august in auckland

Delaney Mes of Heartbreak Pie blogs Auckland Restaurant Month in the big little city!

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Dinner date: The Grill by Sean Connelly

The Grill by Sean Connelly has had some very positive press lately, and as well as a sold-out event showcasing the best of Federal St, their Auckland Restaurant Month set menu looked to be one of the best value. 3 courses and a glass of wine for $45 was on offer and it had been a long while since I’d had a bona fide dinner date. Dinner dates usually make for quite good blogging, so with the help of Jesse Mulligan and twitter, I found myself on a date at The Grill with Brendon. 

Brendon is a comedian, and according to both my flatmate and whoever judged the NZ Comedy Festival Best Newcomer Award earlier this year, a very funny one. He does other things apart from comedy, and is clearly awesome because he said yes in the first place. The pre-date email banter was promising, as was The Grill’s menu.

As well as top honours in the latest Cuisine magazine, I had sampled Connelly’s treacle tart at the Auckland Restaurant Month media launch (which, after 10 courses and matched wines that night, was stunning). I had high hopes, but I was equal parts really excited and really nervous. And what do I do when I’m nervous? I talk too much. But more about that later. 

We had aimed for Bellota for a drink first - one of the top 5 recipients of the coveted ‘best first drink on a first date’ in Metro back in 2010. But it was closed, so a much less celebrated bar would have to do. After downing my obligatory first date gin, we crossed over Federal St to The Grill. 

An early observation was that Sean Connelly of The Grill by Sean Connelly was not at The Grill. However, we were seated in large lush brown leather seats and began with a wine while investigating the menu.   

To start there was a choice of a pumpkin salad or a ‘suckling pig terrine’. Upon choosing the pumpkin, Brendon told me he couldn’t do terrine because it reminded him of cat food. ‘Chef’ to be exact. I thanked him for drawing that to my attention, laughed, and ordered it anyway. 

This wasn’t a chunky pate like terrine I’d had before; it was softer shreds of pork encased in a crumbed patty. It was great with the celeriac slaw, but both entrees were absolutely doused in a mountain of either parmesan or pecorino cheese. They were great flavour combinations clearly, but someone was a little over-zealous with the microplane. 

Although I’d asked him out under the guise of a blog post, panic set in slightly when he started telling me about his successful Comedy Festival hour long show, and the fact it had comprised of years of material, now all used up. It dawned on me that I was potentially comedy fodder for his part-time creative side-career, as he was to mine. I was nervous; first dates, and especially blind dates, really are just a judgey-sussing-each-other-out type situation. I tried to keep the rants to a minimum, and there ended up being lots of good conversation, covering all the usual suspects (music, films, Chinese character tattoos, travel, and food).  

His face entirely lit up when the waitress accidentally brought desserts before the mains, and then showed obvious disappointment as she swiftly turned around realising her mistake. I had a self-confessed sweet tooth on my hands, which lead to a in-depth discussion of cakes and muffins and cupcakes and brownies. ‘What kind?’ I asked him, to which he replied ‘all chocolate’ extremely seriously. (I may or may not have been internalising ‘let me bake for you!’ at this point, but I digress). 

Anyway, the steaks. They were great. But that’s all they were - a giant hunk of meat, on the bone, beautifully cooked and with a ramekin of horseradish on the side. And how good really can a big beautiful steak be? I mean, great. But we only ordered salad on the side, so dinner was simply meat and lettuce. Crisp cos (pronunciation was pondered: Cos? Coz?) and radish was our lone side. The duck fat potatoes probably would have been a good idea.

A bathroom breather break brought to my attention that this expensive, swanky, steak house - one of NZ’s best restaurants - requires you to leave the restaurant, make a long, brightly lit, tortured walk across a hotel lobby, and into a corner of the building, to use the bathroom. Granted, there’s some of my favourite contemporary NZ art gracing the walls on the journey. But in my humble opinion, you shouldn’t have to cross a large vacuous foyer to get to an impersonal bathroom at one of the country’s best restaurants. They do a lot of things really well though; the service was flawless, for example.

Sometimes on dates, chat about dating will come up, and my internal monologue started screaming “stop talking!” as I accidentally found myself halfway through a dating disaster story involving me pouring a glass of red wine down myself and the dinner table last year. He laughed politely though, and on the whole seemed to be enjoying himself. We found a mutual love of an obscure Scottish band, and there were similarities to our suburban childhoods. He told me about his love of film and how he quit his job and moved to Paris after watching Revolutionary Road a few years ago. We were each partial to a good burger, and the intricacies of scrambled eggs and mousetraps were dissected as we literally sawed through our enormous short rib steaks. The food took a backseat, and I could have kept yarning for hours. 

