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An SPQR for the Social Media Age

#newopening #ponsonby #tobi @namugroup @eatlitfood

An SPQR for the Social Media Age

Mar 12, 2024 Restaurants

When influencers start businesses, they tend to be aiming for low-price-point products that have the best potential to scale through optimisation of the social-media marketing the influencer is already good at. That could mean lipgloss or nootropics, chocolate bars or energy drinks. For food influencers, this usually means things like chilli oils and spice mixes, or maybe cookware. When food influencers open restaurants, they tend to be at the ‘faster’ end of the market, where they can use their popularity to sell a hyped burger or taco. So if you heard Albert Cho (1) — who for the last few years has steadily gained followers (and detractors) for the expletive-ridden food reviews posted to his account Eat Lit Food, published a book about eating and partying and eating disorders (sometimes in a pro-ana kinda way), and appeared on a reality TV show and a couple of web series — was opening a restaurant, the safest guess is that it would have been some twist on whatever fusion comfort food was in the ascendent. 

It was a surprise then — to me, at least — that the first restaurant he has led and opened in his role as operations manager (and a part-owner) at David Lee’s Namu Group (Aigo, Camper Coffee Roasting Co, The Candy Shop , Crack Chicken, Pōni , Gemmi) is something different from the group’s usual fast, casual and high turnover offerings. I wasn’t expecting a modern-ish take on a pan-European brasserie. 

Tobi, which recently opened on Ponsonby Rd in the space inhabited for many years by Bolliwood, is named after Cho’s good friend Tobi Innes, an Instagram influencer and the daughter of modelling agency owner and former reality TV host Sara Tetro and former All Black Craig Innes. Why all this name-dropping in a restaurant review? Because that, consciously or not, seems like the purpose of Tobi. It is a SPQR for the social-media set, complete with round, LED-lit mirrors in the bathrooms that double as ring lights for the perfect selfie. And like that notorious Auckland restaurant beloved of the famous of the 90s, Tobi has a set of tables outside that for the summer months will be packed with people long-lunching on expense accounts and growing increasingly crowded as dinner turns into a night out. The sign outside, more prominent than the name of the restaurant, reads “GOOD FOOD / COCKTAILS & WINE / FUN PEOPLE”, all seemingly of equal importance. 

And the food is good. Not amazing — but probably not as good as it will get, either. The executive chef is Yutak Son, who has worked at Sidart , Orphans Kitchen , Daily Bread , Black Estate and The Shed at Te Motu, and his food here is a mix of brasserie classics, tapas, local nostalgia and contemporary Aotearoa cuisine. The goat’s cheese croquettes were our first bites — simple, crispy and satisfying. The Tobi Gilda, a salty and enlivening pintxo (a little snack on a toothpick) was a great continuation, but using that same format for a deconstructed shrimp cocktail was much less successful — the straight-skewered shrimps were awkward to eat and the DIY application of thick, spicy tomato sauce meant the dish lacked the sumptuousness of the classic version. The crudo — tender slivers of trevally, coated in crème fraîche and then doused in a super-tasty kaffir lime oil — was one of the best (and most distinct) of the many crudo available around town at the moment.

On the more traditional side of things, the mains are generous and just as suitable for hogging if you’re hungry as they are for sharing if you want to taste across the table. We got the seafood pot — mussels and clams in an aggressive (in a good way) white wine sauce — and I was glad we opted for the optional linguine; it was a necessary vehicle for the sauce. The sauce was also a highlight of the steak frites — a nicely cooked wagyu sirloin from Lake Ōhau with a deeply flavourful classic Bordelaise sauce and excellent fries. On the side we had the creamy and satisfying three cheese mac and cheese, and some excellent dinner rolls — wonderfully light and puffy, served super-hot so they produce a puff of stream as you tear them open. For dessert, we had the ambrosia — everything in its right place, nothing to complain about but nothing to write home about either — and the 7 Eleven slushie — a half-and-half of strawberry-and-basil shaved ice on top of frozen strawberries and a caramel that quickly cooled from the ice, an odd and unnecessary complication to what could have been a pretty simple and refreshing dish. The components all ended up as gelatinous globs without discernible flavour — an authentic brown mess, the usual consequence of putting too many flavours in your shaved ice. 

But food isn’t everything, as on the sign outside proclaimed. The cocktail we had (“Grapefruit”) was, as you’d imagine, sour and refreshing. A little like a grapefruit Fruju, which was always my favourite ice block, so while it wasn’t going to win any mixology awards (it’s not that kind of place, anyway), it was right up my alley. The wine list — presented in flavour profiles, not by varietals, as has become increasingly common (and helpful) — is short but suitable by the glass, and impressively varied and interesting by the bottle. There were many there I’d love to have tried if anyone else on my table was drinking wine. 

And the fun people? Well, I went on a rainy Sunday, so a who’s who of Instagram all spilling both cocktails and secrets was decidedly not in effect. Perhaps it more closely resembled that other stalwart of Ponsonby Rd, Prego . There were a couple of kids there. A few families. A couple of pretty chill-seeming dates. A nice Sunday-dinner vibe, but no one sitting out in the wet. No one people-watching while hoping to be people-watched. But I imagine that’ll all change when the sun comes out.


Tobi ***
110 Ponsonby Rd

Mon–Tues, 5–10pm
Wed–Sat, 11.30am–11pm
Sun 11.30–10pm

Dinner Bill
Starters $18–$110
Mains $34–$120
Sides $12–$17
Desserts $15–$42


Cho has often come under criticism for a lack of transparency around which of the restaurants he gives rave reviews to have given him his meals free or paid him to promote them, so I feel compelled to make a few disclosures myself, none of which have consciously impacted this review, positively or negatively.
1. I know Albert a little socially and we have friends in common.
2. In an Instagram post a couple of years ago promoting the restaurant Pasture , he personally attacked Metro’s then food editor Jean Teng in response to an article she’d co-written about employment issues at Pasture.
3. Metro paid for my meal at Tobi as the magazine pays for all meals at restaurants we are reviewing or judging.
4. Metro occasionally reviews restaurants that also advertise in the magazine, but those reviews are not impacted by the existence of the ad and we are just as likely to publish a harsh or ambivalent review of an advertiser’s restaurant as a positive one.
This review was published in Metro N°441.
Available here.


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In the Autumn 2024 issue of Metro we celebrate the best of Tāmaki Makaurau — 100 great things about life in Auckland, including our favourite florist, furniture store, cocktail, basketball court, tree, make-out spot, influencer, and psychic. The issue also includes the Metro Wine Awards, the battle over music technology company Serato, the end of The Pantograph Punch, the Billy Apple archives, a visit to Armenia, viral indie musician Lontalius, the state of fine dining, and the time we bombed West Auckland to kill a moth. Plus restaurants, movies, politics, astrology, and more.

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