Jesse Mulligan’s Auckland Restaurant Review: Milenta, Victoria Park Market’s South American-Inspired Beacon, Has Never Been Better

By Jesse Mulligan
The smoked pork chop with pasilla roja, chilli, paprika, salsa picante and pomegranate molasses on the menu at Milenta. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: South American

Address: 210-216 Victoria St West, central city

Reservations: Accepted


Phone: 027 440 4410

Drinks: Fully licensed

From the menu: Pescado carpaccio $25; venison tataki $26; sweet empanada $14; avocado salsa $16; smoked pork chop $48; heirloom tomatoes $21.

Rating: 19/20

Score: 0-7

I had a rare Saturday night on the tiles recently, the sort of night you don’t often get as a wholesome father of four, but the stars aligned and I found myself on a dance floor after midnight, looking in my head like Justin Timberlake in the ‘Rock Your Body’ video but likely causing all sorts of physical obstructions for others.

Young people arriving at the scene must have got that same feeling you get when you turn into a side road and have to wait for a rubbish truck. Well, at least the rubbish truck was having a good time, reversing back and forth and occasionally extending an arm out to pick up something and empty it into his gaping jaws.

We were at Shy Guy, the private club attached to Milenta. Months ago I’d somehow been made a VIP member and I was delighted to finally have a chance to make the most of it.

“You’re all right mate,” said the bouncer, clearly recognising me from my recently cancelled television show. But I was determined to show him the little metal membership card I’d carried around in my wallet so carefully for the past 18 months and I pulled it out with pride, along with my daughter’s library card and an expired voucher for Real Groovy.

Pickling vegetables and fresh produce embellish the open-air restaurant. Photo / Babiche Martens
Pickling vegetables and fresh produce embellish the open-air restaurant. Photo / Babiche Martens

No, I was perhaps not the coolest person at Shy Guy that night, but it felt good to be back in the Milenta ecosystem, an unlikely outpost of hospitality in the middle of Victoria Park Market. The restaurant was originally built around Elie Assaf, a prodigious chef from Wellington via Williams Eatery, but, now a father of two, he has sensibly pulled back his night-time hours and spends his days curating Middle Eastern treats at The Lebanese Grocer. Nobody would have been surprised if Milenta’s standards had slipped a little since he handed the hearth over to his sous chef Al Alfante, but after visiting last week I can report that things have never been better.

It’s an open-air restaurant in which you would ideally sit under the stars, in the moonshade of an ancient pōhutukawa, but on the night we visited it was hosing down and the set-up still worked perfectly well. They can close the louvres and flick on some heaters and everybody feels cosy, enjoying the beautiful visual effect created by a room where none of the lighting comes from above.

The dining room at Milenta. Photo / Babiche Martens
The dining room at Milenta. Photo / Babiche Martens

The staff are warm, kind and beautiful. Remember when Pharrell Williams filmed that 24-hour movie of people around the world smiling and dancing to his song Happy? Milenta’s wait staff look like that. Meanwhile proprietor Vinci Gin-Nen floats and troubleshoots — stopping to chat to regulars and top up water glasses; he must have a hard streak having survived this long at the top of hospitality but as a punter you never see it — he is always chilled and available, and seems to sprinkle magic wherever he walks.

The food is extremely good, with Elie’s proteges in the kitchen continuing to deliver a world-class menu without the use of electricity. Well, perhaps there is a stick blender plugged in somewhere but the majority of the menu is cooked over coals, in an open fireplace, in a refurbed shipping container.

Or it’s simply cut and assembled, like a wonderful salad of ribbed tomatoes in three colours sliced and layered on a plate, with a mild tapenade, picked basil leaves and an extra surprise: thin segments of orange scorched over the fire and tossed over the dish.

The venison tataki. Photo / Babiche Martens
The venison tataki. Photo / Babiche Martens

I just loved the venison tataki. That protein pops up all over the place these days and it’s almost always good but I sometimes feel its subtle charms are swamped when it’s, say, minced and mixed with a bunch of tasty condiments and served up as a traditional tartare. At Milenta they serve the deer in bright, crimson slices — all that surface area making the most of not just the colour but the shiny, slick veneer of the meat. It’s topped with, among other things, black garlic aioli and a deliciously spicy red chilli emulsion.

Every Auckland menu has a version of ceviche but here they spike the kingfish with generous slices of grilled, chilled sushi-grade prawn — for texture and a little of that exotic shellfish flavour. It’s served on a bright herb oil with pickled pomegranate seeds and a jalapeno-coriander-lime sorbet, and it is a thing of beauty.

There are some strong choices for the main courses too — we’ll come back for the steak and the fish, but loved the roasted pork fillet, coated in a pink peppercorn and Mexican chilli rub, sliced and served on a pleasingly sharp kind of thick chilli sauce.

The pescado carpaccio with charred nobashi prawn, pickled pomegranate, jalapeno, coriander and lime sorbet. Photo / Babiche Martens
The pescado carpaccio with charred nobashi prawn, pickled pomegranate, jalapeno, coriander and lime sorbet. Photo / Babiche Martens

Some of this stuff sounds simple but there is a lot of brainwork and chemistry going on behind the scenes, all in the pursuit of greater flavour. Possibly my favourite moment of the night was when they handed me my “clarified” Bloody Mary, which had all the flavour of the original without that pulpy texture that can make it feel like a meal in itself. This one is almost clear, traditionally spiced, with a splash of dry vermouth adding interest to the vodka.

City restaurants have been quiet these past few months but I feel certain that things will pick up as we enter the party season. Milenta is ideally placed to catch the summer crowd, and would be my number one place to spend a balmy Auckland evening, whether or not you choose to kick on.

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