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Pot Luck — Friday 15 March

The Metro Dining Newsletter

Pot Luck — Friday 15 March

Mar 15, 2024 Metro Eats

Dinner and a show… that’s the way I’d describe my Saturday just gone. By ‘dinner’ I mean lunch — at Sāmoan fine-dining restaurant Tala in Parnell, to be specific. And by ‘show’ I mean, about seven hours later, watching the theatrical production O le Pepelo, le Gaoi, ma le Pala’ai / The Liar, the Thief, and the Coward (O le Pepelo for short), which is running until 23 March at ASB Waterfront Theatre as part of Auckland Arts Festival

Now, I didn’t just happen upon these two experiences, this was deliberate food–theatre fusion — the $85 lunch at Tala (available Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through March) was specifically designed by chef Henry Onesemo to celebrate, and add an edible dimension to, O le Pepelo, a dark comedy set in “Sāmoa’s not-so-distant past”. The idea of a “food and theatre match” might seem confusing, especially as the experiences took place at different times and in different locations, but somehow it all made a lot of sense in practice.

Tala, which opened at the end of last year in the ex- Pasture site, is a restaurant I unabashedly adore. Not just because of the food, which is delicious and technically impressive, or the service, which is organically warm and flowing, but because dining at Tala actually does the thing that a lot of high-end restaurants purport to do, yet don’t always pull off: tell a story. At Tala, it’s a story that’s both fresh and cohesive. The dishes here are a conversation about tradition, memory and transformation — all within the context of specifically Sāmoan culinary traditions. There is a sense of spectacle, even a particularly Sāmoan brand of absurdity, about the way the menu is designed. This special seven-course lunch, featuring a palusami in spherical form and a jaunty take on oka that uses coconut yoghurt in place of coconut cream, felt like an ever-evolving answer to the question, ‘In a changing world, what is Sāmoan food?’ 

O le Pepelo (a story that reminded me a bit of King Lear and a lot of Succession) pulls on a similar thread — it’s about the changing face of Sāmoa and what it means to hold on to tradition in the midst of that change. The story, in short, revolves around the rise and fall of Pili Sā Taulievā (played by Semu Filipo), an ali‘i (chief) who has devoted his life to the tradition of service. When he falls ill and refuses to name a successor to his title, it sparks a rivalry between his daughter Vailoloto (Ana Corbett) and son Matagi (Haanz Fa‘avae-Jackson). Food plays a major role in all this, and there’s a sense that at times, it can be imbued with witchy, mystical powers. A good meal sparks Pili’s ability to dream again, and conflicts around customary food practices become central to the final fall of his character.

Seeing food so explicitly intertwined with art reminded me of a (an admittedly far-out) thought I had while dining at Tala for the first time last year. Just as theatre serves as a platform for artistic expression and cultural enrichment, fine dining, at its best, offers a similar opportunity for storytelling and cultural exchange. Yet to the majority of people living in this city, fine dining — let alone fine dining at lunch time and going to the theatre afterward — are inaccessible luxuries. I regularly get to enjoy these experiences as part of my job (and importantly, for free!), and so I sometimes wonder, who am I to tell anyone that they must go to the theatre or to these fine dining restaurants? (Though if you can, you really should.) I wish these kinds of experiences — especially those as rich with meaning as O le Pepelo and at Tala — could be enjoyed by everyone. 

Which leads me to one of my wackiest opinions: I can’t help but wonder whether, in some distant, utopian future, public funding bodies might fund fine dining. Of course, at the moment we’re not doing a great job of ensuring all people in Aotearoa have access to even the most basic food needs, let alone funding art of any kind — so I’m aware how low-priority and frivolous this idea may seem. But last week’s dining– theatre match felt like the perfect example of food being a form of art and a cultural asset worthy of funding. Seeing fine dining as an art form might be one route to preserving the craft of fine dining, which, with its high costs, luxury associations and niche audience, might otherwise seem like an irrational, status-driven, free-market pursuit. Most importantly, though, a little funding would democratise this otherwise inaccessible kai and ensure that culinary artistry is not restricted to the privileged few but enjoyed by all — quite literally, champagne socialism.


Comings and goings


There was an impressively long line to the till at the brand new High Street (next to Look Sharp) branch of the Coconut Factory when I wandered past on Saturday afternoon. Like their other store, located in Albany, the shop deals in tea and desserts — almost all of which are spiked with coconut in some way, shape or form. Think pandan coconut water, coconut latte ice cream or, most appealingly to me, coconut jelly. 

While picking up a pot of paint from Bunnings Great North Rd over the weekend, I noticed that a new bakery has opened in the site which until a month or so ago, housed Philippe’s Patisserie. The new place is called Avi’s Pies and Patisserie and, as the name suggests, they do pies and all the quintessential patisserie baked goods: eclairs, croissants, fruit tarts and so on. If you’re missing Philippe’s, they’ve moved to 159 Ponsonby Rd.

Knead on Benson (mentioned in last week’s newsletter on account of their very good hot cross buns) has opened a deli in the space next door to their cafe site at 76 Benson Rd, Remuera. Along with being the working kitchen for their pastry-makers, the space boasts deli and pantry items like fancy tinned fish, Pepler’s jam and hot honey, plus Takapuna Beach Cafe gelato and sorbet sold by the scoop.

Anna, who sub-edits this newsletter each week, spotted a yet-to-be-opened eatery called Chickmate in the works on Hutchinson Ave in New Lynn. From what we can tell from their social media, they’ll be opening in May and there will be fried chicken, booth seating and late nights. Exciting!

Wahs-mania continues. Apparently the Kingsland bar and eatery Holy Hop has been bought by the club, which plans to transform it into a Warriors-themed sports bar.

For those missing a place to buy a celebratory cake in Mt Eden Village after the closure of the City Cake Company, good news: there’s a new cake shop in the Village called Noughts & Crosses. The offerings look geared toward intricately detailed wedding and birthday creations (lots of marzipan Spongebobs, Batmans and Disney going on) — plus, they seem to do a few variations on the ever-trendy ‘vintage-style’ cake.


Something you didn’t know you needed


Sol Clamato, $6.50 from Cerveza: On Friday night, while out for dinner, I ordered a clamato michelada, a Mexican drink made with beer, lime juice, spices, a good dose of chilli, and in this case, clam and tomato juice. It was served with flair: a tall, chunky glass filled with red clamato juice, plus the first half of the Corona bottle (which was presented upside down among it all, in a gravity-defying way), and with a rim encrusted in flakes of salt and dried chilli and straddled by rounds of cucumber and lemon. Even the straw, with its sticky tamarind coating, was more than just a straw. It looked fantastic, sure, but every component tasted disjointed — the entire thing was disappointingly flat in comparison with all the visual excitement. 

With that in mind, the next day I tried this canned version of the drink that we happened to have in the cupboard at home. I know things that come in a can are invariably less good, but shockingly, this was a far superior version. I served mine chilled, in a Tajin-rimmed glass (you can buy Tajin here), with a couple of cubes of ice. Though it looked thin, every sip was cohesive and perfectly laced with both spice and the double bash of umami from the tomato and clam blend. ‘Fresh is best’ is an oft-repeated refrain, but perhaps there’s a benefit to having all these ingredients trapped in a sealed can together — there’s plenty of time to mingle and get to know each other.

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