Jul 6, 2023 Restaurants
The cocktail came out deconstructed — one part of it in a bowl of ice, emitting a mysterious mist around the light- bulb that was filled with the bartender’s take on a Negroni. “Pour it straight out into the glass once the smoke has disappeared,” says Prateek Arora (a Metro Restaurant Personality of the Year winner during his time at Cassia , and now Kol’s restaurant manager). These theatrics, which I associate with a restaurant culture of another time, are reflective of what Kol is: not trendy, or ‘cool’, but a dining experience for people who seek a different sort of specialness, people who may eat out often and want an extra ‘wow’ factor to impress them, especially when there’s this sort of price tag attached.
Kol is Sid and Chand Sahrawat’s newest restaurant, located in that cursed, peachy-green, two-storey weatherboard building on Ponsonby Rd with the steep, perilous stairs (cursed because its recent previous tenants, Marvel, 10Eleven, and Teddy’s, were all short-lived and critically unacclaimed). The concept is simple: much of the food is cooked over coals or in the tandoor, intended to be paired by cocktails designed by bar manager Mangesh Shah, who was previously at Sidart and won Best Bartender at our awards last year.
Though it’s obvious Kol does not want to be strictly bound by the ‘Indian’ label (which I think is fair), it is proudly influenced by Indian food, particularly by the chulha — a way of cooking over a clay stove — and the cuisine’s flavours. When I visit Kol, Cassia (one of the Sahrawats’ other restaurants, which does serve Indian-full- stop food) is still closed, flooded by the recent extreme weather and only appearing for regular pop-ups at Sid at the French Café. (It will reopen at a new site in the SkyCity precinct in May.) There are some similarities in the food at Kol — inevitable when sharing the same executive chef — but the fare at Cassia is unified by spiciness and punch, whereas Kol’s menu is threaded through with a charcoal smokiness.
I’d never been to any of the Cursed Building’s previous iterations, though many Aucklanders would have known it as MooChowChow and, before that, Rocco. The space itself is odd and narrow, with the main dining room squeezed in and dominated by the chef’s counter before opening out to a bar section at the back. There are a couple of things about the space that I think could work better. The chairs, for example, are fully covered, cushioned and dense-looking — in such a small alleyway, chairs with open backs would better trick the eye — and the chef’s counter is too wide, though I understand that ‘foodies’ like to sit there (especially when things are cooked on binchōtan and they can chat among themselves about the last time they used charcoal with their, like, hibachi). But I enjoy the distinct sections and the restaurant’s ability to cater to different forms of dining, especially the people-watching cocktail-perch outside on the deck.
It isn’t immediately easy to decide what to order, as everything is made to be shared, the snacks come priced per snack, and there’s no division between small and large plates. Plus, the menu items read well: collections of words like ghost chilli and miso and scampi and ’nduja and Kashmiri hot sauce and burnt onion make me want to order it all. Menu writing. It’s an art.
The first snack we opt for is the Amritsari prawn toast, which turned out to be a deep-fried delight: prawn, flavoured with a spice profile that recalls digging into a bag of bhuja mix, marinated in coconut and lime, and on a slice of baguette. It was very coconutty and came presented atop a bowl of white pebbles (which is not something I personally enjoy, but seems to offer some of that previously mentioned ‘wow factor’). The pāua and sweetcorn chaat was a sweet-and-savoury pairing (an approach that appeared in most of the dishes we had that night): cubed bits of steamed pāua that thankfully retained its bouncy bite, and pops of sweetcorn. The whole thing had a citrusy, sour overtone, too — I enjoyed it.
The beef tartare, meanwhile, was the best thing I ate. I loved the thin wafers (khakhra) that had been layered on top, designed to be snapped in half for the tartare to sit upon. The tartare itself had a smoky flavour upon first bite, from the charcoal mayo, mixed with fresh dashi and pomegranate seeds. It was tasty when hoed into by itself — it reminded me of the satisfying brightness you get from a ceviche — but even better with the surprisingly-sweet khakhra, which increased the complexity of the bite.
Everyone I’ve talked to who’s been here has told me about the oyster mushrooms — skewered over fire, enlivened by a kiss of ghost chilli, accompanied by a cooling pool of nutty macadamia sauce. There was also an extremely savoury “XO sauce” on top, which I thought might have been a mushroom version (it’s impressively bassy and salty if so; XO sauce is usually made from dried shrimp), and some enoki and lion’s mane varieties, which swap in and out depending on what’s available. There was a meaty pleasure to be found here — though mushrooms are probably sick of being described that way — and the balance of spicy-savoury-sweet was just right.
Spiced lamb ribs came with chocolate-and-date mole — the syrupyness worked to combat the fattiness of the ribs. We couldn’t finish the generous fat on these, though it was rendered nicely and had delicious crispy edges.
The richness of the lamb made it obvious that the problem with the eating experience at Kol isn’t the food itself — which, while leaning towards bold and distinct, demonstrates balance — but with the menu’s structure, meaning that you eat hit after hit without periods of more neutral relief. I’d have loved bites of naan in between bites of lamb, though you can’t order this, and none of the preceding dishes had a lighter touch either. I joked that the lamb would go great with rice — a common joke among some Asians, who would prefer to eat even steak with rice — to which my dining partner replied, “Well, you’re not wrong.” Perhaps we should have gotten the fries.
We had no naan, but “naan ice cream” was begging to be ordered, which we did. Would I be able to tell it was made with naan, if it didn’t say that on the menu? No. Did it taste good? Yes. Thankfully, at Kol, you will not find anything that doesn’t.