Restaurant Review: Saint Alice, Viaduct
Jesse Mulligan visits new harbourside seafood spot Saint Alice
Address: Level 1/204 Quay St, Viaduct, Auckland Central
Drinks: Fully licensed
From the menu: Salmon tartare $24, lamb sweetbreads $19, cream corn toast $20, fennel salad $14, miso and coffee eggplant $36, whole roasted flounder $38
Reservations: Only for very large groups
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.
Are there any other Auckland restaurants where the front door is at the top of an escalator? How did this happen? Who said, “I’ve got the perfect form of transport to escort drunk people from a first-floor balcony to a platform overlooking the raging open sea. A high-speed electric staircase!”?
Can’t blame the people who own Saint Alice. The escalator has been there since the Kermadec days. But that’s about all that’s left from that hulking icon of the 2000s. Sitting at a high table looking out towards the harbour it’s almost impossible to remember how the old place was arranged. I had some good meals there but its white tablecloths and formal service were a barrier to survival as Millennials graduated into city jobs. These days the cutlery comes upright in tins and the walls flap in the wind. It’s thoughtfully informal, and the locals seem to be going for it.
What is the right first drink when you arrive at a restaurant? I always like a glass of bubbles — cold, dry and quick to the bloodstream — but at Saint Alice there was nothing in my preferred price zone: top-end New Zealand methode. Beer is good too — thirst-quenching, appetite-whetting — but this was a classic Viaduct list of corporate options.
So I plumped for a cocktail: my regular negroni — icy, bitter, deeply alcoholic — wasn’t on the list so I chose something similar where the gin was replaced by bourbon. This turned out to be a terrible mistake: even a B+ prosecco would have suited the view better than a tumbler of cheap, orangey whiskey. I guzzled it shamefully as the food arrived, my taste buds preparing for the chef’s subtle and thoughtful offerings with an aperetif that tasted like a bad night in Whangamata.
The chef is Maia Atvars, who I knew nothing about but I see he is ex-Depot. You can see that the heritage in his food, which doesn’t neatly fit any particular cuisine, is nominally seafood but effortlessly crosses into barbecue Kiwiana. It all hangs together very well and the menu looks so good that I’d happily go back again and order a stack of different stuff.
There’s cream corn on toast — the first time I think I’ve ever seen that in a restaurant — and it was great, the creamier stuff slopped on the bottom then heaped with fresh chargrilled cob kernels, smoked snapper and a chilli salsa over the top. Food tends to be either comforting or seasonal, but this was a good dose of both.
Nothing seasonal about the whole flounder, which is served unapologetically in a big butter sauce. “Just pull the flesh off the top and the spine should lift easily away,” said the waitress. She was right, but she didn’t suggest where I might put this large skeletal frame as I nibbled at its undercarriage, so I ended up holding it aloft in one hand, a bit like The Predator.
Lamb sweetbreads were on the menu, served grilled on wooden skewers with a lightly sweet glaze. Regular readers will know that if there’s offal on the menu I’ll order it — I love a chef who’s brave with what they offer. The word “sweetbreads” is one of cookery’s most barefaced euphemisms, but it’s of limited lexical value because when it appears on a menu someone is always bound to ask “so what ARE they exactly?” leading to a long conversation involving pancreata and thymus glands more suitable to medical school than dinner with bonhommes.
I got talked out of ordering the fried oyster McMuffins and I can’t stop thinking about what they might be like so I’m going to have to go back. I did, however, manage to wrap my laughing gear around the eggplant (pureed and roasted with miso, coffee and sesame flavours) and a colourful fennel salad. Fennel’s overrated as a raw salad ingredient but when cooked properly it becomes tender and sweet, perfectly balanced in this dish with sour grapefruit, salty feta and bitter purple radicchio leaves.
Like the lamb skewers and the eggplant, that fennel was blasted in a wood-fired oven. I know this from the menu description, but with the cooking happening out of sight the wait staff could be doing a better job of describing and bringing to life all that hard work the team in the kitchen is doing.
If that’s too hard maybe one of the chefs could pop out in a toque blanche at some point to say “Hi there, here’s your salmon tartare, I’ve served it with a buttermilk dressing because cream cheese is a bit obvious and, besides, we had some left over from the butter we hand-churned this afternoon and it seemed a waste to throw it out, cheerio”.
Until then, it’s great food in a good bar with a view you should be paying much more for. Follow the crowds up the escalator and enjoy.