Jun 18, 2022 Restaurants
Yum cha is the ultimate culinary team sport. You need to choose your teammates wisely. Eaters with the ability to sprint when a flotilla of hot dumpling baskets land all at once, but also the stamina to find a second (or third) wind, and the patience to wait for coveted dishes to make their way round the trolley circuit. You need a team large enough to get a wide array of dishes, and to land a table equipped with a so-called Lazy Susan. But Susan is not lazy. She is always the MVP.
A recent visit to Grand Harbour in the Viaduct added one additional teammate criterion to my list. Punctuality. I am not usually fussed by a late arrival. But when steaming piles of truly delicious food are sailing past the table, 15 minutes feels like an eternity.
Grand Harbour is indisputably the grande dame of yum cha in Auckland, an institution since it opened its doors in 2000. I remember eating there as a student, spending long afternoons nibbling and shooting the breeze with friends instead of hitting the books. I ate there as a young professional, running in packs with the suited-and-booted for Friday lunches with tall glasses of beer to wash down the dumplings instead of the ubiquitous pot of tea. I have, I kid you not, stood on the seashore in Lisbon with a hot Portuguese custard tart in my hand and wondered whether or not it trumped the egg tart at Grand Harbour (for the record, I called it a tie).
Auckland is not short of solid Chinese restaurants, but Grand Harbour specialises in Cantonese food delivered in the Hong Kong style, and I mean that in all senses — the menu, the décor and the atmosphere. The restaurant has successfully struck a delicate balance with an offering that appeals to locals and tourists alike — a diversity of clientele that I can only hope has given them some degree of continuity in these odd times, but also enables them to offer modern yet authentic dishes without too many concessions to Western tastes.
It’s tough to survive in the restaurant business for so long and maintain consistency. On a recent weeknight, the dining room, which is the size of a hotel ballroom, was empty except for us and two other tables. The traffic light had been jacked up to Red a few days earlier, so it was probably similar at almost every restaurant in town. One staff member told me Grand Harbour had 150 cancellations that week alone. Between that, and the now two-year absence of the Chinese tourists that have historically been a mainstay for Grand Harbour, they might have been forgiven for letting standards (or the live tank numbers) slip. They have not.
Unsurprisingly, the dining room felt odd when empty, but it was easier to admire the furnishings — bright-red pops of colour, plush banquettes, questionable chandeliers, but just the right side of tacky and, as one friend put it, it feels, well, grand. The food remains of a high standard, with generous portion sizes and a well-laid-out menu. The combination fried rice was studded with chubby shrimp, chunks of dark barbecue pork, and shot through with delicate, feathery egg. Mapo tofu is my comparator dish for Chinese restaurants — the one I order whenever available so that I have a consistent point of reference. The version at Grand Harbour was lighter in colour and on the palate than many I’ve had, but while it lacked the salty, dark, umami-heavy hit of so many versions, it was incredibly flavourful — garlicky, with just the right level of chilli hum, nicely sized cubes of soft, wobbly tofu, with a good sauce-to-goodie ratio. It is one of the tastiest versions I’ve had. The Vegetarian’s Delight is a hearty dish with excellent textural variation — a slippery array of fungi, water chestnut, dense starchy lotus root, and baby corn — but, while I’d order it again, I think the vegetarians would be even more delighted if this mild-mannered dished packed more punch on the flavour front.
Despite the success of dinner, I was sceptical when returning for yum cha, a critical mass game for any restaurant. You need enough patrons to warrant preparing a steady stream of varied dishes, and Grand Harbour spreads their bets serving yum cha seven days a week. The website now warns that yum cha tables are only allowed one hour on weekends due to the current restrictions. It’s a far cry from the languid bring-your-newspaper Sunday-morning yum cha sessions in Hong Kong. In this climate, it struck me as something written in an admirable fit of optimism. We went on a holiday Monday and, while nobody moved us along, I’ll eat my hat because it looked to be at capacity. The tables felt well distanced (the benefit of a large establishment with high ceilings), but patrons were plentiful enough so it had that old buzzy feeling. The trolleys were stacked high and absolutely steaming, turning over at a rate that guaranteed the food was hot and fresh. We had all the usual staples and some new- found friends — dumplings (watercress and prawn, pork sui mai, pork and chive, combination, vegetarian, coriander, taro and pork), crispy fried squid, barbecue pork buns, roast duck, spring rolls, sticky rice, crab legs, roast duck and green beans. What was on these green beans? Minced pork and olive. It was one of those wonderful moments when you put something in your mouth and know it’s just right, even if you can’t quite put your finger on exactly what it is. It could almost be mistaken for a salty fermented black bean sauce, but with a twist. Subtle, tasty, unexpected, and one of the stand-out dishes. As was the pork and chive dumpling, with a beautifully thin skin, and chunky filling with small shards of crisp water chestnut. This is exactly the sort of dump- ling that gets you out of bed in the morning thinking of yum cha.
I probably wouldn’t order the crab legs again. They’re hard to eat and, while nicely cooked, they lacked any point of interest in terms of seasoning or spice — perhaps our disappointment mainly came from the sense that it’s a statement dish that was whispering rather than shouting. The roast duck is also best saved for dinner. It’s solid,
but not sensational enough to take up precious dumpling space at brunch.
Grand Harbour is a broad church, filled with everyone from four-generation families to skater boys and ladies who lunch — everyone joyously craning their heads and flaring their nostrils at passing trolleys. And that’s because everyone knows a good thing when they see it. The sticky rice ice cream balls (mochi, to you and me) and lush cocktail glasses of watermelon juice also went down very nicely — a little flair which I’m sure is intended to please young families but elicited some pretty happy sounds from the adults at my table too. And ooooh, the egg tarts. I hate to break it to the Portuguese, but I might have to revise my position. The grande dame’s definitely still got that old magic, as well as a few updated tricks.
Grand Harbour ***
Address CNR PACKENHAM ST AND CUSTOM ST WEST, VIADUCT HARBOUR
Contact 09 357 6889
Yum cha hours TUES–SUN, 11AM–9PM
Dinner hours MON–SUN 5.30–10PM
APPETISERS $10–$15; MAINS $28–$120; YUM CHA $7.50– $10.50 PER DISH