With return fares to Auckland selling for cheap as chips prices, it made sense to check out the city. Our sojourn to Wellington last year had been an absolute blast, and we’d been assured by our favourite Kiwi chefs on the coast that Auckland was even better.
So, what do you go to Auckland for? To eat, of course! And drink.
From my memories of a New Zealand childhood, I recall a land which was wilder, whose people were in some ways more non-conformist than Aussies. Certainly there was a note of difference which we wanted to explore, partly to trace back the influences on our own coastal cuisine of winning menus such as Larder, Blackboard and Burgster.
Here’s what we found…
There are a number of dining precincts: Britomart, Viaduct Harbour area, Federal Street and along Ponsonby Road, for starters.
Let’s start with Britomart, a set of boxed pavilions above the Britomart rail station, as well as the surrounding area such as Fort Street. There’s a really cute market held in the Britomart parkland on Saturday as well. Check it out.
The Pavilions, 33 Tyler St, Auckland Ph: +64 9-368 9487
This is a gorgeous little restaurant owned by the HipGroup (who also own The Store nearby), set in the heart of Britomart in a boxed pavilion amongst fairy lights and greenery. Ortolana serves excellent Allpress coffee and there’s an all-day one page menu of about 15 great dishes, farm fresh, much of the meat and produce grown on the HipGroup’s own farm. There’s nothing ordinary about it! Served complimentary sparkling water on arrival, the service is exceptional. Best of all, it’s peaceful and relaxing; a little oasis of calm, with attentive service. A delightful place to brunch!
42 Fort St., Auckland Ph:+64 9-974 2895
Auckland has a fair selection of modern Vietnamese cuisine. Indochine has a short lunch list or Rice paper rolls, Bahn Mi, lemongrass chicken, French-style beef curry and Pho, all served with salad and French bread for $12 – $14. The restaurant is crazy busy due to its food quality and the value factor. It’s a great central place to catch up with a friend for lunch, and the sparkling water is complimentary. Dinner runs a 3-course $25 fixed price menu or a la carte tapas dishes.
48 Fort St., Auckland Ph: +64 9 309 3990
Stretching around from the wharf area to Queen Street, Fort Street is turning into a real little dining mecca with world food available for lunch and dinner.
Lucky Buddha was a real find, its bold rich flavours drawing from the cuisines of China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia and the Philippines. Our Salmon in laksa sauce bursts with flavor, the Slow-cooked lamb ribs are sticky, tangy, tender, and wonderfully addictive. With its inventive combinations of ingredients and casual shared dining space, it’s a place demanding return visits. We found Lucky Buddha near the end of our stay, otherwise we would have dined there again.
What we ate:
Slow cooked lamb ribs in Chinkiang vinegar caramel, carrot and apple $29
Sriracha pork steamed buns (bao) $16
Roasted king salmon in laksa sauce, vermicelli, shallot and lemongrass $24 served with a side of sautéed green beans
Excelsior Building, Galway Street & Commerce Street, Britomart Ph: +64 9-302 3478
Café Hanoi’s menu is divided into ‘Modern Vietnamese’, ‘Old Quarter Favourites’ (traditional dishes) and ‘And Then Some’ (sides and extras). It’s a pretty fair indication of the scope of the dishes you’d expect: classic and modern Vietnamese. From Cloudy Bay tuatuas in lemongrass, Thai basil and ginger broth to Beetroot pickled lotus, the menu brings Vietnamese flavours to local ingredients. Our sago pudding? I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. So good! Some mighty fine cocktails accompany the meal as well.
57 Fort St., Auckland Ph: +64 9-300-7252
Though Beirut is all the rage at the moment, we didn’t make it. Somehow, it seemed important to dine at Ima’s, to experience the down-to-earth food from the kitchen of Yael Shochat, the mother of Middle Eastern food in Auckland. Many restaurateurs have worked at Ima’s taking in Yael’s principles of making food with love and generosity of spirit. Order as a table and share the dishes – that’s the communal table philosophy of Ima’s.
Ima’s is earth mother territory, and we’re greeted with beaming smiles, seated on mis-matched vintage chairs. Above us, graters are suspended as light shades over the long table, the drum of a clothes drier over another – such art in simple recycled objects! A huge carafe of sparkling water is brought to the table, another welcoming touch of polish to the service.
With a breakfast menu including bourekas, latkes, blintzes and housemade granola, it’s hard to choose, but we decided on a dish we’d not seen before as well as Yael’s version of ‘The Lot’.
