Auckland Restaurant Review: Tala, Parnell’s Beautiful New Samoan Spot, Is Unlike Anything Else In This City

By Jesse Mulligan
The mixed entree, fish and pāua on the menu at Tala restaurant in Parnell. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: Samoan

Address: 235 Parnell Rd, Parnell

Contact: 021 172 8349


Drinks: Fully licensed

From the menu: Fāgogo Journey $165pp

Reservations: Accepted

Rating: 18/20

Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss. 13-15 Good, give it a go. 16-18 Great, plan a visit.

Tala has immediately become one of the most beautiful restaurants in Auckland. The chemistry of the space — a warmer reimagining of the famous Pasture dining room — is quite astounding. You feel good from the moment you open the door. Actually, that door was opened for us from the inside as we approached, a nice service touch that lets you know how seriously the staff are taking your experience.

We were each handed a refreshing drink before being led to our table. There was a chair on one side and a comfy banquette on the other but Victoria and I have a drill — instead of fighting over the cushioned seat we quickly assess the width of the table and then ask the maitre d’ if we can sit next to each other instead.

“We wanted to do that but were too scared,” said a woman next to us, and she got up and sat next to her partner too.

The open fire is a hot feature of Tala, which was fitted-out by interiors studio Seear-Budd Ross. Photo / Babiche Martens
The open fire is a hot feature of Tala, which was fitted-out by interiors studio Seear-Budd Ross. Photo / Babiche Martens

Chef Henry Onesemo arrived for the first of many visits he would make during the evening, and for me these tableside chats with him and the staff are one of the best things about this restaurant. Though every other aspect of the meal is refined, elegant, considered, Henry in particular can’t help but ad lib one-liners at almost every interaction.

When he was young his parents bought canned mackerel — “so much nicer than the fresh fish that were swimming in the sea right in front of us”; one dish was “a poor man’s food in Samoa but tonight it’s $200, because we’re in Parnell”; a couple at the bar got a fright when he announced, “First up, raw chicken!”. Not everybody could get away with this sort of stuff — from him it is funny, and endearing and not at all off-putting.

Each dish on the compulsory tasting menu has some connection to Henry’s early, impecunious life in Samoa. An early fruit course references the unripe produce he’d pick from the garden and sweeten with sugar or “Raro, if we had money”. That mackerel would be mixed with curry sauce “to try and make it go further” while a granita course is influenced by the time he ate the ice the fish had been stored in.

It sounds like a pretty lean existence and to be cooking, as an adult, fine dining versions of these memories for wealthy people in one of New Zealand’s most expensive suburbs must be gratifying. Well, it must be something.

The food is exceptional, without exception. Even a simple dish of fruit is special — the slice of apple, for example, humming with the citrusy flavour of the spices sumac and amchur. It’s served with a little coconut butter to add fat to the mouthful and in fact coconut works as a lovely throughline over the next couple of hours via cream, yoghurt, labneh and more — surprisingly, you never get bored of it.

Raw ramen, a taro chip and a banana chip on the menu at Tala. Photo / Babiche Martens
Raw ramen, a taro chip and a banana chip on the menu at Tala. Photo / Babiche Martens

A little plate of snacks featured chef’s take on a bloody mary — a taro crisp with his tomato paste, tiny diced celery and black olive crumb (“As a kid I found a bottle of tomato sauce at home and I didn’t know what it was for,” deadpanned Henry. “I tried it with taro and … it wasn’t for that.”).

Next to it was a banana crisp with a little yoghurt and dusted curry powder, then another tribute to the cuisine of poverty: “raw” ramen — actually cooked, dehydrated and deep fried and, with quick-pickled vege and mayo I’m sure a lot better than the supermarket noodles he used to eat straight out of the packet.

The courses progress through seafood — a wonderful tarakihi curry and a rare kina dish, then on to some big meaty moments — pork belly with masterstock, and a lamb chop sitting on a tiny herby glass noodle salad I could have eaten by the bowlful. From time to time there are local improvisations — he can’t get Samoan yam, for example, but has discovered chickpeas create the same taste and texture if you cook them a certain way.

Every plateful is picturesque, and each leaves you wanting more.

But there’s a big problem with the wine list which is much too expensive. If you’re drinking white, your starting price for a glass is $33 — or you can choose the other option at $41. I can’t understand why they’ve done things this way as it’s a huge barrier to enjoyment and I have to say, to returning. I noticed the couple next to us did the same as we did — ordering a cheaper ($26) cocktail with their early courses then one pinot noir with the later ones — that pinot a comparative steal at $19. There are a couple of lower-priced bottles on the list and I think they need to open these tonight and start offering them by the glass — unhappy local diners don’t complain, but nor do they return.

The apa fafano (hand-washing ceremony) with essential oils. Photo / Babiche Martens
The apa fafano (hand-washing ceremony) with essential oils. Photo / Babiche Martens

In contrast to that, I experienced one of the most beautiful dining moments I’ve ever had towards the end of the meal. Henry and our waitress stood either side of our table and washed our hands with essential oils, over a bowl decorated with petals. It was another tribute to village life, and I found it surprisingly affecting.

They’ve created something truly unique in this restaurant — something you won’t find elsewhere in this city. You won’t find it any other place in the world.

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