Jesse Mulligan’s Auckland Restaurant Review: Karangahape Rd’s Underground Bistro Serves Seafood & A Side Of Humour

By Jesse Mulligan
The fish burger, scampi and tuna and scallop skewers on the menu at Underground Bistro in St Kevins Arcade. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: Seafood

Address: Shop 11/183 Karangahape Rd, central city

Reservations: Accepted

Drinks: Fully licensed

From the menu: Oysters $5 ea; scallop and tuna skewer $6 ea; fries with truffle and parmesan $12; grilled scampi $26; tuna with Sicillian sauce $28; gurnard burger $26; mushroom risotto

Rating: 14/20

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. 19-20 Outstanding, don’t delay.

My date was 15 minutes late but these days that’s a gift rather than an inconvenience. Who doesn’t want a surprise 15 minutes to themselves, away from work and out of the house, with nobody demanding anything of them but to choose a glass of wine?

You can easily kill that time on a smartphone or, even better, do nothing and give your brain a chance to rest, and wander, and turn over some of the things that have happened since you last gave it a bit of breathing room, some time around 2008.

Of all the places to stare into the middle distance, St Kevins Arcade is one of the best. There are plenty of people coming and going, a half dozen busy restaurants turning over tables and a sort of communal atmosphere created by the genius decision somebody made to let people dine out in the arcade itself.

It’s “no square footage, no problem” for places like Underground Bistro, who have room for approximately seven customers in their actual shop (previously Acho’s), but can let guests sprawl into the common area when required.

The Underground Bistro's dining lounge. Photo / Babiche Martens
The Underground Bistro's dining lounge. Photo / Babiche Martens

The vibe is casual, occasionally comedic, at this new, small business where they’ve decided to focus exclusively on fish. We are a coastal town after all, but a seafood restaurant on Karangahape Rd feels a bit like a Surf Lifesaving Club in Hamilton — the ocean is the last thing you’re thinking about before a Thursday gig at the Whammy Bar, though of course a piece of snapper tastes good whether or not you’re watching waves while you eat it.

The two gentlemen I presumed to be the owners are young and friendly, and give off the state of wide-eyed bemusement you might expect from first time restaurateurs forced to hit the ground running. Their previous businesses include a furniture boutique and a camera shop, where some level of customer service would be expected yet where, you would imagine, the pace is a little slower.

But here at the bistro, on the floor at least, they are managing to keep up, and are preserving some of the easy-going good humour which must be a minimum requirement to run a successful business in this part of town.

In the kitchen things are a little more hectic. The work station is small and crowded with ingredients past and future, as a guy who looks like somebody’s dad tries to keep his cool while busily assembling one dish at a time.

“Who’s the chef?” I asked the guy serving us.

“That’s my dad,” he said.

I didn’t establish whether Dad was a shareholder, a professional cook or just a family member roped in to ease the labour crisis but he can do the one thing required of a seafood restaurant kitchen — judge when a fish fillet is exactly done. That’s a good thing because most of the menu is fish fillets — snapper, salmon, gurnard or tarakihi for now, though I hope they’ll explore some lesser-known options — porae, skate or at least dory — if they’re serious about taking fish seriously.

One of the things you want from a seafood restaurant is a strong chain of the connection between fisherman and plate, and the blank-ish look I got when I asked how supply had been affected by the storm of the century suggests that might not yet be going on here.

Anyway, as indicated above, Dad’s cooking is pretty good. He doesn’t do much to fancy starters like scallop and tuna skewers — just a wedge of lemon and a some parsley — and I quite liked the confidence of that. Scampi was perfectly cooked, though its hard shell made accessing the flesh very difficult (they should open them up for you before serving).

Oysters come with a vinaigrette rather than the usual mignonette, and I have to say observing the oily texture of the dressing as it pours from the dish (we didn’t get a spoon) is a little strange at first, but it all tastes good.

The scallop and tuna skewers. Photo / Babiche Martens
The scallop and tuna skewers. Photo / Babiche Martens

Mains were a mixed bag: a simple fish burger was greater than the sum of its parts (you can choose the fish, and I didn’t regret taking his recommendation of gurnard), while a mushroom risotto was largely mushroom-free and a tuna steak was cut so thin he had no shot at leaving it rare inside.

So a few areas for improvement but I should be honest about how good most of it tasted: the risotto, the tuna, an overpriced but tasty plate of chips with truffle and parmesan.

When combined with a strong natural wine list and fresh tap beers, this might be the sort of place that succeeds beyond its technical faults.

If you come here expecting a seafood restaurant you might be disappointed; if you come expecting a fish and chip shop you’ll be very pleasantly surprised.

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