Celeste is located in the old Revel cafe site. Photo / Babiche Martens

Restaurant Review: K Road Bar Celeste Is Auckland's Best New Opening Of 2019

Our dining out editor falls for the French charm and late-night verve of Karangahape Rd wine bar Celeste

CELESTE
Address: 146 Karangahape Rd, central city
Contact: Barceleste.com
Drinks: Fully licensed
Bookings: Not accepted
From the menu: Oysters (6) $21; radish $10; veal sweetbread $20; tomatoes $16; octopus $32; asparagus $14; carrot salad $10
Rating: 19/20
Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss. 13-15 Good, give it a go. 16-18 Great, plan a visit. 19-20 Outstanding, don’t delay.

This is Auckland’s best opening of 2019 by a long shot. It is a bar/restaurant of such obvious and joyful chemistry that even to lean through the door at 4pm (as I did) and ask about reservations (they don’t take them) is to get a sniff of something wonderful. The interior is all timber, so raw you can almost smell it. The staff are happy, busy, funny. You can’t wait to come back later and take a closer look.

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When you do, it’s even better. The dining room is full, the waiting bar is full too, and so you leave your phone number and go somewhere else for a drink and then they call just as your hunger is about to turn into something more sinister, and they tell you that your table is ready.

The asparagus with beurre blanc and espelette pepper. Photos / Babiche Martens

You feel so excited when you are finally seated, and it’s more than just the excitement of wait, which in other places can make you grumpy as much as titillated. You have in front of you a food menu full of mouthwatering and exotic nouns (octopus, sweetbreads, saucisson) but you haven’t properly examined it yet because here is some hip, beautiful sommelier with a forensic knowledge of every bottle in the room, who will let you choose your food but, first, really wants to make your dreams come true with a glass of something you will remember.

The wine is natural but it’s 2019 and you’re not going to freak out just because your pinot gris is orange. You’re going to act cool because this is K Road and if you don’t at least try to enjoy your weird alcoholic Fanta these people you’re sitting with may not invite you out ever again.

The food menu is hard to get your head around at first. A mixture of French and English, it lists the dishes in threes and fours but nothing really explains why they’re grouped together. In general they’re ordered from light (raw trevally) to heavy (whole flounder in butter sauce) but there’s very little red meat and everything is pretty quick-cooked so the overall feel is “Parisian pescatarian picnic”.

The radishes with salt and butter on the menu at Celeste. Photo / Babiche Martens

Whatever you order, it’s hard to imagine your being disappointed. Perhaps the highest risk is the radishes which, the waiter warns you when you try to order it, really is just a small crop of radishes with some butter and salt. The carrot salad, on the other hand, over-delivers. Nobody would have predicted that the most moreish thing on this menu would be raw grated carrot dressed in (I think) not much more than olive oil, lemon and salt, but it was crisp, cold and addictive, a Gallic standard lifted with some dill and the crunch of pistachio.

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“What are ‘sweetbreads’?” asked the least adventurous member of our party. And like good friends we didn’t say “thymus glands and pancreas of a baby cow” but instead told him “it’s a kind of beef” and hoped that he would enjoy. He tasted a little morsel and was not immediately convinced it was for him, but it was right up my alley — tender innards being so hard to find on a restaurant menu that I automatically eat it with gusto, relish, vigour. These pale, battered treats came with a little tartare sauce and would convert for life, I think, anybody open-minded enough for their first sample of offal (the Romans call it the cow’s “fifth quarter”).

The octopus on the menu at Celeste. Photo / Babiche Martens

I don’t know if the octopus was chewier than intended — not everybody enjoyed fighting their way through it but I didn’t mind. I don’t know, so much of your enjoyment of a meal is about goodwill, isn’t it? I could tell you that I objectively consider every mouthful and mentally delete the context but I prefer to enjoy it like you would, caught up in the romance of a brilliant night out and prepared to believe that the chef prefers his customers to rip seafood apart aggressively with their teeth. The accompaniments included a fresh, fragrant herb salad and a veloute of parsnip (it has a deceptively creamy texture — try whizzing one into your next vege soup to take the whole thing to the next level).

The owners of this restaurant lived in Paris and they have bought some of that city’s magic back with them. In France they employed Michelin-star chefs who were tired of big kitchen pressure and wanted to fall in love with food again. At Celeste you’ll fall for the food, but also the wine, the floorstaff and the very idea of being out with friends, perhaps eating a little later than you would at home but not fussing too much about it. With Cotto, Satya Chai Lounge, Coco’s Cantina and now Celeste, K Road is looking unassailable as Auckland’s most exciting street on which to eat.

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