Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Eating in... Auckland

For so long, Wellington has been known as the foodie capital of New Zealand. With great cafes, quality dining options and apparently the most eateries per capita in the world, the claim was not far fetched.  However, recently, Auckland has been stepping their game up.

In the last year, it seems as if a new cafe or restaurant has been opening there every other week. They're all designed with their own strong sense of character and are equally as enticing as the next. Lately, I've managed to try a few different spots: The Food Truck, Federal Delicatessen (next to Al Brown's other Federal Street joint, the repeatedly tried-and-true Depot), Orleans and Fukuko.

The Food Truck Garage, City Works Depot, 90 Wellesley Street
Luckily for me, I arrived at chef Michael van de Elzen's cafe, derived from his successful television series The Food Truck, at 2.50pm - 10 minutes before the kitchen closed for lunch.  I promptly ordered the Paua Dog (paua and pickled free range pork with horseradish, avocado salsa and lentils in a spelt flour roll) and Baked Chips (skin-on Agria potato, swede and beets with lime emulsion), while I was served complimentary sparkling water with a slice of lemon.  Lovely.

I have been a Food Truck fan since the start, enjoying van de Elzen's healthy and refreshing take on takeaway comfort classics. His variation on the hot dog, incorporating the often under-appreciated 'steak of the sea', excited me as soon as I read it off the menu. I'm a big advocate for paua so I was happy to see it being employed in this unexpected manner.

Food Truck Garage

It did not disappoint. The paua and pork sausage was plump and juicy, and you could taste hints of the sea whilst not being overwhelmed. Perfect for those who might be skeptical of the concept, but I would have loved an even stronger paua flavour. The avocado salsa worked brilliantly to counter and lighten the meatiness of the sausage, while the micro greens brought a delicate crunch to the mix. The roll also was a standout in itself. Fresh, soft, textural, with the addition of seeds to provide bite - it was a star component.  More than I expected, it was the most pleasant of surprises.

The Baked Chips and Paua Dog

The Baked Chips were, comparably, okay. Being the last run of lunch service was no excuse for dried out potatoes and this was disappointing. The swede and beets were better and with the lime emulsion, it provided a fair accompaniment to my 'dog.

Federal Delicatessen, 86 Federal Street
Complimentary crisps with a smoked salmon dip helped me to make a more rational - less hunger-driven - decision
The array of salads: (l-r) Grilled Eggplant, Spiced Roast Pumpkin and Roast Cauliflower
 A fine selection of lox, including spiced, dill and citrus, with a slice of lemon meringue pie with freeze-dried raspberries being prepared in the background

Admittedly, I've been to 'The Fed' twice now. The first time round, I felt slightly embarrassed for walking in through the 'Out' door, however this was short-lived as my embarrassment turned to wonder as I gazed upon the deli counter full of salads, salmon and slices of pie. Yet despite the magnificent display, I selected the Toasted Reuben on recommendation from a friendly waitress. The salmon would have to wait until round two.

The Toasted Reuben is house-smoked pastrami with swiss, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on rye, served with pickle and coleslaw. To date, I haven't read a review on The Fed that has not described the pastrami as excellent - to which, I concur. Heady with smokiness, you understand immediately that they have treated this beef with care, love and patience. Everything else on the plate was almost overshadowed by this and I did find myself searching for something sweeter or sharper than the sauerkraut, pickles and coleslaw already on the plate. Perhaps some pickled onions might have appeased my taste buds.

Toasted Reuben with pickle and coleslaw

The second visit had me ordering 'Lots of Lox' (Stewart Island cured salmon 3 ways: citrus, dill and spiced), Spiced Roast Pumpkin Salad with cashew 'schmear', tabbouleh and orange oil, and a large Montreal Poutine (fries with cheese curd and gravy) - oh, yes. This time I was the wiser and met a friend for the perfect catch-up-and-eat opportunity. I can confirm: The Fed is best enjoyed with a friend.

The Lox arrived as a generous serve of thinly sliced layers of beautifully decadent salmon served atop a wooden chopping board with scattered capers, wafer-thin red onion rings, a lemon wedge and sliced bread. To be honest, I was too caught up in catching up with my friend that I failed to savour the subtle differences in the various curing flavours (dill, citrus and spiced) but I enjoyed them all nonetheless. Was it an indication that the flavours weren't strong enough? I'll have to try them all again.

(l-r) Montreal Poutine, large, Spiced Pumpkin Salad and 'Lots of Lox'

The pumpkin salad had it's own sense of decadence, but with more complex flavours and textures. From the cashew cream below to the tabbouleh made from plump pearl barley grains above, the dish was brought together by a lightly scented orange oil. I was surprised at how this read so wonderfully on the palate and so naturally with the pumpkin, it made me wonder whether their shared colour had an inherent flavour correlation that I wasn't aware of before.

