionally lovely but only once spring has stopped behaving like winter.
Hot jasmine tea came in a classy earthenware jug. For the first time in my Chinese restaurant-frequenting life, I got more in my cup than on the tablecloth. James' beer was served in a ceramic tankard. Ambient jazz floated across the blond wood and white-walled room that had been decorated with giant bunches of fresh and dried flowers. It was Scandi-chic meets a quite garlicky 90s.
I'd ordered liang ban huang gua "AKA the famous Chinese cucumber salad" ($8) with a spicy sauce, but we received the very heavily and visibly garlicked version. Never mind, because it was crisply, saltily, stinkily delicious (and the only service mishap of the night).
We loved an unassuming plate of marinated, slow-cooked beef shin ($10). The meat was sliced thin and its lines of gelatinous tendon had congealed to jet aeroplane consistency. Superb flavour, divine texture.
The signature noodles are served "ordinary" and "less ordinary". Pork features heavily on both lists, but only one of those lists includes tripe and kidney parts. I'm sorry, but I didn't. Our table was already laden and the overall effect was a vegetable garden to rival my granddad's. Celery, onion, potato, capsicum, two types of mushroom, bean sprouts, beans, cabbage, carrot, potato - if it could be sliced or diced, it had been.
Our final dish was a pork stir-fry ($15). This left no room for the only desserts on offer (no ordinary popsicles - think mango margarita and berry mojito) but I had no regrets. The thick, rich sauce was noticeably fattier than anything else we'd eaten and I loved the way it soaked into the cabbage greens and made a virtue out of vibrant garlic bolts. You might also know these as "scapes". Left unchecked, the long stalks develop pretty flowers but let's not wax too lyrical - you're here for dinner recommendations, not decor tips.