Feb 7, 2023 Restaurants
We were sat in what our table quickly deemed the “Cold Corner” — the only slice of the room that wasn’t touched by a glowing orange heat lamp. If I turned my face slightly to the left, like a cat, I could feel the warmth just glancing off my cheek. They’d put in the radiant lamps last week, a server told me, and this corner was left sans heater for “health and safety reasons”. It’s cold in the cold corner. You should bring a coat.
Milenta is a new South American-inspired restaurant in the middle of Victoria Park Market, an otherwise quiet city-centre precinct that has gone through waves of attempted revitalisation ever since it’s early-90s heyday. The concept is open-air, open-fire cooking, so the dining space is encased in an outdoor box, with wooden slats that corral you into an earthen-toned room — rattan-backed chairs and terracotta tiles. Elie Assaf, Milenta’s head chef who was previously cooking at Williams Eatery in Wynyard Quarter, is working front-of-house the night I visit, stopping by at every table and explaining cer- tain dishes; I spot Al Alfante, Bar Celeste’s previous sous chef, in the kitchen.
This is one of Tāmaki’s new shiny toys, and you can feel that in the energy of the room, as well as its sister member’s club next door, Shy Guy. Both are busy, and populated by recognisable faces, and Milenta is the kind of restaurant where you sort of go in wondering whether it’ll be all hype and no substance. (You just know that in two months you’ll run into someone at a party, and they’ll go, “Milenta? Yeah, I went. I really don’t think it’s as good as everyone says it is…”) But, spoiler alert: I liked it a lot.
In my other review this issue, of Ponsonby restaurant Lucky 8, I complain about its QR-coded menu, saddened by the lack of romance to it all — the coldness of tapping the screen instead of having a conversation with a person. Milenta evokes what I feel is the opposite experience: its menu is not even online, so the first time I ever even know what they offer is within the physical space. That’s nice: it makes the dining experience feel more of itself. Plus, they are romantic. (If I had my way, I’d bring every restaurant menu home with me, as a keepsake.)
The food sounds romantic, too — nectarines and burrata, lime-cured picanha with quail yolk, blistered okra and black sesame mole. It’s mostly South American flavours but presented in a way we understand will be the MO at these sorts of restaurants. That is, heroing a cuisine using local, seasonal produce, while also knowing the genre of cuisine is not strictly prescriptive, with inspiration taken from elsewhere.
Smoked oysters with salmon roe and salsa verde come in a claypot, the kind you may find at a Cantonese restaurant. They’re only lightly smoked, in pohutukawa leaves (they shine a vibrant green underneath), so you get that scent on the nose but the oysters are mostly left alone and taste natural; the roe pops, and the minimal salsa verde add the tiniest bit of heat. I’d start with those. Okra (or ladyfingers) is one of those vegetables that people vehemently hate, probably due to a slimy, slick texture that coats your mouth when you have them. I’m familiar with okra as an addition to a curry, so charred and blistered on the coals is new to me, but they retain a good amount of bite this way. The black sesame mole had run out by the time we ordered it, so instead there was a quenelle of yellow chilli and capsicum “mole” on the side; it was actually very nearly perfect with the okra, so piquant and bright, it felt like an alive thing in my mouth. If this was just the back-up, I was desperate to know what the black sesame tasted like. “Get in there and demand to lick the last of it from the container,” my friend suggested, semi-joking.
The dish that the server said I “couldn’t leave without trying” was a kingfish tiradito with aji amarillo sauce, finger lime, and a tiny sprinkling of caviar on top. It’s a pretty dish — the pink fish is lined up neatly like squishy stairs. The aji amarillo sauce is spicy, tamed down by fruit (mango?), but with enough heat to wake me up. That was the thing about the food here; the flavours are distinct, in-your-face, so most of the dishes weren’t a slow burn, but demanded an immediate reaction. That sounds like a funny thing to say when it comes to food, but it’s exactly what happens when things taste different from what you imagine in your head: the sensation of being surprised. My eyes slightly widened when I tasted a few of them for the first time — like the tres leches cake that we had for des- sert and came with a ball of smoked raspberry ice cream. “What the hell, that’s delicious,” I said out loud, of the ice cream, almost shocked at myself for the reaction. “I could eat a whole pint of that,” my dinner partner said.
My least favourite dish of the night was probably the Pacific Rose apple, which comes to the table whole and is then cut in half in front of you. It seems destined for fleeting Instagram fame, but I felt the vegetarian paella stuffed inside (they carve out the bottom to get it in there, by the way) was lacking in flavour. The apple concept wasn’t necessarily as gimmicky as it sounds, as it did add a nice stewed texture and generic fruity sweetness to the dish, so I could imagine this being better if tweaked. I also wasn’t crazy about the grilled pork belly — I suspect that the aged rib-eye cooked slowly on the coals, or half chicken roasted over fire is the better way to go — though it came with a delicious patata puree (i.e. mashed potato) and an orange-spiced gravy that, again, brought that delightful heat. The fatty pork belly was dry, so needed to be generously bathed in the gravy and rolled in the puree, but had smokiness from the grill and this salty, chewy bacon-y quality to it that I enjoyed.
Alongside that very good smoked raspberry ice cream was a tres leches cake, traditionally a sponge cake that uses a lot of milk (condensed, evaporated and cream). Milenta’s version was bisected by something salty to save it from being overwhelmingly sweet. As we were eating it, and the tables beside us had left, a server must have noticed we were shivering in our skins and came over to move us somewhere the heat lamp could reach. I’m glad we could finish our meal warm, full and happy, as opposed to cold, full and slightly less happy.