The fish sambal at Epicer Restaurant on Ponsonby Rd. Photo / Babiche Martens

Restaurant Review: Epicer, Ponsonby

Another star joins the ranks of top Indian restaurants gracing Auckland’s food scene, writes Jesse Mulligan

EPICER
Cuisine: Modern Indian
Address: 110-112 Ponsonby Rd
Phone: (09) 376 6477
From the menu: Fish sambal $18; lamb kebab $18; spinach kofta $22; stuffed jalapeno $22; mango salad $12; naan trio $10
Drinks: Fully licensed
Reservations: Accepted
Rating: 17/20
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.

Visually, Epicer is tremendously appealing — a big multi-level room of bright colours and, at the back, a window into the kitchen, revealing that the restaurant has more chefs than waiters. Far from the muted furnishings of a suburban curry house, Epicer features huge photo portraits of beautiful brown faces hung on walls painted in brilliant jade and mustard.

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The feel is of that “Incredible India” promised by the tourism campaigns and even though you never actually forget you’re on Ponsonby Rd with that large glassy frontage, the dining experience does successfully transport you to a more exotic frame of mind.

This would be Auckland’s fanciest Indian restaurant were it not for Sidart, reviewed a few weeks ago in this column and owned by Sid Sahrawat, the greatest Kiwi chef of his generation, who (inconveniently for this new guy) happens to be from India. Epicer’s Majunath Mural is no slouch himself, having won a Michelin star for his Singapore restaurant in each of the past three years.

Epicer on Ponsonby Rd. Photo / Babiche Martens

I learned this from his Wikipedia page, which is so detailed it must surely have been authored by himself or a close relative. I mean, I would like to include my impressive School C results on Wikipedia but you can’t just go on and add them. Can you?

The Maju-wiki doesn’t include why he moved to New Zealand or, surprisingly, what movie he watched on the plane, but we can assume from his very long list of accolades that he is not here to muck around. He has created a menu at Epicer that is fulsome and intoxicating, and my only complaint is that it’s difficult to order very many different things: though they are happy to accommodate sharing, the setup is a traditional entree and main design rather than the table-top-full of banquet-style dishes that Asian restaurants have finally gotten us used to.

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One of the reasons might be the precise presentation of most dishes. As I’m sure Babiche’s photos will attest, this is beautiful, art-on-a-plate style dining — the sort of food it feels rude to stick a fork into, let alone a serving spoon. That’s probably the reason they won’t do takeaways either, which is not to say they aren’t ambitious.

I came in for lunch three weeks after they’d opened and they were planning the following day to bring in a new menu. “More molecular, more gastronomical,” announced the manager, perhaps unaware that those adjectives sound impressive but not delicious.

The fish sambal at Epicer Restaurant on Ponsonby Rd. Photo / Babiche Martens

I thought they had the balance right before the change actually, combining the deep spicy flavours of classic Indian with the colours and textures of something more modern. I didn’t love it all — my nemesis red quinoa featured with its signature insipidity, and I think there should be a maximum of one dish in every restaurant that employs pomegranate seeds — but I loved enough of it that I wanted to come back and try more, including the biryani which has its own page of the menu but sat too far outside the a la carte format for us to know where to put it in an order.

I loved the staff. To be fair my cover was blown early and I received a welcoming party at my table more suited to a head of state. But the owner was confident enough to leave the majority of the meal service to the junior staff member, who was no doubt informed that her every move would be appraised and recorded for the readers of Viva, and yet kept her cool and demonstrated a residual knowledge of the menu that couldn’t have come from a last-minute panicked briefing out back. But all of them were friendly and keen to please and above all confident that I was going to love the food even without their help.

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The vegetarian options are limited but fantastic — jalapenos stuffed and spicy (actually some other sort of chilli on our visit, but you get the vibe) and served with a little peanut satay, or tiny spinach-based open dumplings filled with paneer and served with lightly grilled veges and the greatest fennel seed, onion and cashew nut curry sauce.

Epicer on Ponsonby Rd. Photo / Babiche Martens

Four out of five Indian restaurants would serve tarakihi in their fish sambal but the owner is more discriminating, looking for the best fish in the market each morning before committing, in this case, to lemonfish. It was served with a caviar that came from a “lungfish”? “Lumpfish”? There was only so many times I could ask him to repeat it. Anyway it did what caviar should and made each mouthful salty, fancy and fun. Do try the blue cheese and the truffle naans which are similarly luxurious.

The cocktails look lethal though the mocktails might need some updating — why juice when you can distil and ferment? Order a tonic instead. Epicer might not quite be incredible yet but if you’re out for Indian it’ll be hard to beat.

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