Fort St., Auckland Ph: 0212 618 172
Owned by Brian and Roselle Campbell (ex Milse) Miann (which means ‘to crave’ in Gaelic) had only been open a month when we visited. The dessert-only shop specializes in the most exquisite small dessert creations imaginable as well as cakes and frozen desserts. Their desserts show “sophisticated flavour combinations, playful yet always-elegant presentation and blooming marvellous textures that never fail to induce involuntary OMGs.” (Metroeats) We can’t say it better than that!
What we ate:
Chocolate passionfruit mousse cake: a disc of 66% Inaya dark chocolate mousse sitting on a chocolate biscuit base, filled with a dense passionfruit almond mousse. Topping – a lighter passionfruit mousse topped with a white chocolate feather.
There are other areas of town we found which are notable culinary haunts – alleyways off Queen Street, particularly some of the cafés on High Street, Imperial Lane, and Vulcan Lane.
The Occidental Belgian Beer Café
6 – 8 Vulcan Lane, Auckland Ph: +64 9-300 6226
Hearing jazz floating down the street, we had to investigate, and found a Sunday arvo session full swing at The Occidental. Twistin’ the Swing, a jazz combo was playing and the place was pumping. It’s a Belgian Beer Café where you can buy Flemish stew, Venison Pie, or 1kg of mussels in thirteen different ways, steamed or grilled! With beer served in litre steins and five pinot noir by the glass, we were very happy indeed. Long live Central Otago pinot!
In the Viaduct Harbour area…
There are couple of ways to reach the Viaduct area – by road, as well as a more unconventional transverse of bridges and an island, the route we took first. It was a cool day – around 22 degrees, but people were stretched out on benches taking in some sun, walking or riding together as families and stopping at watering holes along the way.
On the way was the Auckland Fair, a huge craft expo held pre-Christmas on Pier 10, with lots of wooden, paper and textile handmade crafts for sale.
The Container Library on the Te Wero Bridge (open 9am – 5pm daily) is a self-help book swap library housed in a shipping container, free for anyone to use. On display were original paintings by Amber Stephens of New Zealand’s Paralympians, soon to be auctioned to raise money for the team to compete in the Rio Paralympics in September 2016.
The co-op at Auckland Fish Market in Jellicoe Street was a reasonable place to buy oysters and sashimi at a reasonable price, and while it was interesting to see lots of colder water fish than we see in Australia, overall we found these markets disappointing – not worth going out of our way to see!
Soul Bar & Grill
Viaduct Harbour, Viaduct. Ph +64 9-356 7249
Oh what a gorgeous restaurant this is! Perched on terraces looking out through pohutakawa trees to the marina, it’s stately, sophisticated yet relaxed; fine dining indeed!
What we ate:
Seared yellowfin tuna, caponata, shallot and crispy caper dressing $30.50
Blackened hapuku, marinated Curious Croppers’ tomatoes, sautéed squid, almond skordalia $38.50
Coconut crème brulee pineapple confit, banana marshmallow and passionfruit sorbet $16.50
In the Federal Street area…
From container eateries and Elliott Stables (an underground eatery centre) to high-flying award-winning restaurants, perched beneath the Skytower, the tallest tower in Australasia, are a couple of streets containing some of Auckland’s best culinary talent. At the top of our list were two, both owned by restaurateur Al Brown.
Depot Eatery & Oyster Bar
86 Federal St, Auckland. Ph: +64 9-363 7048
There’s no booking at Depot, so we turned up at 5.30pm to score a table. Totally chuffed, we had a rambunctiously good time at Depot, so much so that we bought Al Brown’s cookbook to cement the experience, (not that I can replicate it at home)! In it we learned about his vision for Depot as a beach shack (or ‘bach’, as Kiwis would say) – “Functional pieces of furniture and fittings made from salvaged junk”, good wine is on tap and served in tumblers, oysters are shucked to order, “food is fast, fresh and generous…served for sharing…a warm, inviting place… where we treat customers like friends and our staff like family.” (That’s Al with the hat on in the photo above, working the floor as per usual.)
The food is rich and luscious, with a fullness of flavour borne of the best meat, slow cooked over coals. There’s no shying away from fat or flavour here. We love its busy hum, the fabulous food, but why isn’t it closer to home!
86 Federal St., Auckland Ph: +64 9-363 7184
‘The Fed’ is Al Brown’s take on an old-school New York City Jewish delicatessen. Open from 7am until late, there’s the atmosphere of a local urban diner, bottomless cups of filter coffee, the most awesome Reuben sandwiches, Chicken matzo soup, Schnitzel, Salmon latkes, Bagels with lox, and Smoked hash.
