Restaurant Review: Al Brown’s Depot Is Better Than Ever

By Jesse Mulligan
The schnitzel sandwich on the menu at Depot in Auckland central. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: NZ bistro

Address: 86 Federal St, CBD

Contact: (09) 363 7048

Drinks: Fully licensed

From the menu: Oysters ($5.20-7); trevally sashimi $24; brisket $26; chicken schnitzel sandwich $18; grilled kahawai $32

I’m visiting around some old favourites at the moment because, post-everything, there’s no reason for the shiny,

Even before the novel coronavirus, Depot had attained the dubious honour of “restaurant so good there’s no need to review it”.

Honestly, I thought, how many times do you want to read about sliders as a breakthrough dining out moment? To hear the pros and cons of drinking wine from a tap, out of tumblers? To consider whether there is any other restaurant in New Zealand so inseparable from its founder, where you feel like you could actually be eating fish he’d caught himself, served up at a simple but cosy table on the front deck of his bach?

But if you assume Depot will be as good as last time you were here, you might be surprised: I think it’s better. I’ve visited perhaps a dozen times in the decade it’s been open, but I don’t remember the food ever being quite as good as this and along with that perfection in the mouth comes a fun, festive atmosphere accompanied by what my wife exclaimed loudly was “the best music playlist in the city”.

To give you a sense of her tastes, well, she grew up in Hamilton like me. Where we're from, a good song is one that you can sing along to for most of it and then somebody plays a guitar solo. Think less Doja Cat and more 10CC's The Things We Do For Love.

Depot has a "fun, festive atmosphere accompanied by what my wife exclaimed loudly was “the best music playlist in the city”, says Jesse Mulligan. Photo / Babiche Martens
Depot has a "fun, festive atmosphere accompanied by what my wife exclaimed loudly was “the best music playlist in the city”, says Jesse Mulligan. Photo / Babiche Martens

And as for feeling like you’re at Al Brown’s house rather than his restaurant, I happened to find myself at his place for a meal recently, so I can now tell you with authority that the two are almost indistinguishable. He has somehow managed to transpose the perfect Kiwi bach experience, recreating it in a commercial environment.

(To be fair, not all bach experiences are quite this good you might be more familiar with the one where you pay $1200 for a drafty Airbnb cottage approximately three weeks’ walk from the beach but don’t end up leaving your accommodation because the owner has left such a long list of check-out chores you basically have to start on them as soon as you get there.)

If you thought sliders would be Al’s legacy, you might have to try his Four Square sashimi. Made with trevally, arguably New Zealand’s best fish to serve raw, the dish is designed to be made with ingredients that don’t come from a fridge or a tree.

The combo is simple but perfect: a syrup of soy sauce and sugar, some smashed wasabi peas and a few dots of Kewpie mayo. He’s shared this recipe on his Instagram, so I don’t think he’ll mind me passing it on here though his exact technique for getting the texture of that fish so perfect might be a trade secret. All I’ll say is if you’ve ever caught and filleted your own trevally, try this dish and reconsider everything you thought you knew.

The chicken sandwich is another absolute stunner, ringing so many bells of taste and texture that you could eat it on its own for lunch and feel fully satisfied. The chicken is flattened, crumbed and fried schnitzel-style, then served on soft white bread with lettuce, mayo and salt and vinegar crisps.

Can you think of another restaurant that would dare serve chips in a sandwich and put it on their sharing menu? But can you think of anything that sounds more delicious than this?

The trevally sashimi. Photo / Babiche Martens
The trevally sashimi. Photo / Babiche Martens

There’s often a little surprising sweetness in these dishes, which they balance with contrasting tastes salt, savoury and, in the case of the brisket, tart slivers of pickled carrot. They don’t overdo the portion with this intense cut but, with a sticky braise, creme fraiche and peanuts, it would be more than enough for a main course.

And then there is the kahawai God bless this treasure of our shallow seas. Most fishers already know that it’s fun to catch and very good raw, but at Depot they seem intent on showing its potential as a cooked fillet too. Here it is dusted in garam masala and grilled, then served with a pour-over jug of Thai-style coconut cream and ginger, a fragrant and heady set of flavours for a fish that can stand up to anything.

Try this once and forget forever the myth that this incredible fish is only good for smoking.

I’ve tried to make their sashimi at home and can’t get it tasting as good as the bought version. But last week while lure fishing from the shore of Manukau Harbour, I caught a big kahawai, took it home and recreated the Depot version to the delight of my family. If you have the time and energy, you should do the same.

Or spend 30 bucks and have it with a tumbler of wine at Depot, the closest thing New Zealand has to a national restaurant.

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