And then came dessert. Even as a self-confessed optimist, Mr Positive showed disappointment. The raved-about treacle tart to him tasted like overcooked sugar, and my creme caramel, which I kindly donated to the sweet tooth disappointment cause, was in fact not set properly. The topping was a pool of liquid rather than a set caramel, so all in all just ok. Not bad, just not up to expectations. The eternal optimist who sees the positive in everything was even able to admit that the meal really did peak at the entree.

The Grill is, I’m sure, a very very good restaurant. A good friend rates their medley of meat dish as one of the best meals he’s had. They just didn’t quite take the opportunity to use a cheap set menu to showcase their best work and entice people back for the full shebang, and maybe they simply don’t need to. 

It was a fun night though; good food, great banter, lots of laughs and wine which made it successfully from glass to mouth every time. On that basis alone, I’m calling it a success.

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Chef chat: Warren Turnbull at District Dining

Just before Josh Emmet flew in to take over the rather beautiful District Dining for the event A Taste of Rata (which I unfortunately couldn’t go to but you can read about here) I got to have a coffee and a yarn with the man behind the Britomart restaurant, Warren Turnbull.

Turnbull has Assiette in Sydney as well as District Dining’s Australian original. Here in Britomart with his wife Mimi, they run District Dining and the hugely popular gone-ballistic Mexico. We got yarning about bloggers and Auckland and mince on toast, and the roundabout way food comes back into fashion. We also pondered: are sliders and tacos really the way of our dining future?

District Dining works on the premise of serving beautiful, clean and not overworked food. Shared plates are small or large, with inventive sounding flavour combinations. Despite this current trend in a shared, more relaxed way of dining Turnbull maintains he’s pretty old school in his approach, and is clearly proud of his fine dining background.

He currently spends a lot of time on the AKL-SYD commute, so although not doing a lot of cooking at home, I asked what he’d cook for a quiet night at home. He explained it would have to be a really good piece of steak and a salad; simple and delicious and easy on the dishes, something we both admitted to hating having to do. 

His upbringing featured overcooked lamb roasts and mince on toast in Avondale. He explained how they’d always have breakfast as a family, and that whilst spud-peeling was a part of his childhood, cooking wasn’t really on his radar until he left school. He explained the first day he walked into chef school, having left secondary school and needing a job, he was absolutely hooked. He said he fell in love with it all, and after his first job in Auckland’s Cincin he cooked in Europe before ending up back in Sydney. 

He’s hugely talented, extremely passionate, full of experience, but so friendly and down to earth. There was no hint of ego as we talked about pubs, and it’s clear it has been a lot of hard work which has got him to where he is. I pestered him for what he considered to be  Auckland’s best kept food-secrets, and he has a big thing for the Glenfield night markets, where there’s apparently a lot and cheap tasty street food. We had a mutual love of Auckland as a city, and agreed it’s getting better by the day. Pretty much we just yarned about food, and it was awesome. 

Having worked with Emmet in London, he was looking forward to getting back in the kitchen with him for A Taste of Rata, and by all accounts it sounded like a success. For the remainder of Auckland Restaurant month District Dining has a $35 set menu, but the menu the rest of the time looks well worth a visit in itself. 

From tacos to gastronomy and twitter and tapas, this is one chef whose passion is obvious. He absolutely loves food and cooking and I’ll be booking a table at District Dining to taste the benefits as soon as possible.   

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Dinner date: Kitchen at Hotel DeBrett

My dear friend Laura and my new friend Josh made excellent dining companions for dinner last week. I’d never been to Hotel DeBrett before despite walking past it daily, but I’d heard good things. Walking in it could have been any city in the world, and the place nails it’s casual fine-dining setting.

Laura was heading overseas the next day, and both of us being former waitresses, wanted somewhere good but not stuffy for a food-filled farewell. We sassed ourselves up and began with a gin.

During Auckland Restaurant Month, Kitchen are offering up a pre-show set menu, where you can choose two courses for $45 or three for $55. We (obviously) went with the three.

I began with rillette - a chunky terrine of pork and rabbit which was served with toasted brioche and apple. I enjoyed it, but the pick of the two choices, and let’s face it, it was always going to be a competition of Who Chose Best with just the two options, would have been the tuna. Alongside a subtle wasabi panna cotta, and a plate smeared with avocado, it was an impressive combo of flavours.

