NZ Food Reviews: Auckland and Cambridge

                                              Poppa’s Pretzels

Featured image                                                                     Image: Narcis Poppa

The street food scene in central Auckland is booming, and on this corner of Queen St is a virtual cornucopia of international styles that includes Popa’s Pretzels. Iulia and Narcis Popa migrated to NZ from Romania six years ago in search of fresh seafood. Iulia (a lab technician) and Narcis (an irrigation engineer) thought that NZ, being surrounded by ocean, would be the perfect destination for a family dedicated to the gastronomic delights of the sea. They weren’t wrong, but what they didn’t count on was the price. Narcis: “We were quite shocked at how much fish costs here, it is cheaper to buy frozen NZ fish in Romania than it is to buy it fresh here.”

Nevertheless, the couple have settled in and have built a thriving business around one of Romania’s favourite street foods, the humble pretzel, a type of baked bread product made from dough and shaped into a twisty knot. Iulia: “In Romania, a good pretzel maker will always have line of people waiting their turn to buy,” but “Kiwis won’t stand in line, and a line turns customers away.”

A bit of a shame really because the wait is worth it. The pretzels here are not only sensational – delightfully crispy and salty – but are only the start of what’s on offer. The other house specialty is the Manakesh, a kind of Middle Eastern variant on the pizza with a sauce made from herbs and spices rather than tomato. On top of the sauce is layered spinach, a variety of cheeses, olives and peppers, and of course meat for the so inclined. Once the Manakesh comes out of the oven it is folded and cut in half. The result is comfort food of the first order and frankly, I could eat this all day, everyday.

Also on the menu is the Pretzel Pie, a Popa’s innovation that turns the traditional pie on its head. Using bread dough instead of pastry, the result is remarkably similar to what one would expect from pastry. The outside is crispy while the inside is soft and flaky without any of the fat that is the norm with a standard pie. Among the flavours is that old Kiwi favourite, mince and cheese as well as a number of vegetarian and vegan options. The pretzel pie is a triumph: warm and nourishing, they are generously proportioned and keep one satiated for hours. If you want a pie without all the guilt, the Pretzel Pie is the perfect solution. I still haven’t fully explored Popa’s menu, but intend to do so as time, money and appetite allow. Thoroughly recommended.

                            The Top Cafe Dumpling House

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                                                                 Image: ‘Frank’ Bo Feng

On the far side of the Ironbank complex on K-road in Central Auckland is the Top Café Dumpling House. Owned and operated by ‘Frank’ Bo Feng, this café specialises in the dumpling style typical of Bo’s home city of Tiajin, (a ‘small’ city of 7.5 million not far from Bejing).

Frank came to NZ seventeen years ago to study English and IT and quickly feel in love with the place citing ‘the beautiful natural environment and the friendly helpful people’ as the reason he stayed on.

As his IT career progressed his mind turned more and more to his mothers dumplings, which he describes as ‘very flavoursome’. He tried dumplings at every establishment he discovered but none matched his memories so he decided to start making them himself.

The Top Café Dumpling House makes the dumplings from scratch and in the Tiajin style. At every table is a bottle of Chinese vinegar, soy sauce and chilli oil for dipping. The chilli oil, like the dumplings, is made by Frank and is extremely popular. Frank- “Kiwi’s love my chilli oil dipping sauce,” so much so that he is preparing to bottle and sell it.

Frank makes and sells some 800 dumplings a day. As each batch is made they are snap frozen and reheated as required, this means customers can take the frozen product home to eat at their leisure.

What we ate:

I ordered the Egg and Vegetable dumplings and my companion choose the Pork and Cabbage style. We also ordered the Chinese cucumber salad.

The Price:

$11.00 for 15 very substantial dumplings, $5.00 for the Cucumber Salad

The cucumber was a Chinese variant, a crisp and slightly sweet cucumber seasoned with a sesame oil based dressing. The result was like the dumplings, very moreish with a complex range of flavours that tagged the taste buds perfectly.

The dumpling were partially steamed and partially fried, firm and filled to capacity. Halfway through my plate I was full, and unlike my more considered dining companion who took the remainder of his dumplings home, I persevered and finished my plate. Frankly, they tasted so damned good I couldn’t stop eating.

Top Café is eco friendly, that is: the takeaway boxes are biodegradable and the plates are made from renewable plantation bamboo. ‘Frank’ Bo Feng was a friendly and outgoing host and joyously enthusiastic about his product and his customers.

This was my first time with dumplings and the experience was exceptional.

