Restaurant Review: Artwok, Takapuna
Jesse Mulligan leaves restraint at the door of this modern Chinese newcomer
Address: 152 Hurstmere Rd, Takapuna
Phone: (09) 930 0999
Cuisine: Modern Chinese
From the menu: two sashimi scallops $10, ½ dozen Te Matuku oysters $30, koushui ji chicken $18, pulled pork belly with flatbread $18, crab meat wontons $20, gongpao chicken $24, crispy sweet and sour pork $22, beef and black pepper sauce $29
Drinks: fully licensed
“I have some advice for you,” my wife Victoria said, as I was getting dressed for dinner. “Don’t be a glutton.”
She was worried I would make a pig of myself in front of Greg Bruce, a Herald writer who was meeting me at the restaurant to interview me for an upcoming profile in Canvas magazine. Victoria knows that I over-order when I’m reviewing and that I’m emotionally uncomfortable about leaving food on the plate, so she was right to be worried.
I did my best not to stuff my face, but I’m not sure I succeeded. The food was good and I’d run out of things to say about myself, so there wasn’t much to do with my mouth but spoon pieces of pork into it. I’d like to think Greg didn’t notice, though he occasionally wrote things down on his little pad when I wasn’t talking, so he was either making a note to pick up milk on the way home, or calculating my likely BMI.
We’ll have to wait until Saturday to find out which but, of all the possible headlines he could come up with, I think “restaurant reviewer loves to eat” is far from the worst of them.
I’m more worried about the things I said later in the evening, when my second glass of wine hit the bloodstream and I started to gush unselfconsciously about my hopes, fears and failures. Victoria should have warned me not to drink.
I was in the right place for it. Takapuna High Street on a warm Wednesday night is a tipsy place, thronging with over-tanned teenagers and empty nesters on the pull. Goodness knows what a Friday is like. It made me glad to have a wedding ring on my finger and a 10 in my postcode.
I was heading to the new Chinese restaurant on Hurstmere Rd, and hoping to leave my prejudices at the door. Chinese food is nice enough, but it’s not very 2016. Fatty, salty and oversugared, it has a primal appeal but you do hate yourself a bit after eating it.
For its modern approach, Artwok doesn’t completely solve this problem, though, things taste great and they’ve done a good job of sourcing decent meat, which at most Chinese restaurants has all the boutique appeal of something you’d get served in jail.
We started with pricey raw oysters, served on the half shell with a mignonette made with a fancy chardonnay vinegar. The oysters had expressed a lot of brine in the shell — a reassuring if sloshy indicator of ultra-freshness.
We also had scallop sashimi, a sweet but unmistakably marine taste experience, which came with soy sauce and a green paste the waiter wanted to return to the kitchen to get the name of.
It was wasabi. This didn’t make me optimistic about the food knowledge among the floor staff but he was trying his best and working hard, and you have to start somewhere.
After that, all of our food arrived at once, despite promises on the menu that they would stagger it. This made eating a festive but formless experience — a bit of beef here, a wonton there, back to the beef then a fork full of kung pao chicken.
It was a bit unfair on my plans for restraint: after all, science has proved you eat a lot more when you’re offered a variety of foods at once.
The sweet and sour pork is popular, and great — all crunchy, scored batter on the outside and chewy pink meat within, dressed in a light agrodolce sauce — rice vinegar and palm sugar syrup. That kung pao (they use the less-familiar gongpao spelling) chicken was great too — generous with cashews and big strips of dried chilli. As with another chicken dish, the meat seemed unnaturally tender, something I would have put down to ethically dubious poultry farming if they weren’t using free-range meat here, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and credit the chef.
Artwok is split over two floors. The downstairs area on street level feels younger, more of a bar-with-food vibe, while upstairs is where you’d put your parents, in between the ornamental antique paint brushes and what is allegedly New Zealand’s largest restaurant aquarium (I hope this can be proved, because you know what they say: come at Swashbucklers, you better not miss).
Knowledge gaps aside, most of the staff are friendly, upbeat and proud to work here.
They also offer craft beer on tap, a good wine list and an outdoor balcony, all of which would put this high on my list of places for a cold drink on a hot day. I’d have to be in the mood to order the food, but fortunately I often am.