Thursday, August 28, 2014

Some of the best food in Auckland is in the last place you'd expect

I worked in radio for ten years, not many of which I enjoyed except for the theoretical enjoyment you get from being paid each week to entertain people. Bear in mind this theoretical enjoyment also applies to cheerleaders, buskers and people who dress up as mascots at sports events. It’s not enough to overcome the dread you get each evening about going into work the next day.

There is a lot of drinking in radio. Not fine wine/craft beer/artisan cocktail drinking; more room temp sauvignon blanc plundered from the prize cupboard sort of drinking. Decent refrigerated beers are so hard to come by that when they do show up they’re put under lock and key. I managed to find out where the key was but hadn’t counted on the security cameras mounted above the fridge.

Once every six months or so there’s a big get together called ‘Survey Party’ or, as it’s more informally called, ‘why are we paying these breakfast DJs so much when their ratings go down every time they’re measured? Party’. Survey Party consists of a few hundred radio employees getting together at some marginal local establishment desperate enough for business that in return for a month’s worth of radio ads they’ll provide the party with several thousand dollars on the bar and one plate of spicy chicken wings.

The venues aren’t always terrible, but they aren’t ever great. Radio ads are useful for collision repair specialists but they don’t seem to be such a good fit with bars and restaurants, where success tends to happen organically by word-of-mouth. A bar owner who thinks that a $5K advertising campaign will change his fortunes, as a rule, probably doesn’t have the magic touch. Often these parties were a last roll of the dice before the business went under for good.

One of the venues we had survey party at was the unusual downstairs corner space underneath Ponsonby Food Court. It’s called Revelry now but we visited two name changes ago. It should be a brilliant venue – big, central, with plenty of outdoor seating – but nobody seems to have been able to get it working.

So you can imagine my surprise when I ate dinner there a couple of weeks ago and found it to be some of the best cooking in Auckland. It wasn’t just me; I went with food blogger and Metro columnist and Herald on Sunday recipemonger Delaney Mes, and the two people who sleep with us. (there must be a more elegant way of saying that but you know what I mean).

So yes, the food. We’d been invited by the manager to come check it out for free and although I usually decline such invitations due to the unbearable potential awkwardness of not having anything nice to say about it afterwards, the new chef had a CV which looked very good. He’d worked at a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants in London for starters, so I thought at the very least we wouldn’t go home angry.

We ordered a lot of food, and at the end we were full. And then I said to the table “that was so fucking good, shall we order the stuff we haven’t tried yet?” and everyone said yes because we’re very adventurous and also did I mention it was free? But no one wants more free mediocre food when they’re full, so take the extra ordering as a strong sign of our enthusiasm.

We had chargrilled tuna – sliced to expose the beautiful raw red flesh, so delicate it almost disappeared when it touched your tongue. It came with kaffir lime foam, perfect peas and black garlic: quite incredible. All of the meat came sliced actually – I don’t know if that’s his “thing”, but it’s a nice change from a hunk of flesh on a plate, and it shows that he’s not trying to hide the job he’s done cooking it.

A scotch fillet was incredible – after eating a pretty average ‘rotisserie rib eye’ at Libertine a few days earlier, Revelry’s one reminded me that actually eating meat should be a pleasure, not a chore.

And he was just as good at vegetables – a perfect ratatouille with the scotch, and a mushroom ‘duxelle’ which was incredibly good: foresty mushrooms ground up with fresh walnuts and served with toast and a very truffly truffle snow.

Stuffed chicken leg, skin-on salmon fillet, pan roasted duck breast – all of the dishes were designed to look like not much in the reading of them, and then when they arrived they blew your expectations away. Interesting ingredients and unexpected molecular flourishes combined with a comforting moreishness which helped the food fit the primarily bar-focused space very well.

Besides the food, they also a massive book of spirits – possibly the biggest collection in the city, along with a very good list of wines by the glass and a few good beers too. All of their various menus are faultless, is basically what I’m trying to say.

There are some great places on Ponsonby Road – Orphan’s Kitchen, Ponsonby Road Bistro, Moochowchow and more – and I couldn’t hand-on-heart tell you that the atmosphere at Revelry would necessarily stand up to a night out at one of them. But it’s definitely a great casual place to enjoy a meal and this chef – Jon Clark he’s called, a likeable skinny fellow with a strong UK accent – could stand up to just about anyone else in town.

The amazing quality of the food at Revelry is still a secret, so you shouldn’t have problems booking a table. I’d put it high on my list of recommendations in the area, and if they tell you there’s no room at one of the bigger name places down the road, don’t hesitate to wander down to the Pollen Street corner and settle in for the night. Chef is doing great work here, and who knows where he’ll one day end up – my advice is to enjoy his food at decent prices while you still can.

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