Jesse Mulligan’s Auckland Restaurant Review: Culprit Is ‘The Most Exciting Dining Room In The CBD’

By Jesse Mulligan
The seafood platter on the menu at Culprit restaurant in Auckland. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: Bistro

Address: Level 1, 12 Wyndham St, central city

Contact: 09 377 5992

Drinks: Fully licensed

Reservations: Accepted

From the menu: “Epic” tasting menu $109pp.

Rating: 20/20

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

My notes on Culprit are a little scant because afterwards, instead of going home to dutifully record details of the meal, I went straight out to a concert at Spark Arena.

The concert was incredibly bad but I can’t give you any more details than that because I was given free tickets, which puts me in a somewhat compromised position as a reviewer. No such trouble for the weekly restaurant review, which I pay for with my own money and can thus be as critical or lovestruck as I like.

It’s the latter this week at Culprit for one of the great meals of my lifetime. Though it was already a certified city classic, the restaurant has an unmistakable new energy that has to be experienced to be believed.

Gone are the yum cha-style trolleys, which were so fun in the early days but whose novelty was starting to creak a little bit when I last visited. With the departure overseas* of business partner Jordan, chef Kyle Street has taken the opportunity to refresh the service, darken up the decor and, apparently, sprinkle some magic dust over everything.

The refreshed dining room at Culprit. Photo / Babiche Martens
The refreshed dining room at Culprit. Photo / Babiche Martens

We were seated at the bar, which at other restaurants can feel like the consolation prize for diners who didn’t book early enough but which here is the best spot in the building.

The Auckland Arts Festival was on but you’d struggle to find a theatre show more dramatic than this one, where, just a couple of feet away, half a dozen chefs prepare world-class food for a restaurant full of hungry people. If you can’t wait for season two of The Bear on Disney+ in June, this is the perch for you: close enough to hear the chefs stress and cuss but also to catch moments of genuine kindness.

There were young and I presume new staff in the kitchen and on the floor and just occasionally one of the seniors would say to them something like, “You’re doing great”, and for a moment the newbie’s expression of hyper-anxiety would be replaced by the broadest smile you can imagine.

Then a new order would come in and everybody would put their serious faces back on and get to work. It’s clearly very stressful to have this job, but happily unstressful to watch — your own nerves soothed by the fact that your only responsibility on this production line is to load the end product into your mouth.

Kitchen supremo Kyle is an increasingly charismatic figure, and he’s surrounded by youthful chefs keen to learn from his mastery of fine comfort eating. His roster includes eager novitiates who occasionally haven’t even finished their formal training — going to school by day then learning on the job at night.

You’d discover pretty fast whether this sort of life was for you — and though you might occasionally get a sharp word from Kyle or head chef Robertta Young, I reckon working in one of the top kitchens in the country is much more likely to be addiction-forming than off-putting for the kids taking part in the scheme.

The grilled peaches with gabagool. Photo / Babiche Martens
The grilled peaches with gabagool. Photo / Babiche Martens

Although the yum cha thing was all about grabbing what you felt like right in that moment, Culprit now operates a set menu, with an optional “epic” seafood platter, a choice of mains with a supplement for duck and an almost secret menu of classic Culprit dishes (ugly carrots, roasted bone marrow) available on request, to keep the regulars happy.

You can also, technically, order more of the set menu items. That might seem unlikely but while we were there we heard someone ask for another round of milk buns — incredibly soft sliders (steamed then roasted), filled with a pocket of hot shiitake butter and dusted with a little Marmite powder.

“About one in every four tables ask for more of those,” said one of the chefs, when we asked about it.

That little slider is a good insight into the food, which seems designed to give your tastebuds every sensation they’re physically able to experience. Crunchy potato chips with an impossibly light crayfish mousse to dip them in; grilled peach halves with blue cheese, walnut and gabagool; chef-made jet plane lollies with kaffir-lime dipping powder; lamb neck braised to perfection, stripped and pressed then dipped in Skippy cornflakes and fried on an iceblock stick before being plated with smoked yoghurt and an Indian-spiced eggplant chutney.

The smoked kahawai toast. Photo / Babiche Martens
The smoked kahawai toast. Photo / Babiche Martens

I ordered the brisket for my main — again perfect with a little sweet acidity from a side of caponata, and some fresh crunch from raw zucchini, but otherwise unadorned.

But maybe I missed a trick because duck after duck kept coming out of that kitchen — each whole bird stuffed, roasted then dismembered before being plated for a dish that attracted a $12 supplement but seemed irresistible to this Saturday-night dinner crowd.

This sprawling dinner for two with multiple drinks cost me under $300 which is incredible value for the experience. It is the most exciting dining room in the CBD right now, and some of the best food you’ll eat anywhere.

I couldn’t find a way to take even half a point off — Culprit is a perfect restaurant.


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