Sunday, January 19, 2014

Gambling on dinner

I was talking to my new cohost Mike Hosking about eating out this week, and he told me that he and Katie (am I allowed to call her ‘Katie’? He’s so sweet about her that it almost feels like a term of endearment, like calling another man’s wife ‘Honeybuns’) mostly only eat at one restaurant, because they don’t want to be disappointed.

That restaurant is Cibo, in Parnell. I love it too, and although I wouldn’t dine there every night (we could start running a 7.30pm shuttle there for all of us, from TVNZ) it would be high on my list of places you may have overlooked but ought to visit. That, and Ponsonby Road Bistro and Sidart. Also Cocoro and Kazuya.

Anyway, I know what he means about being disappointed. How often do you finally get the kids in bed, the babysitter on duty and the car parked before dropping $300 on a meal you could have done better at home. I don’t think Cibo is the only restaurant in Auckland that can cook better than Katie can, but I do understand her husband’s reluctance to risk a rare night out and get it wrong.

Historically, one of the most high risk local restaurants has been Bracu, 50 kilometres south of the city on an olive grove near Bombay. It takes 35 minutes to get there and usually involves a couple of wrong turns. Take a left at the wrong spot and you’ll find yourself on a Pukekohe onion farm, making small talk with the grower. Did you know that the onion is New Zealand’s biggest vegetable export by weight? It’s worth more to our economy than the Hobbit (though don’t hold your breath for an Air New Zealand safety video about onions).

Having safely navigated your way out of this rural backwater/conversation about falling international commodity prices, your problems often weren’t over when you finally made it to Bracu. The chefs ranged from okay to pretty good, and the service was about what you’d expect from a restaurant forced to select their employees from the small group of local adults who were both looking for work and over-/underqualified for onion picking.

The good news is that right now Bracu is better than it’s ever been. The chef is Mikey Newlands, ex sous chef from The Grove, who is working as hard as any chef in town right now to make his food delicious, special and memorable. I did eight or nine courses there for lunch last week, and any of them could have made a magazine cover.

You wouldn’t describe the floor staff as slick yet exactly, but the new restaurant manager/sommelier is doing some very good things to help the overall experience match the food. In particular, he’s putting a lot of time, energy and money into overhauling the winelist to create something unique and exciting.

(He’s German, that sommelier, so you know he’s going to do things exactly right, although there are at least five typos on the first page of his winelist, so it’s possible that once news of these lapses gets back to the home country, he’ll be forced to live here in exile for good.)

So, to those magazine covers. Here’s a little tourney through what I ate. As you can see, he knows what he’s doing and isn’t afraid to take risks. You wouldn’t catch him eating at Cibo every time he gets a night off (although you might well see him at Sidart, where his awesome partner works the floor; more on their occasional joint venture Allechante another time).

Fermented macadamia with oatcake. Cheese made from nuts is a bit of a vegan secret; until now I've only seen it done in Auckland at Little Bird and The Heritage hotel restaurant. This sort of thing is a good response to the question about how vegans live without cheese (nine out of ten vegans say answering questions like this on a daily basis is worse than giving up bacon).

Olive and parmesan sable, peppers and curd. So moreish, Vince Gilligan considered writing a series about a high school chemistry teacher who makes them in a beaten up campervan in the desert.

Crisp potato, beef tartare. Hosking told me this week that he doesn't eat raw beef. We're going to somehow try and make the relationship work anyway.

Scampi and smoked tomato. Bracu is owned by the Simunovich people, who do a good line in scampi. They also make olive oil, of course, a bottle of which sits on your table at all times to be poured liberally over (no exaggeration) the best bread I have ever eaten in a restaurant.

'Charcoal kissed' yellow fin tuna with chorizo bolognese. That tuna is all texture and the bolognese all taste. That white stuff was pretty good too but the German's winelist was getting the better of me at this point, so let's just call it 'white stuff'.

Groper cheek, peas, paua and peppered pork. I know, right?  This was a masterpiece, as you can probably tell from the picture. I started making notes at this point: the white stuff around the outside of the food is called 'a plate'.

Beef. That notetaking didn't last long I'm afraid. I think we went for a walk deep into the olive grove around now. We got a bit lost, but were eventually found by Bombay Search and Rescue and Onion Picking.

This was the chocolate dessert and I forgot to photograph the apple blackberry trifle, which is a shame because I think it was one of the loveliest desserts I've ever eaten. That gold you can see is 'gold leaf', an edible substance I don't quite understand but sure looks lovely on the plate. Have you got a sense of how much this guy loves to invent, yet?

Told you it was all beautiful. You should book in a visit, while the sun is still shining and before Mikey realises that the sort of hours he's putting into this food is going to wreck him. We visited Bracu at lunchtime, which takes a bit of pressure off getting home to bed at a reasonable hour, and also explains why this photography is so much better than my usual blog imagery, which tends to look like I've taken a picture of the food through the door of a microwave.

I mentioned two lists above - restaurants you may have overlooked but should visit, and restaurants too risky to take a chance on. I hereby take Bracu out of the latter category and put it into the former. I'd also add it to a third list - chefs doing great things who you should support. So do the selfless thing, and go eat some paua.

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