Restaurant Review: Love Exposure, Mt Eden

Jesse Mulligan visits millennial mecca, Love Exposure

The tofu & eggplant with the grilled pork shoulder and lettuce cups. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Phone: (09) 930 8371
Address: 191 Dominion Rd, Mt Eden
Bookings: Not accepted
Drinks: Fully licensed
From the menu: Tofu and eggplant $11.50, grilled pork shoulder with lettuce cups $14.90, fried prawns $12.50, Vietnamese beef bourguignon $17.90, beef pho $15.90.
Rating: 15/20
Score: 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.

One thing about getting older is you start to pinpoint the moments that will eventually turn you into an elderly weirdo. Like when I realised that I could pause the Subway sandwich guy and tell him to salt my tomatoes before continuing.

READ: The Team Behind Kiss Kiss Open Love Exposure in Mt Eden

Or when a barista said “did you know coffee starts to oxidise two minutes after it’s been ground?” and I knew from that moment on I would have to travel through life with a hand-cranked bean grinder permanently on my person.

From the neon lighting to floral decorating, Love Exposure is full of visual treats. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

I had one of those moments at Love Exposure when we ordered five dishes from their appealing menu and I said (having learnt to from experience): “Can you stagger these a little so they don’t all turn up at once?”. The waitress said “sure thing” and then returned a few minutes later with everything we had ordered, steaming hot and fresh out of the kitchen.

And as the pho went cold and the staff gathered round to work out how they were going to fit a dozen plates and bowls on a table barely big enough for two of them I thought to myself “this must never happen again. From now on, I’m going to bypass the floor staff and speak to the kitchen directly so I can tell them how important it is not to mess this up”.

READ: Neighbourhood Watch: Mt Eden

Because this simple mistake turned what could have been a lovely meal into a messy frenzy, as we inhaled one thing after another just so we could make some space. The food here is cheap and good, which also makes the place very busy — it’s a symbiotic thing, and part of the business model is to serve people quickly so that you can turn over the table and get another group in. But we were dining late and ordering big — a great restaurant should be able to change the plan according to the conditions.

And we need great restaurants, because we already have enough good ones. Especially in this space where there is a cluster of nice enough restaurants: Beast and Butterflies, Wu and You, Mekong Baby, Xoong … all fine and dandy for a group dinner but none of them good enough yet to have you turning up at opening time hoping to be first in the queue. So hey, restaurants of Auckland, let’s stop being fine and start being unmissable (shout out to perennial crowd swarmer Depot and to Cotto, where someone told me the wait for a table was two hours the other night).

The overall design of Love Exposure is an exercise in brand perfection. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

To be fair to Love Exposure, I understand demand has been pretty hot over these opening weeks. As you drive past on Dominion Rd it’s hard not to be tempted by this neon kitsch oasis, the big glass windows doing a good job of showcasing the visual treats inside. The whole experience is brand perfect, from the website (one of the best looking I’ve seen) to the trinkets and decorations that give the room its character — the bright orange plastic chopsticks through to the fake jellyfish aquarium.

The staff are sweet and eager to assist. They’re young and aren’t paid for their deep knowledge of the menu, but are always there when you need them and each has a happy serenity that contrasts nicely with the aesthetic, and must be even more welcome during a frantic service.

READ: Restaurant Review: Monzu, Mt Eden

The tofu and eggplant are a great vegetarian indulgence, that aubergine turning magical when it’s cooked long enough and served with something sharp. Here it was a “Love X Sauce”, which I’m afraid I can’t reverse engineer for you, apart from to say it was spicy, numbing and mixed beautifully well with the smashed peanut sprinkled on top.

I would have been keener on the lettuce cups if they’d indeed been cups rather than long, narrow pieces of cos. You couldn’t wrap the grilled pork pieces up, so you had to place one of them on the end of the leaf and balance whatever condiments you could on top. Like everything, however, it tasted good, and a generous bowl of soft green herbs was an authentic touch you don’t often see this side of Ho Chi Minh city.

Demand has been high for the restaurant since opening. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

I loved the rice-fried prawns, trimmed and shelled so you could chuck the whole thing in your mouth without spending the next five minutes fishing bits out again. A Viet bourguignon was interesting, and not something I’ve come across in my travels — picture a good beef stew with a few extra woody spices. It worked but it desperately needed salt and could have used some rice which, come to think of it, is strangely absent from the menu.

I’d happily go back, but I won’t make any plans to just yet. Treat this as a nice-to-have in this part of the city, with room for improvement but plenty to enjoy.

READ: Restaurant Review: Hot Hot, Mt Eden

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