   

Seafood also took out the top honours in the battle of the main course. Both us ladies went with the veal osso bucco - great flavours and perfectly balanced with a saffron risotto cake and cavolo nero - my only gripe being it didn’t quite fall off the bone. Josh’s fish - a pot au feu - was crispy skinned terakihi in a fresh, flavourful broth.

Dessert it was a matter of chocolate versus cheese, and by then our conversations had canvassed the history of the Hotel, tragic hotel experiences, and angry customers versus psycho chefs. We’d gone from Pinot Noir to a Waiheke Syrah, which with the cheese was particularly good. Laura’s cheese plate was a generous serving of some of Kapiti’s finest, and Josh and I had the zabaglione, a very light custard bordering slightly on tasting like unset ice cream, the standout being the wafer thin slices of valrhona chocolate sticking out of it.

It was beautiful food, and very good value. It’s somewhere you would forget existed, although some regular punters of the O’Connell St persuasion probably like it that way. They’re trying hard to shake any stigma attached to being a hotel restaurant, and succeeding really, because let’s face it, hotel restaurants can be awful lonely places with bad decor, and often empty serving up bad food. I’m qualifying that statement only with my experience of eating a terribly cooked solo steak at a hotel restaurant in Dunedin once, and the other time in Christchurch, where even something as full proof as fish and chips was really really bad. 

Kitchen is not in the same league at all - it’s holding it’s own in the CBD and serving up casually beautiful food in a gorgeous setting.

Hotel DeBrett are hosting a Wine & Game dinner this Wednesday (22 August) which for $150 will get you five courses matched with Foxes Island wine. The menu features rabbit, hare, venison and a goats cheese cheesecake - if there’s one things I love it’s not having to decide what to eat when I go out, and a wine matched dinner is the perfect solution. 

Thanks to Hotel DeBrett for hosting us, it was gorgeous. 

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Spotlight: Pulled Pork Sliders

Sliders seem to be popping up everywhere, and part of me fears they may become the savoury version of cupcakes, with the same level of pop culture saturation. Such ubiquity is often there for a reason though, and these little suckers taste bloody good. A mini burger is a thing to behold. Cupcakes can jog on in my opinion, but if they’re going to taste this good, sliders can stick around.

I first had sliders at a restaurant in Wellington, who serve theirs jucily with wagyu beef patties. They’re catching on up here in Auckland though, and recently I had some pretty amazing ones on a dinner date at Depot. They were filled with turbot, and watercress, preserved lemon mayo, and some sort of magical ingredient which left me needing more like a junkie. 

This year during Auckland Restaurant Month, Depot is offering these little beauties filled with pulled pork and ‘slaw - and Al Brown worked with Loaf bakery to get them there buns all over town (and in stores like Nosh). Mr Brown himself served ‘em up at the ARM public launch and they are soft little pillows of goodness. They’re baby burgers and they are delicious.

During Auckland Restaurant Month Depot is offering a $30 set menu, which includes a plate of sliders, a selection of oysters and clams from the raw bar, and a glass of wine. This place is seriously good; go prepared to wait for the table, but know that it will be worth it.

Likewise Britomart’s Tyler St Garage is offering sliders, also featuring pulled pork, and iceberg lettuce, mayo, and barbecue sauce. I went along to their menu relaunch a few weeks back, and managed to down a couple there too.

Tyler St Garage has one of the best rooftop bars in Auckland, and during August for $30 you can get yourself a two course dinner or lunch, with a number of selections including ceviche and the aforementioned sliders.

The battle for Auckland’s best baby burgers continues, and I for one am happy to step up to the taste-testing challenge.

 

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Event: A Taste of Aria at Euro

Look at dreamy Matt Moran! All chuffed with himself, and rightly so. He served up, at Euro in the Viaduct, 5 very beautiful courses to a full and happy restaurant on Wednesday night. I was extremely lucky to be sent along, and after nervously downing a couple of solo bubbles, I was seated with a gaggle of girls which made for a very fun night indeed.

 

Matt Moran is well known across the ditch, and features, like his kiwi counterpart and host Simon Gault, regularly on Masterchef. His restaurant Aria, in Sydney and Brisbane, popped up in Auckland’s Euro for a very special Auckland Restaurant Month event.

