Who else came up with this result out of the David Slack 'My Year in Bullet Points' generator? "Memory of outstanding meal at Nyonya Restaurant, Howick, all but eclipsed by appalling swill at Monsoon Poon, Viaduct Harbour."
Please forgive this post, which is pretty much just purist food-bitching. It's still the holidays where I am.
The Monsoon Poon franchise started in Wellington, specialising in Asian fusion. I cook plenty of Asian fusion food myself when lacking ingredients to construct an entire culinary ethnicity - dishes such as Five-dollah-feed-you-longtime Thai Spaghetti Puttanesca, or Sichuan Soba Surprise. But inflict this madness upon a discerning populace? Who would dare? Could it be... people who don't know any better? Could it be... Wellingtonians of Blair and/or Allen Street?
Things may have changed in the year since I left, but those in the know agreed at the time that when it came to Asian food in central Wellington, Chow is for suckas, Cha rules the skool, and if you're after Korean or South Indian or serious Mainland snackocracy well tough shit. It also might be surprising for some, but it's striking that the pride of Wellington - Malaysian noodlebars - are waaaay overrated, and too many are run by Mainlanders who have never tasted or even seen a real assam laksa or mee siam although they do their best and try to make up for it on volume, bless their souls. This also happens in Auckland, prime example being the sad decline of the Mercury Plaza stalwart 'Singapore-Malaysia Food Delight'. I wish these Mainlanders were opening up Mainland Chinese dumpling houses instead - I mean, screw gyoza, we invented these babies. Far worse is that all the roti in Wellington Malaysian noodlebars seems to be made by the same frozen roti company and is far too sweet. Bletch. And freakishly enough, the 'proper' Malaysian restaurants, which are fine but nothing so spectacular as to set them as the jewel in the crown of a multicultural city, sell... oh jesus ... meat dosas! MEAT DOSAS!!! Aaaaargh!!! KNNBCCB! You have to ask for a 'Vegetarian' dosa if you want a real one! It's ...just ...insane. They've taken a pancake invented by Indian vegetarians to be a pure and precise combination of a perfect protein - rice and lentils - and put... more protein in the middle. Meat, violating the soul of an Indian-vegetarian classic. I just don't get it. People, where are our standards? Amidst all this disheartening compromise, the horrifically named Monsoon Poon shouldn't be much of a surprise.
So perhaps Yellow Peril was destined to be unable to produce a fair review of the new Auckland Poon. Let this preface stand however: The set menu is always the worst way to judge a restaurant. We all know, don't we, that set menus are for suckers at any Asian restaurant. Right? This is Auckland, you know that by now, surely, right? Well if you take a pan-Asian fusion restaurant to mean Asian-restaurant-times-ten-ethnicities, then that advice goes tenfold. The 'less than mediocre' grading I've given this place judging by the set menu could, to be fair, come out as good as mediocre overall when ordering a la carte. But with downtown foodcourts like Food Alley and Food Asia in such close proximity, I doubt I'll ever be going back to find out (unless it was free, like the first time).
First impressions: Interestingly belaboured decor, a cute ambience generated by clientele who don't know if they're going to be able to get over the interestingly belaboured decor, and a fairly good pan-Asian beer selection. No Kingfisher, but yes Beerlao. YES Beerlao. It was mostly downhill from the Beerlao on, particularly as drinking Beerlao brings Mekong Neua to mind, or at least one of the Zaps. The food on the set menu was not actually 'fusion' as such, but more a culinary tour of the continent and subcontinent. Or in other words what you'd have available to you at a foodcourt, but not as good. The point of such a venue was unclear to me, until I realised that Wellington only has (I think) one 'ethnic' foodcourt and you can't get booze there. Will it do well in Auckland?
Let's line them up.
- expensive but good quality alcohol (albeit the cocktails have names worth taking to some tribunal or other, somewhere)
-around ten different ethnicities of food, directed by one chef
- result, expensive and mediocre.
- cheap alcohol often transported in cardboard
- around ten different ethnicities of food prepared by around ten different chefs of the relevant ethnicities
- result, cheap everything, excellent fare, blinding hangover.
Hmm, we'll see.
On to the horrors of the set menu:
Vegetarian Mee Goreng
Depressingly bland, compared with the equivalent at half the price across the street at Food Alley. Mee goreng was not made for selfconscious pangs of inadequacy. It is a confident, rakish dish. It was like watching a jaguar being whipped, humiliated,and made to stand on a tiny chair by a circus ringmaster sporting a ridiculous moustache and jodphurs.
I almost wanted to cry. The rationale is understandable: Why use yoghurt or draw attention to the subtle possibilities of almond, when people just looove the heavy, mucusoid fat-and-lactose-bomb sensation of double-cream? Because it will make anyone who loves Indian food want to cry, that's why, making up for the sad lack of salt in the korma. Two birds, etc.
Came in double-served vats to cater to whitey's presumed needs. White people must be getting sick of the butter chicken stereotype by now, surely. I asked a Pakeha colleague: "is this butter chicken any better than you'd get a food court?" He said: "Not really. It's kind of dry." So there you have it - straight from the horse's mouth.
Actually rather good, and reminded me of my Aunty Santha's Keralan recipe. Could have used a double-vat. But it was probably the only dish that took a lot of effort, so they didn't want to spread it around too much. If you have to go to the Poon, go for this one.
I know microwaved Pataks when I see it. But hey, microwaved Pataks is pretty good - I mean that. And it saves on oil.
Indochina refers to the former sphere of French influence in Southeast Asia. We're talking Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand - all countries that my family have some direct or indirect connection to, but all with distinct styles of cuisine and signature flavours. It would seem fairly predictable in a city like Auckland that someone of Indochinese heritage might walk in off the street and ask, as I did, which part of Indochina the fish was pursuing. However, the wait-person balked as if I'd asked her to piss in my Beerlao, and was not able to tell me which part of my heritage was about to be hideously abused. When the poor fishy (no head! sob!) appeared I couldn't figure out what was Indochinese about it, except that it had some finely grated carrot on the top, and some cooked (and therefore flavourless) strands of coriander flopping about in the sauce. Underneath, it was plain old crappy sweet & sour fish, representing Cantonese diaspora cuisine's worst blight on humanity. Well, I suppose the sweet & sour Cantonese blight also affects Indochina to some degree. Although not Laos. They got the Yunnanese - yeah baby! Try to turn the hottest, driest, chilli-palate in China into bland greasy takeaways, go on! No wait, I was joking. No, please stop. Please.
Quite nice. Unfortunately, served on a piece of paper printed especially to replicate Hong Kong newspaper headlines on the day of the 1997 handover. Employing historically unrelated gimmickry to offset mediocre food would have been a technique better suited to a more mediocre dish in the set menu, such as, for example, the fish, mee goreng, korma, chicken, or poppadoms.
Enough negativity! Let us turn our attention to 'Nyonya Restaurant' in Howick, behind the Howick shops, entrance on Fencible Street. Tell the maitre d' that you're a real Malaysian and that he has to look you in the eye when professing the realness of any given dish. Call them up and order the fish-head curry a day in advance - I mean it. Get the four-treasure beans. 'Nuff said.
Audience participation time: Whichever of these 'Asian' recipes gets the most votes/requests will be published in the next post.
a) Aunty Santha's Keralan Lamb Curry
b) Sichuan Soba Surprise
c) Thai five-dollah-feed-you-longtime Spaghetti Putanesca
d) Jiaozi or Guotie. Not Gyoza.