Sunday, January 23, 2011

A week of good eats

On Friday night I did the full degustation menu at The Grove, for around the price of a Big Day Out ticket. Whether or not that strikes you as good value or not depends probably on your feelings about live music and/or fine dining, but I offer the comparison to make the point that when it comes to budgets, sometimes you should treat restaurant visits as if they were special event, rather than just a meal. People save up and look forward to rock concerts all the time, but there's a tendency to compare a meal eaten out to the price you'd pay to eat in. You wouldn't compare a Metallica concert to the price of one of their CDs; likewise I'd suggest there's no need to begrudge paying over $100 for a meal when it constitutes a whole evening's entertainment.

We didn't eat particularly slowly on Friday, but we were there for an extremely entertaining three and a half hours. Ten courses, I think, although some were just a bit little to qualify as full courses, and some of them just a bit big to qualify as in betweeners. Determined as I am not to choke this blog with unending descriptions of food, I'll mention a couple of highlights: fresh-as-fuck raw tuna wafers wrapped in little leaves of basil with whipped avocado, saffron-coloured tortellini filled with goats cheese sat on a date confit, a tiny melting square of pork belly served with a glass of dessert wine, butter-rich scallop and scampi lifted clean with little broad bean and courgette, um, things.

I'm often asked to recommend restaurants but usually have to temper these recommendations with secondary considerations – location, accessibility, and most notably budget. But here it is: if you need to eat the best meal in Auckland right now then The Grove should be your first call. It won Metro's Restaurant of the Year award last year, and will take some beating in 2011. They matched that first raw tuna course with a glass of black rice sake, for god's sake. Talk about raising the bar.

It's been a big week of eating. Friday I had lunch at the excellent new Sri Mahkota in Symonds Street, a busy Malaysian restaurant serving tasty grub to busy TV executives and chandelier merchants in the area. Malaysian food samples the best of Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisines and offers as good a bang for buck as any ethnic style I reckon. I'd been tipped off to it by a couple of enthusiastic PR girls, whose mission it is to tell people in the food media just how good Malaysian can be. Well, I already knew, but you don't get free meals by being a know-it-all, so I was happy to nod along in the right places in return for heaped plates of tamarind prawn, nasi lemak and other unpronounceable delights.

My feigned aura of curious naivety also got me a table at Eight, Langham Hotel's newly launched restaurant. You understand I don't have to say nice things about these places – if anything, slagging them off is more fun. But Eight is seriously good – eight separate kitchens operating in a flashy modern space, with diners free to bob back and forth between them, pointing to bits of meat and fish and having them cooked instantly before their eyes.

One of the kitchens serves sushi – I think the best I've eaten in Auckland – prepared by Happy (“that's his real name”, I was assured on three separate occasions by Langham staff members understandably eager to impress that they don't just name their immigrant workers according to how they come across in the job interview). My partner, about to enter her 41st week of pregnancy, ignored the nervous glances of her fellow diners by returning three or four times to re-stock her plate. With a lunch time session at Eight going for $38, it's pretty incredible value even before you've tried the curry, dim sum, meat grill or white chocolate fountain.

Buffets, platters, degustations … I'm trying hard not to look like entering the 41st week of pregnancy myself. I try to go for a run every couple of days, but inevitably return home walking, my arms full of takeaway menus and citrus fruit I've collected from around Grey Lynn on the way.