I’d perused the menu beforehand and to be honest, just thought it looked ok. Salmon, Duck, Grouper, Lamb and Ice cream it said. But my god, it was so so much more.

Salmon to begin, as we did table introductions and business card swapping. I met fellow food blogger Cecelia, fellow writer and lover of wine Nicky, and a couple of lovely young lady doctors Nicky had picked up at the bar. The salmon was King salmon, Moran admitting NZ did the best salmon in the world, and it was King salmon with earl grey tea and yuzo tapioca and avocado. It was an incredible combination, the rich creaminess of the salmon and the hit of tea. I was stopped in my tracks with these flavours, having been too busy gas-bagging with my newfound friends. This was food that demanded attention. By god, it was good.

Now I’ve been to degustation dinners before, and duck usually features. Peking duck consomme however, with abalone and mushrooms, I’d never had anything really like. It was the texture of water and the flavours of Asia, and whilst one of my companions bemoaned the lack of dumplings (only two!) I found the balance of abalone, mushroom and duck dumplings, amongst the consomme, just perfect.

The plate had my full attention by course number three. As a table we were a few beautiful wine matches deep, and swapping stories of recent travel and memorable meals and career changes involving law to food writing and reading radio horoscopes to medicine.  When quizzing the tables on their food-loving thoughts, this course proved a popular one.

Like many, I’ve been a convert to the peruvian ancient grain quinoa for a while. Boiling it for salads or simmering it for porridge has been the extent of our relationship though. Until course three. Moran puffed the quinoa (think puffed rice, but nutty) and encrusted it on the freshest Bass Grouper he could find. Along with the jamon saltiness cutting through, these were outstanding flavour combinations. Chardonnay for this one, The King’s Series ‘Bastard’, and beautifully matched. I’d been a little dubious of the $250 ticket price, but nods all around the table agreed it was worth every cent. It was next level food and it was awesome.

 

The pinnacle hadn’t yet been reached though, and that was really what got me excited about this meal. And excitement over a meal is something that, the more I eat, the less I get. But with the lamb and the gnocchi and the peas and the mustard which was presented before  me with a glass of Martinborough Syrah Viognier, I was excited. So excited. It was utterly exquisite, and the man at the table just over commented it was one of the best meals he’d ever eaten. I’ve had beatifully cooked lamb and gnocchi before, but again, as with the preceding dishes and the wine matches, the execution was perfect and it was just something else.

There was a Q and A session with Simon and Matt at this point, and there were some good questions from the diners, but others which came a couple of wines too late I’d say. Matt commented on always wanting to use the freshest ingredients possible, and on the fact that he loves cooking simple food when at home for his family. I was giggly with happiness, but little did I know I was yet to absolutely lose it over dessert.

The home made Pedro Ximenez ice cream, with boozy raisins and orange, was groan-inducing amazingness. It under-promised and over-delivered, and was lusciously creamy; the texture offset with the bursts from the raisins and the soft bite of the biscuit sandwich. It was one of the most beautiful desserts I’d ever had. And it was merely touted as being ice cream with raisins! One at our table who proclaimed she was most definitely not a dessert person said this won her over. High praise from a dessert hater, and absolutely delicious.

I’d been dubious about the night - rocking up solo, small talk with strangers, a ‘nice’ sounding menu. How good could it be, I’d thought. I was so so wrong. I had my socks knocked off, which is what I crave when I go out to good restaurants, but which is so often lacking. I mean, I love cheap and cheerful, and I can down a tin of spaghetti on toast as much as the next girl, but when treated to a meal like this, I remember why I love food so goddam much. People like Moran are nailing it, and fully restore my faith in the industry. I was so lucky to be a part of such a night and with new friends, a few delicious wines, and exquisite food, what more could a girl want out of her Wednesday?

A Taste of Aria was held at the viaduct’s Euro. For other Auckland Restaurant Month events you can get along to, check them out here. Euro are also doing a set menu. For something different I highly recommend you get along!

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Event: The Moveable Feast at Cassette Nine

For the first Saturday of Auckland Restauarant Month Cassette Nine transformed into a 1920s prohibition-defying dinner show venue. I went along to their Moveable Feast and was treated to good music, glamour, cocktails and…whipped cream.

This bar and restaurant (who apparently do really great pizzas) is up some stairs on Vulcan Lane, and first impressions were that it wasn’t it’s usual grungy self; they nailed their 1920s glamour theme perfectly and the place looked beautiful. I wasn’t my usual grungy self either. Guests, when purchasing their $75 tickets, were instructed to dress in a manner befitting the 1920s and despite being nervous walking down Vulcan Lane in a feather boa, everyone got amongst it.