Because we were sharing, the chowder was already divided for us into two bowls, the Reuben cut in half. It’s not so difficult, is it really, to be as gracious as this? The place was so cute, the service so great that we went back for breakfast before our bus trip to Hobbiton a couple of days later.
Oh my! Ponsonby has gentrified somewhat since my childhood in Auckland! It’s a great walk from one end of Ponsonby Road to the other, checking out the shops as you go. There are lots of places to choose from. A local recommended the Ponsonby Food Court, but we took some informed advice from back home instead!
The Blue Breeze Inn
146 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby Ph: +64 9-360 0303
I’m not sure what I expected – maybe something more Tiki or Pacific Rim, but this wasn’t it. But testament to how great The Blue Breeze Inn was, we were not even slightly disappointed. From the food which we sampled in one meal, we’d place the cuisine’s origins as Chinese, housed in the Pacific.
Steamed bun (read bao), Sichuan aubergines, Braised beef cheek with cumin and fermented chillies, Housemade kimchi…the dishes were packed with exotic flavours. This place was ‘business/ ladies who lunch’ central, crazy busy but with excellent service.
Catching a ferry to Waiheke Island is no deal at all. Take advantage of the cheap online fares, or just rock up to the ferry terminal and buy one there.
Getting around on the island is a different story… There’s an island bus for $10 per day (not $45 per day as quoted on the mainland – what a tourist rip off that is!). However, the bus does not go to wineries! Which leaves you with a few options: hire a car on the island (great for a group of 4), catch the local bus and walk, join a winery tour and pay an exorbitant fare, or get a taxi to a couple of wineries close to the ferry and town – our chosen option. Probably the bus/walk or car hire options would have been good as well.
We settled in at Mudbrick Winery, perched high up on the hill above the ferry terminal with gorgeous views of manicured gardens, looking back across the harbour to Auckland city in the distance.
“Our chardonnay exhibits the vibrancy of dry hot Waiheke summers,” the menu reads. It’s about 18 – 20 degrees with a fresh cool breeze rising off the sea. ‘Hot, dry’ must be a relative term!
After enjoying a glass of wine and nibble for morning tea, we caught a taxi back to town and dined at The Oyster Inn, obviously the place to dine, but prices were pretty steep! The best oysters we’ve tasted from Te Matuku on Waiheke Island were $4.50 each. We also enjoyed Grilled John Dory with asparagus, baby spinach and hollandaise $35, and Kingfish, smoked eel and pomelo ceviche salad with coriander and mayo $34.
“It’s island time. There’s no hurry,” our taxi driver tells us, “but Waiheke’s changing. People used to talk to each other. It was the one thing we loved about the island. But people who’ve moved here want to change things.”
Everywhere we go there are international gap year students working in hospitality; a shortcut way to get residency.
La Cigale French Market
La Cigale, which operates on Saturday and Sunday mornings 8am – 1.30pm, is one of the oldest food markets in Auckland, and well worth a visit. Holding permanent stalls inside the building, the weekend sees busloads take advantage of extra stalls and patisseries which arrive on weekends to sell their wares.
From Rhubarb and pistachio frangipane to paella, and cheesecake in a jar to exquisite French cheeses, there’s delicious food to please diners who flock there by the busload. Public transport will take you along the road to Parnell, if you can navigate the steep 500m. walk down the road to the market. It’s well worth it!
So much to eat, so little time…Dining on two meals a day, the week didn’t stretch out very far before it was time to go home.
So, what were our impressions of Auckland dining, and what were the ‘takeaways’?
• Fabulous, unpretentious table service
• Welcoming restaurants and wait staff who remembered us!
• Sparkling water served in carafes to the table
• Fabulous rustic, unfussy food
• An obvious lack of food ‘isms’ – just great whole food
• New Zealand seafood – all of it!
• Central Otago pinot noir – every one we tasted, as well as their fabulous craft beer.
Living and holidaying in Auckland is expensive. With the dollar approaching parity, and petrol costing $1.80 per litre, there are also lots of tourist traps. Day tours in particular seem very expensive by Australian standards. However, there’s a good public bus and train system which tourists can use at minimal cost.
But it’s well worth the trip. New Zealand gives us an unbelievable mix of rustic, interesting cuisine and some unforgettable characters…everything a foodie could dream of, so close at hand.
You might also like our post on Wellington dining.
NOTE: Special thanks to Marc Kinvig (Blackboard) for his fabulous dining suggestions!