                                  Breakfast at Little Algiers

Down the Ponsonby Road end of K-Road is a French Algerian style café called Little Algiers and never having been to neither France nor Algeria I cannot comment on its authenticity but the menu seemed rather straightforward Middle Eastern with a French twist.

My dining companion ordered the omelette, which came served in a large cast iron frypan with a small dressed salad stacked up in the centre. He declared it magnificent. I had roughly the same thoughts regarding my wrapped Kofta pita. Kofta is akin to falafel and is usually associated with meat though this café offered a chickpea based vegetarian option, which was my choice. This was seriously good: warm pita chock full of fresh vegetables and covered in a delicious lemony dressing. The Kofta themselves were crunchy, flavoursome and filling.

As for the coffee’s, they were seriously good, so good in fact that we ordered seconds and contemplated a third before coming to our senses.

This is a casual little diner that was, on this morning, operated by one person, a rather mischief Algerian chef/performer. The perfect breakfast.

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                                     Galbraith’s Alehouse.
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Galbraith’s Alehouse is set within a beautifully appointed heritage building, (the former Grafton Library circa 1912). It is all warm native timbers and polished brass. The atmosphere is convivial and welcoming and the parking opportunities are generous. The Ale is brewed on site.

What we ate:

Triple Cooked Fries with a side of broccolini dressed with Parmesan cheese, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and slivered almonds.

The fries were thick, ultra crunchy and possessed a heart of pure tenderness. 5/5

The broccolini was cooked to perfection, that is: fresh, crisp and exquisitely dressed. 5/5

What we drank:

Earl Grey tea, which my dining companion declared to be: “a damned fine cuppa”.

My pint of Russian Imperial Stout (Rurik) possessed the same velvety smooth qualities as Guinness but with an extraordinary depth of flavour- undefinable spicy undertones and hints of caramel. This is seriously good drop. 5/5

The service was prompt and staff friendly, knowledgeable and helpful.

                                    The Queen Vic Chippy.

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                                                   Image: Amanda and Bernie, Head Chippers

The Queen Vic Chippy is across the road from the B.P station on State Highway One as you drive into Cambridge and is an essential destination for all connoisseurs of NZ’s favourite deep fried cuisine. Okay, I am a vegetarian so I cannot comment on the fish, (which is fresh and like everything else served up here, is made in house – none of that frozen battered stuff here), but I can comment on the chips, potato fritters and the onion rings.

The chips are cooked to your liking, and I like them crispy, and not once have I been disappointed. As for the potato fritters, these babies’ are huge, big slices of fresh potato dipped in the Queen Vic’s secret batter and fried until golden and crispy, so big are they that one can almost imagine them as great big sides of deep-fried battered fish.The potato inside is soft and the grease pours down your chin. What more can I say?The onion rings are the same deal, humongous, crispy and devilishly moreish.

Whenever I pass through this pretty little town the Queen Vic is an essential destination and the 6 people manning the fryers and the mass of seated patrons flicking through the generous selection of magazines on offer as they wait for their orders attest to the quality of food, which includes homemade burgers, cheesecake and mussy peas. Yep, this place is the real deal, a proper old school Fish and Chip shop.

Visit the Queen Vic. Website

                                                   Odette’s

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The City Works Depot, formerly home of the city’s infrastructure team, is a collection of eateries, bars and a brewery scattered across a former industrial site with one tremendous asset, parking and lots of it, all without pesky meters. I discovered Odette’s when I turned up to interview local musician Eden Mulholland recently. The coffee was nothing out of the ordinary, but Eden’s plate of bacon and eggs looked pretty damned good, even to a dedicated vego. The bacon was streaky style and cooked crispy, the poached eggs were perfectly formed and the side of sourdough rye dripping in butter topped off a substantial looking feast.

A couple of weeks later, my companion and I rocked up to try a couple of items from Odette’s extensive and rather eclectic menu, and one of the more interesting I have seen in recent times. We started with the coffee (still nothing special going on here) and followed it up with the Olive Pickle – olives in a sauce made from sweet peppers, walnuts and seasoned with cumin. This affair was accompanied by a generous piece of Lavosh. This thin and crunchy Middle Eastern bread was seriously tasty, but the best was yet to come.

Yes, I’m talking fries: hand cut agria potatoes (that’s the yellow fleshed frying spud) sitting on a bed of rich mayonnaise. The fries were crispy on the outside and light and fluffy in the middle and sitting on a bed of mayo as they were, you could not escape the rich garlicky goodness that coated every chip. Odette’s is a beautifully appointed café/restaurant with particular attention to design details. The seating is especially comfortable, the music subtle, the staff attentive and the service fast. The whole effect is quite special, and I look forward visiting again.

 

 

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