Serving up a new twist on yum cha proves a challenge.
It’s up a steep flight of stairs from Wyndham St, with high ceilings and casement windows. There are grey-painted brick walls and raking neon lights, macrocarpa tables and big woollen curtains; there’s an open kitchen so you can see Street’s trademark cap intently bent over the pass.
They’ve brought some great staff with them, including restaurant manager Nick Gallagher. The beer list is long but could do with a rev-up; the wine is great, and the cocktails are some of the best I’ve drunk anywhere.
The joint does what they’ve described as European yum cha. It’s not Chinese and it’s hard to get right. You order a couple of dishes off the menu and then take your pick from specials, which staff bring around on trays and nice black-steel trolleys. There are three sittings — at 6pm, 7pm and 8pm — and the trolleys come out about 10 minutes in, so don’t be late.
With actual yum cha, the food keeps coming until you feel like stopping. At Culprit, you’re either in danger of ordering too little — based on the advice from our waiter that one or two dishes off the menu is enough — or too much, as I did on my second visit in some over-compensatory need to not leave hungry.
You feel like you have too many waiters, and you watch them negotiating the trolleys around the furniture: on our first visit, they moved the same empty table seven or eight times. You find yourself anxiously looking out for the next dish rather than the one you have in front of you. If you run late, your waiter might be trying to take your drinks order, only to get barged in on by another waiter with a trolley, at which point he might tell her crossly to wait.
I’ve eaten some terrific dishes at Culprit, and many of them used offal and secondary cuts. But I’ve also eaten some dishes that weren’t as good. The food was mostly perfectly balanced and mostly perfectly seasoned — a hallmark of Street’s oversight at Depot — except when it wasn’t. And the only way I can account for this is the sheer complexity of managing, by my count, a menu of 28 dishes including yum cha and desserts.
They range from a sublime kokonda — a perfect balance of coconut, citrus and avocado, with just the right amount of chilli — to a dish of fleshy heritage tomatoes and Matariki cheese that was made with overly squishy, slightly tasteless tomatoes. There is a singularly genius dish of courgette on courgette, which is a tempura courgette flower served on courgette purée with pine nuts and goats’ curd, sweet and springy with a lovely tartness from the curd. But the steak tartare needed salt and came with soft, slightly bendy waffle-cut crisps.
I cannot recommend the duck parfait highly enough — it comes with sweet little doughnuts that you tear open and smear with silky, airy parfait — and please do order the duck and squash tortellini in a glass with a bassy, clear duck consommé (though remember it needs a good pinch of salt). And recently, I ate a dish of bavette, cooked perfectly to rare-medium-rare, served with creamed corn and a big pile of summery corn, courgettes and capsicum along with great big pieces of basil, stalk and all. It was deceptively simple, the kind of thrown-together dish that is anything but.
But we really need to talk about the Pig Face, which is slow-cooked and unctuous and comes with bitter radicchio leaves, apple, pork crackling puff and something heavenly which they call “pan sauce”. It is at once porky and bitter and sweet and salty and crunchy and fatty. It’s gutsy cooking, meaty, and no doubt using a lot of butter — but that’s okay. I just think they should trust that to be a truly great restaurant, this is more than enough.
12 Wyndham St, central city.
Ph 377-5992. culprit.co.nz
Hours: Summer lunch, Thursday & Friday; dinner Tuesday to Saturday from 6pm.
Dinner bill: Yum cha $3-$12; mid-size plates $12-$20; mains $28-$38; desserts $9.