JUDE and I did an unusual thing recently. I phoned a restaurant, booked a table, gave them my name and number, and we went out for dinner. Nothing flash: it was only a neighbourhood bistro (though that’s fiendishly hard to find when your neighbourhood is Downtown Auckland).
The unusual things were that I could give my name and that we could eat on our own. When we’ve gone out to dinner in the past, we’ve usually taken a couple of hundred thousand close friends with us.
I’ve been writing about restaurants, and eating out around Auckland (and the odd place in Wellington, and Melbourne, and Paris, and the Italian countryside) for 12 years. Then I called time on my column and went back to being an ordinary diner.
Though that’s what I’d always tried to be. Never called myself a food writer or a critic – just someone who likes food, wine, conversation, company, a reasonable meal for a reasonable price with reasonable service. Okay, and the all-too infrequently exceptional one of all of the above. And relishing the chance to tell the readers about it.
(Strange thing is, that’s what most restaurant writers are like. The good ones, anyway. They’re not frowsty madames who purse their lips if the chef hasn’t cooked the crumble the way they do it for their dinner parties at home, or middle-aged men harrumphing that the sauvignon is a tad chilled, or waiting to type 500 vitriol-dripping expletives if the 18-year-old waitress who’s just come out of a three-hour French exam at Uni drops a fork.)
Twelve years is quite a menu of entrees, mains, desserts and “Yes, thank you waiter, I will have another glass of syrah.” Thankfully, the waistline and arteries aren’t showing too many ill-effects and most of the brain cells seem intact. So here are some thoughts on what’s happened on tables from Albany to Bombay since the mid-90s.
Fashions and trends, naturally. And some not so naturally. One of the first dead-set flash places I wrote about was one of two Cajun restaurants in the inner-city. Care to imagine the response if a chef put alligator on a menu these days? (Like chicken, actually, just a touch stronger.)
Those trends – chefs would prefer to call them styles – have taken us through the Med, around the Pacific Rim, criss-crossed Asian fusion, nouvelle, old-fashioned comfort food, low-carb, high-end dining.
Last Christmas, I totted 20 places where you should eat in Auckland. One interesting point from that list was how many restaurants have lasted the distance: Antoine’s, Cibo, The French Café, Kermadec, Vinnie’s. You can add Andiamo, Prego, Harbourside, VBG. True, few (if any) have the same owners or chefs but Rule One for finding a good restaurant is: “You can always rely on reliability.”
Rule Two: Good restaurants tend to attract one another. Take the rise and fall and rise of Ponsonby. Twelve years back, the Strip and Jervois Rd were probably the only place where you’d find a decent choice of eateries. Rents, recession (there’s been more than one), host responsibility (okay, drink-driving laws), the Viaduct and Parnell Rd … Ponsonby lost its shine. And some pretty low-rent operators moved in, too.
But in the past couple of years the suburb has its mojo, and its mojito, back. Geoff Scott did the impossible: bought the legendary Vinnie’s and recast it as a new and exceptional restaurant. Andiamo was excellent but after a few … well, let’s just say that the current incarnation is one of the city’s secret places. Now Sid Sarawhat has taken the much-unloved Alhambra site and created Sidart. I’ll write more about him, and his food, at a later date.
Rule Three: “It’s part of a chain. They’ve got one in Parnell and one in Howick and …” No. Enough said.
Rule Four is “don’t be scared”. Of those 20 must-eat places, their styles began with Modern New Zealand – a genuine cuisine that few could have dared imagine, let alone flip a credit-card for, 12 years ago. Now it is something that we should be hugely proud of. It continued with “innovative classics” (it is possible to tweak coq au vin and improve it), techno (my word for sous-vide and what started life as “molecular gastronomy”), Hong Kong Chinese, seafood, modern Indian, Ayurvedic, modern Japanese …
People don’t put hundreds of thousands of dollars, and their professional reputations, and years and hours of sweat, and their marriages, on the line for food that no one’s going to eat. Trust them.
Rule 5: Hundreds of thousands of new New Zealanders have landed here in those 12 years. They’re brought their food and because Auckland is where most live, we’ve been blessed with – there’s no other word for it – some fantastic heritage-cuisine eateries. (Please don’t insult them by turning your nose up at some premises – just look at the food certificate that must be displayed.) It’s helpful if you can find someone who knows about that cuisine and can tell if you‘re eating something dumbed-down for Kiwis. And the worst offenders on that score aren’t necessarily recent arrivals. I defy anyone to find a truly great Italian trattoria or ristorante in this city.
Gripes? I’ve got a little list of those, too. Not expensive bottled water because it’s easy to say, “No, I’ll have a glass of Hunua 09.”
Restaurants that don’t have a reasonable selection of wine by the glass (no excuse with modern technology, and 21st Century wines are modern technology). Ludicrously priced “sides”: read, your vegetables.
Menus that prattle about “our chef going down to the wharf to personally select the Market Fish of the Day” (ever tried to do that at Halsey St? Only if you’re Peter Gordon in a tourism ad). Or “our fresh hand-picked seasonal garden vegetables” when it’s midwinter in Newmarket.
Come to think of it, menus in general: the ones with more romantic descriptions than a Mills & Boon novel and those that don’t give a clue what’s in the dish. Here’s an unbreakable rule: never, ever eat in a place that uses the Comic font on its menu.
Staff who haven’t been taught what they’re serving: you don‘t have to know what a “financier” is. The waiter should. And if he doesn’t, in these times he’d better learn pdq.
For there’s no denying it’s hard times at the moment. One extremely well-known chef, so well-known that I don’t dare use his name, told me recently that he’d just had his worst week’s business in 10 years at one of the country’s most celebrated eateries.
Which is good times for diners. There’s never been a better time to go out to eat, and to go out to eat at reasonable prices with staff who are falling over themselves to please you with the food, wine and service.
It doesn’t have to be the flashest place in town. Chances are, it’s your neighbourhood bistro. You probably know a place just around the corner that’s great because no one else has discovered it yet. Especially the restaurant reviewers.