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First look: Oaken

Apr 1, 2016 Restaurants

Words by Alice Harbourne, photos by Ken Downie.

The work of artisans has inspired Javier Carmona’s latest venture, an all-day Britomart eatery where every detail matters.

When we heard the guy behind the restaurant chain Mexico was giving Middle Eastern food a shot late last year, we were sceptical. Opening just a stone’s throw from Yael Shochat’s family-run Israeli restaurant Ima , it seemed brazen for a taco-loving Aussie to muscle in on her patch. But we were blown away, labeling Javier Carmona’s dishes “studies in rapture“; restrained, elegant interpretations of the hearty, traditional cuisine that has maintained Ima’s loyal clientele.

So, for Carmona’s next trick? Transforming a so-so Britomart cafe into an exquisite place for breakfast and lunch, that at dusk magically transitions into a sophisticated wine bar. He admits creating Oaken was a tough brief: “The words ‘wine bar’ and ‘cafe’ don’t instinctively work together, so the challenge has been to create a fluid space combining both worlds.”

In physical terms, that has been achieved by enlisting fit-out dream team Nat Cheshire and Nick McCaw, who were given words like “European farmhouse”, “Scandinavian” and “artisan” to work with, and were inspired by the rustic interiors of restaurants like Fäviken in Sweden. The result is stunning; the space divided into cosily-proportioned drinking and dining areas, coalesced by oak paneling and chairs, marble surfaces and acclaimed photographer Stu Robertson’s glossy, vibrant depictions of natural elements. The character of the 1940s Maritime Building has been preserved by way of exposed concrete pillars and statement bronze lampshades that draw the eye to the gritty ceiling, but softened with dusky pink banquettes and plump cushions. It’s a tactile affair; you want to touch every surface.

The same words that inspired the design inspired the menu, in fact, Carmona began simply with the word “artisan”. Every dish takes fine produce as its starting point, be it Aoraki cold-smoked salmon or Otello’s waygu bresaola. Instead of pairing ingredients with the usual suspects, Carmona looks around him (literally, in the kitchens of Beirut) and tries to innovate. For the bresaola, that means left-over watermelon rinds from Beirut’s fattoush are fermented and used as the perfect sour foil for the rich meat, while the salmon is introduced to shaved cauliflower, citrus geranium, yoghurt and eggs (see ya, cucumber and dill) for a breakfast like no other.

The level of thought that has gone into the impressively diverse and extensive menu is clear. There are 10 egg-based breakfast dishes, for instance, that are all completely different, while the midday and evening menus overlap only in ingredients, not technique or masterful pairing. Even the soft drinks menu is curated to the nth degree, with smoothies substituted by lassi yoghurt drinks in seasonal flavour combinations, and unusual additions like tomato water, the clear, viscose water produced by the slow-straining of tomatoes and chervil. An “espresso free-house” policy means it’s possible to choose between eighthirty, Peoples Coffee or All Press coffee blends, how clever?

With that level of pride in the breakfast drinks menu, you can guess how seriously the wine and beer lists are taken. A small, curated selection of wines allows the restaurant to play with rare and interesting bottles vintners approach them with, while a good mix of styles in a short (mostly) craft beer list shows typical elegant restraint. Oh, and there’s Aperol Spritz literally on tap, marvelous.

If that wasn’t enough, Louise Peel has been pinched from Beirut to head the front of house team, leading by example with her sunny, professional manner.

Thinking this all sounds awfully pricey? The most expensive dish is $18. We’re sold.

130 Quay St


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