This is such a beautiful city, perched on the water, the air fresh, green volcanos everywhere you look. Some lucky people take the ferry in from Waiheke Island, commuting in to work with orcas frisking around the boat, leaping, diving. Others live in wonderful Victorian homes, perched on hills, views of water on all sides.
Life here seems casual, easy. First night in town I am whisked off to Depot, the most rollicking, raucuous restaurant, where genial Al Brown plies me with wonderful wines and fantastic food. Almost before we're seated platters of oysters arrive.
New Zealand oysters are not like those of other waters: they’re brinier, meatier. We have Tio Points, with their steely character, creamy Mahurangis and the Te Matukus which are both sweet, salty and creamy. (My favorites are Bluff Oysters, which are just going out of season; they have a crisp character, a bit like the texture of giant clam, and I'm ecstatic each time I encounter one.)
There are clam fritters - I can’t stop eating them - and spicy lamb ribs, big meaty things with potent skordalia, and the kinds of salads not meant for dainty dieters. This is big food, for big eaters; you are meant to have fun. And finally we eat pastrami from Al’s other place - Federal Deli - which actually gives classic New York delis a run for their money.
I’m amazed to come halfway around the world and find this written on a wall. But did I say this? I can’t remember when.
Lunch the next day is at Soul Bar. Overlooking the water, it's filled with extremely chic people giving each other the eye. This is a grown up restaurant, running smooth as silk. You sit down, relax, instantly knowing you're in good hands. The food - as you can plainly see from the king fish above and the tuna below - is beautiful. It is also impeccably prepared. Every one of these dishes tasted even better than it looks.
The fish and scampi were delicious, but it's the pastas that really impressed me. Pumpkin agnolotti were filled with roasted pumpkin, bathed in brown butter and edged with curls of ricotta salata and fried sage. It's a classic dish, but I've never had a better version.
I love these plump, floppy little ravioli too. They're filled with goat cheese that's been sparked with orange peel and topped with grilled scallions and various permutations of peas. Simple. Elegant. Delicious.
And this: scampi with brussels sprouts. Underneath, sheer sheets of pasta. Over it all, a rich shrimp bisque. Sweet, sour, soft, chewy: a serious mouthful.
Here even a simple dish of broccolini comes spiked with smoked chili, underlined with preserved lemon, embraced by garlic until its rough edges have been muted.
Breakfast in Auckland isn't your usual fare either. While people in the rest of the world are starting the day with toast, with cereal, with porridge or pastries, Aucklandites have different ideas. At the lovely little Ortolana people are tucking into far more interesting food. Mushrooms, poached egg, scattered cheese, greens.
And this: gnocchi, cheese, eggs, peas and an entire garden of spring greens. It's as if Auckland is saying - the world is filled with so many wonderful things to eat. Why limit the options?
And then there is the Japanese food. Stay tuned.....