As for the poutine - it was not my first, and The Fed's rendition did no wrong.  The large provided a more-than-generous portion for two to share, however I have no doubt I could look after a plate like this on my own as it was nothing short of guilt-rendering delicious. I found myself going back systematically to stack multiple chips on my fork, as well as a piece of melted cheese curd to only smother it with as much gravy as possible. While I realise this sounds slightly gluttonous and wrong, I'm sure anyone who has tried good poutine would not disagree.

If I manage to go back, I'll look to try the Oyster Stew or the Matzo Ball soup to try those distinctly New York Jewish diner dishes, from which Fed Deli find it's inspiration from. And out of the 'Pies by the Slice'? Banana & Toffee pie with caramel popcorn, please.

Orleans, 48 Customs Street East, Britomart
I love the New Orleans region's style of food. Strong flavours, spice, but most importantly, a humble style of cooking which makes it often seem like you're eating out of someone's well-versed home kitchen. At Britomart's homage to Creole, we sampled the Andouille Sausage Jambalaya Balls with 'dirty' gravy, Southern Gumbo with shrimp, okra, chicken, Andouille sausage and kumara rouille, the Blackened Market Fish PO boy and, who could resist, the curly fries with creole salt and chipotle mayo.

Curly fries and Andouille Sausage Jambalaya Balls (by the time the gumbo and PO boy came out, I had forgotten about taking photos.  Trust me, they looked good.)

The standout for me was the Southern Gumbo. Beautifully succulent meats in a sweet, smoky and rich tomato base, I finished this as much as I could without asking for more bread to soak it all up. Surprisingly light were the jambalaya balls, yet still with all of those characteristically 'dirty' flavours coming through: thyme, oregano, smoked paprika, cayenne, garlic and onion. While the Blackened Market Fish was perfectly cooked, the bread was neither here nor there, letting the PO boy down as a whole. It was certainly no comparison to the Food Truck roll. And the curly fries were like any other around town, however the addition of the creole salt made these that tad bit more special.

Fukuko, 43 Tyler Street, Britomart
I'm pleased that the Momofuku-style steamed buns have made their way to our shores and I experienced some superb ones recently from Wellington pop-up, The Ramen Shop. When I saw Fukuko offering two variations (pork belly with cucumber, spring onion and hoisin; and spiced beef short rib with pickled cucumber and wasabi mayonnaise), I had to try them. The rest of their menu offers small bites, similar to the style of a Japanese izakaya (pub), as well as salads and don buri (rice) bowls for all up to $15.50. Pretty reasonable.

Spiced beef short rib steamed bun

And so I ordered the two steamed buns and the Tiger Prawn salad with cos, edamame, shaved fennel and miso dressing. While pork belly is known as the unfailing companion to the lighter Chinese-style steamed bun, I actually preferred the beef. The tart pickle with the pungently 'hot' wasabi against the braised beef short rib, rich with meatiness, worked brilliantly. The pork belly was slightly dry for me and, come to think of it, the steam bun was as well. A little disappointing.

Pork belly steam bun

Tiger Prawn salad

The Tiger Prawn salad didn't hit the spot with me either. Perhaps, my mood was not for salad, but I found both the prawns and dressing slightly under-seasoned. It left me wanting more, which is when I ordered another beef rib steam bun.

As a venue, I imagine Fukuko is a great place for drinks (they specialise in Japanese shōchū, sake and whiskey). Their snacks are definitely worth dabbling in but I'd take the opportunity here to hop onto one of Britomart's other well-known eateries for a meal: Hanoi comes to mind for fresh Asian, Mexico for tacos and quesadillas (however the lack of limes and cilantro/onion mix on the tables lets me down here) or Orleans (as above).

As a Wellingtonian, I never thought I would envy those up in the City of Sails but I say this now for good reason. The food scene is exciting, despite a few misses, at least they are trying things out with character and conviction. Looking forward to my next visit where I might return to Federal Street for my old favourite: Depot.


  1. Evelyn!! I love your blog!! Ohhh I can't wait to get to Auckland now and try all these places..any good Japanese places in Wellington you recommend? I'm craving Japanese food so hard since I got back!

    1. Thanks Maire! Welcome home! Yeah you've got to get up to Auckland, so tasty but so many places to try! Oh I so know what you mean about craving Japanese. Sometimes all I want to eat is some kombini onigiri! Natshukashii ne. As for Japanese in Wellington, I really like Kazu on Tory (http://www.kazu.co.nz/kazu/) as a great all-round restaurant; for lunchtime sushi and korroke, try Yoshi on Featherston Street (Helen Kono and her partner's place). If you're craving freshly made (not frozen) takoyaki, you can get it at Sushi Bi on Willis Street where the sushi is cheap and not bad; and for ramen, check out our friend's pop-up The Ramen Shop (search on Facebook) - they are making their own noodles and broth with super love and care. The only real ラメん in Wellington よ!