Friday, November 21, 2014

The Engine Room

I sit here with the biggest grin on my face as I recount the best restaurant meal I've had in 2014. I know it's not the end of the year yet and some people might think I've jumped the gun, but I already know that no other eatery will compare.

It was my birthday and I knew Jason had something special planned. The Engine Room, located in trendy Northcote Point, is somewhere I've wanted to visit for a long time. We had heard nothing but great things about the food here and were eager to give it a try.

Lychee and Ginger Fizz - $16.00
I sipped my lychee and ginger cocktail while we looked around the room. It was still light outside and the restaurant was humming with conversation while some nondescript music played in the background.

My cocktail also had mint, kaffir lime and 42 Below Passionfruit Vodka. The result was something unbelievably fresh and it was nice to taste little bits of lychee and zingy ginger up the straw too.

While sipping on our drinks, we spent a long time staring at the wall. Not because there was a lack of conversation, but because the menu had been written there in meticulous handwriting. Our waiter tells us that Waiheke Island oysters and diamond shell clams are the specials of the night.

1/2 Dozen Waiheke Island Oysters - $24.00
Our oysters were extremely fresh and served simply with a vinaigrette and lemon wedge. Vinaigrette had a nice after taste but I preferred it just with the lemon. 

Complimentary Amuse Bouche 
While waiting for our mains, the kitchen sent out two small spoonfuls of Hapuka ceviche to further whet the appetite. The tender fish was well prepared and was complimented by a green salad. The mouthful was very fresh tasting and had great texture.

Zaatar Chook - $36.00
Not long after our amuse bouche, our mains arrived. I took a while to admire the presentation (and snap lots of photos) before starting.

The Zaatar Chook had a very light and crispy skin which crackled beneath the knife. The spice was subtle but crept up on me with each mouthful. The roasted fig and tahini mellowed out the spice and provided a nice sweetness and creaminess to the dish. Pomegranate were included in the tasty saffron pilaf and provided a nice burst of juiciness.

Pork Shoulder - $34.00
We could smell the coconut rice before it even hit the table. Although it wasn't the star of the dish, the fragrant rice was the perfect accompaniment to the pork shoulder. The tamarind sauce fully penetrated the pork and it easily fell apart on my fork and . The fresh green papaya and lemongrass salad, along with the tangy tamarind sauce balanced out the fattiness. Every bite was delightful.

All the components on my dish were finished at the same time which shows how expertly the portion size of each element was thought out.

New York Cheesecake - $16.00, Natalia's Valrhana Truffles $3.50 each
The New York Cheesecake was beautifully baked and came with a chocolate top which was soft enough so that it wouldn't be too hard to cut. It had a silky smooth centre and a very soft crumbly base. My fork glided through it effortlessly and every bite was delicious. The acidity of the strawberry and raspberry couli cut through the creaminess and brought balance to the dish.

The truffles were very decadent with a hard milk chocolate outer and silky ganache centre. It wasn't overly sweet but enough to balance out the cocoa outside. This went great with my tea and was the perfect finish to the night.

It was quite fitting that the best meal of the year was accompanied by the best service we have received. Our water was very attentive without being intrusive and did a superb job even though he was looking after half of the restaurant! This was the first time we had ever had an entire conversation about the quality of the service and the first time we had ever felt compelled to tip our server. 

By the time we left, the sun was setting. We were completely satisfied.

How will I outdo Jason for his birthday?

The Engine Room is located at 115 Queen Street, Northcote Point, Auckland, New Zealand

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mexico, Takapuna

I've often marvelled at the variety of different restaurants that are available in Auckland. There is just about every type cuisine you could possibly want in various stages of authenticity. 

There are many little family run eateries which offer dishes that remind those of their home town but often deter those who are less than adventurous. Then there are bigger chain stores that take a country's cuisine and add a more commercial twist for the masses. 

Mexico is the latter, but does it well. My sister in law, Miss J, had been nothing but complimentary about this place for a couple of months now because it allowed her to try something new -without venturing too much out of her comfort zone.

We came to Mexico, Takapuna to celebrate the end of Miss J's time at university. We weren't able to book ahead of time as we didn't have a party of ten, but we were early enough that it didn't matter.

Sangria Blanco - $26.00, Salsa roja and corn chips - $8.00
We started off with some white wine Sangria which goes down a lot smoother than your regular red wine variety. The addition of elderflower cordial was a pleasant surprise. 

I found the salsa a little disappointing (mushy) but the house made corn chips were super light and were the perfect vessel.

Burnt Avocado Guacamole and Corn Shards - $8.00
The guacamole was my favourite starter, with big chunks of creamy avocado and light taco shells. I did find the whole tomato a little strange as there was nothing to cut it with and the guac would have been fine without it.

Quesadillas - $14.00 to $15.00 (pictured, Cactus Quesadilla)
We ordered three quesadillas to share - the pulled pork special, the chicken mole and a cactus one! The pork and the chicken quesadillas were very well prepared, with tender pieces of meat and great accompanying sauces.

I was quite let down by the cactus quesadilla which tasted of the charred broccoli that it was paired with. I wouldn't recommend this unless you like the taste of burnt things in your mouth.

Clockwise from left: Fish Taco -$6.00, Pipian Chicken Taco - $6.00, Pulled Pork Taco $6.00, BBQ Pork Quesadilla - $15.00
Soft shell tacos are the only things on the menu that are designed to be single serve. The fish taco was fried in a very light, crispy yeast batter and was paired in with a crunchy salad and jalapeno mayo. 

The Pipian chicken was flavoursome but lacked the texture the other two tacos had. The cheese provided a balance to the chili.

The BBQ pork taco was nice, although a bit on the sweet side. The creamy sauce went nicely with the pork and the addition of some hot sauce made it even better.

Mexico Fried Chicken - $15.00
The Mexico Fried Chicken gets its own mention as this was the entire reason Miss J wanted everyone to come. Each piece of boneless chicken was moist while the batter was incredibly moist and light. It came with two sauces, which I could only identify as "hot" and "hotter". The only down side was that it could have done with a bit more salt.

Churros - $12.00
We ended our meal with some deliciously crunchy churros. I can't say that they were better or worse than your usual street side truck stall though. The chocolate sauce was a bit heavy and we found that the churros were actually better without it.

With its eclectic d├ęcor and relaxed atmosphere, Mexico, Takapuna is a great place to catch up with friends over some shared plates. Our servers were attentive throughout the night and kept our drinks topped up. Next time we come back, we'll have to go through their 50+ tequilas!

Mexico, Takapuna can be found at 4 The Strand, Takapuna, Auckland. There are also outlets at Britomart, Ellerslie and Ponsonby.