Restaurant Review: Bar Magda Is Going To Be One Of The City's Great Modern Filipino Restaurants
The menu is arranged, simply and delightfully, into "hot" and "cold", with food that practically whirls with flavour fireworks
Cuisine: Modern Filipino
Address: 25b Cross St, Auckland CBD
Drinks: Fully licensed
From the menu: Potato skin crackers $18; preserved kohlrabi $16; fish “suglaw” $22; pork rillette $22; carrot $18; market fish $34; Brussels sprouts $20; beef cheek $34.
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.
Restaurants have filled up every spare space on Karangahape Rd and are now spilling into the side streets — the excellent East Street Hall for starters and now, on Cross St, Bar Magda, a restaurant you really have to know you’re looking for.
In fact, even if you know you’re looking for it you still might not find it — my wife and I banged on the door of a brothel for some time before realising that the giggling we could hear inside was caused by something more than food.
Bar Magda’s entrance next door was just as anonymous and so it was with some relief that we walked down a set of stairs and found ourselves in a restaurant.
There’s plenty of the old K Rd in this room as well — historically “a swingers’ club and then a gay bar”, according to our server, who pointed out that the exposed brick walls had been blasted so hard with glitter it will never ever come out.
The new tenants seem rightfully proud to be part of this lineage and if the Classic Comedy Club can get people laughing in a former pornographic cinema, surely Magda can get people eating among the ghosts of spouses swapped past.
This is going to be one of the city’s great restaurants. We truly have nothing quite like it, from the food to the space to the drinks and the service. Chef Carlo Buenaventura has worked hard to get here — running pop-up nights and kitchens and restaurant projects that all seem to have been leading him to this moment, where he can stand in an open kitchen in the centre of a beautiful room, cooking wonderful food on his own terms for the people of Auckland.
He makes flavours that you can’t experience anywhere else — the taste of his birthplace the Philippines via global travels, expressed with the fresh ingredients of Aotearoa-New Zealand. If any moment represents Auckland’s emergence as an international food city, this is it.
The menu is arranged simply, with dishes sorted into “cold” and “hot” and described without much embellishment. “Preserved kohlrabi, coconut, saffron aioli” might sound intriguing if not mouth-watering but with a chef operating at this level you quickly learn that your expectations mean nothing.
It turns out that kohlrabi is a local stand-in for Filipino-staple green mango, and the bright pink shrimp paste that would come with it if you bought it from a street stall in Manila has been replaced by beetroot here for colour, the mango’s sharp flavour replicated by a vinegar pickle and these incredible dollops of garlicky mayo provided for dipping each triangle of crisp, tart kohlrabi before crunching into it.
If you didn’t order this you would never know what you’d missed out on and that’s the case for a lot of the menu. I’d strongly advise you to forget what you think you like and take advantage of one of the sharing feasts — $55 a head will get you a great sample of loads of things, including whatever chef thinks is tasting best on the night.
But, if you insist on choosing, I’d want you to try the kahawai, a fish I would again describe as underrated except that everybody who knows anything about food rates it. It is unrecognisable here, a simple fillet blanketed in sauce so you have to dig deep to find the fish, then take a mouthful of flavour fireworks — lemongrass, kaffir lime and tiny bubbles of caviar popping between your teeth.
I’d also want you to order the potato skin crisps. You might be imagining baked spud jackets which taste nice enough but in fact the chef here dehydrates the surplus skins, grinds them up and reforms them into discs that resemble chips, but with much more flavour.
I’m not sure if they’re an intentional reference to masa chips but it’s hard not to think of nachos as you dip them in melted cheese then, because the Philippines is never far away, place a little piece of marinated white anchovy on top and eat the whole earthy, crunchy, fatty, vinegary thing up.
He also makes the best beef cheek I’ve ever eaten — breaking the laws of physics to stay intact despite being braised until there is zero connective tissue left, sitting on a bright broccoli puree, heaped with a condiment of preserved feijoa.
Cocktails in restaurants are still hit and miss — if you make them with big boozy pours at home they often taste underpowered at a bar — but I wanted to take a moment to recommend the ones here. There is a real respect and care for ingredients — I guess the word “Bar” in the title was a clue — and if you have the time beforehand you should sit with one and make a night of it (get the tamarillo sour if it’s still in season).
Or stick around for a nightcap after dinner — with a kitchen open past midnight on the weekend, I expect the people-watching will be pretty good. Being boring parents we settled the bill before 10pm, my wife trying not to look too disappointed at having to leave with the same husband she’d arrived with.