My friend Sophie came along in my great-Grandma’s fur coat and she was certainly the hottest date I’ve had in a while. We high-heeled, eyelined, feathered and furred ourselves, and whilst not our usual Saturday night attire, we were certainly not out of place. Complete with sequin headbands no less.

It was a magical entrance; a campari cocktail upon entry and gorgeously talented The Gramophone Band playing. We were seated at our romantic table for two, and had a couple of gins whilst trying to think of everything we could about the twenties. Prohibition, Boardwalk Empire, and The Charleston was about all we could come up with, and just in time for our entree - a very simple bruschetta of olive tapenade and tomato. 

A silent movie was the main course entertainment, and by then we were a few gins and a bottle of bubbles deep. I’d dragged Sophie out the night before you see, so it was a slightly slow start for our seedy selves. It didn’t matter though. Everyone around us was dressed up, there were some very dapper young (and old) men in suspenders and hats and some envy-inducing lace dresses on the ladies. By the main course we were questioning why we didn’t dress up for dinner more often.

With such a beautifully set scene it’s a shame Cassette Nine didn’t take the opportunity to present us with beautiful food to match, as our ‘rustic platters’ were disappointing for a main meal. They weren’t quite platter-like enough to share; what we had was a bit of a random selection of vegetables and then either cured meats or seafood on each plate. It tasted fine, the roast beetroot being the highlight. We happily picked at each others plates though, as we filled our date with great banter and hilarious dating stories.    

A long island iced tea and an espresso martini made up for the mains, and dessert was a simple new york cheesecake with berry coulis which was gone in seconds. It was the entertainment immediately after dessert - the ‘cherry on top’ we’d been promised - which really took me by surprise. How was I to know burlesque dancing is a fancy strip-show?!

What’s a 1920s dinner show without nipple tassels though?

Entertaining it most certainly was, especially when the whipped cream came out. 

The 1920’s dancefloor didn’t quite erupt at the end, but it was a very fun night all round nonetheless.

Thank you to Cassette Nine for being such glamorous hosts for the evening, I’ll be back to try your pizzas wearing less feathers next time. Click here for information on other Auckland Restaurant Month Events.

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It begins

Auckland Restaurant Month has begun!

There’s all sorts happening in the big little city throughout August, including events, special menus and free champagne (free champagne!). Yours truly will be blogging all about it.  

I usually write the blog Heartbreak Pie and I’ve recently returned to my hometown after  years and years in Wellington. I told that to chef Ben Bayly over sorbet the other night and he congratulated me on the move. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved my hometown, but as far as cafes and restaurants and bars go, the two cities are very different beasts. ARM is the perfect opportunity for this slightly skeptical food-obsessed dual-city-lover to get right amongst, and showcase my adventures of Auckland’s people and places. 

The official public launch party was on Wednesday, and with a last minute invite and dinner plans already, I high heeled and lipsticked myself up to speed through the 5 courses of the walking degustation at Everybody’s on Imperial Lane.

I nearly struck up a conversation with the two guys also perching at the table over tea smoked tomato and wagyu beef carpaccio, but wolfed it down before the opportunity arose. Simon Gault of Euro was responsible for the food, and it was a very textured beginning. 

 

The garden of Eve theme continued upstairs, where District Dining dished up delicious cured salmon with ginger vinegar, and Al Brown served sliders. Pulled pork and jalapeno slaw alongside a chardonnay, bloody good.

District Dining have a $35 set menu on for August, and will also be hosting the charming and hilarious Josh Emmet for A Taste of Rata on the 15th. 

Al Brown’s Depot has a $30 set menu on the go. Perfect place for a dinner date but more on that later…

My pick of the evening was The Grove’s Apple Sorbet. It was beautifully presented by the talented and friendly head chef Ben Bayley, and along with brandy and brown sugar caramel, and vanilla yoghurt, this dessert was a glass of heaven. The Grove are hosting a 6 course degustation for their ARM event, and goddam it looks good.

Unfortunately I had to leave before any celebrity spotting could take place. Lucky there were promo girls dressed in peacock feathers to step in. The queues were mounting as I headed off, successfully having gorged 4 of the 5 courses in half an hour, complete with wine matches.

It’s going to be a food filled month and I am excited. Anyone fancy a date?