The roast Jerusalem artichoke. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Restaurant Review: Copia Is Worth Going The Extra Distance For

Find succulent lamb sweetbreads with fried focaccia, tender Jerusalem artichokes and sublime smoked kahawai at the Orakei restaurant

Cuisine: Bistro
Address: 236 Orakei Rd, Auckland
Phone: (09) 520 2234
Drinks: Fully licensed
Reservations: Accepted
From the menu: Sweetbreads $24; kahawai $24; artichoke $24; flounder $38; Brussels sprouts $12
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.

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I doubt Copia gets much walk-up business. It is a destination restaurant, by which I mean that you could be standing in its carpark and still decide it was too far away to consider for lunch. Down the service lane, past the boutique movie theatre, in the far corner of the parking lot it sits, bordered by some train tracks and a tidal estuary.

The staff seem as surprised as you are when you arrive — “how did you find us?” usually means “where did you hear about us?” but here it is as if you’re being asked that question by a resident of Narnia.

But walk through this particular wardrobe and you’ll find one of the loveliest dinner views in Auckland. At night that estuary reflects the lights of Parnell hill and, beyond it, the Sky Tower signals you from downtown, looking picturesque but making you feel good about having some distance from the city.

Dine in a cosy booth at Copia. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The ocean is a big part of Auckland life but not a big part of Auckland restaurant life — sitting at Orakei, this isthmus tacked on to an isthmus, you feel a rare connection with the natural world.

The restaurant manager is a great hospo character with a warm and thoughtful approach to service, delighted to please and with that lovely ability to seem impressed with your choices, even the oddball ones.

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After choosing a glass of wine he approved of I spotted the sherry section, so asked for a copita of fino as well — “Of course!” he said, as though a man eating alone with two glasses of wine was the standard dining format.

It’s a good, surprising list that offers enough adventure for those seeking it — besides the Tio Pepe I had an organic albarino then a Pyramid Valley chardonnay — and if all you wanted to do here was have a glass of wine, it would be perfectly suited to that.

Dried flora decorate the restaurant's walls. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Anyway the answer to the question of how I found the place is that it was suggested to me via Instagram — my favourite way of receiving eating tips (this week I interviewed Lorde, who recommends deleting your social media and living your life — easy to say when you command your own beach cult. I’ve taken her advice somewhat, kicking my Twitter habit and scaling back Insta to work-related usage only).

I don’t think I’ve ever got a bad steer from a Viva reader recommending their own local favourite, so keep ’em coming, and Samm, thanks for this one!

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The food is really, really good: I loved every dish and want to go back again for more. The first thing to say is that the vegetables are really strong — the Jerusalem artichoke dish makes a hero of that knobbly root, roasting pieces of it to perfect tenderness and coating them in white sesame seeds, scattering the plate with fried capers and sunchoke crisps and adding, dotted on the side, the brightest nasturtium puree you’ve ever tasted.

The Brussels are beautiful too, glazed in butter and carpeted with a blood pudding crumb that adds crunchy charisma to an already comforting dish.

The smoked kahawai with buttermilk cider dressing and pickled grapes. Photo / Jason Oxenham

I ate the best kahawai I’ve ever been served in Auckland — sliced cold and raw like good sashimi but, when you lay it on your tongue, reveals beautiful smoke flavours somehow imparted without breaking down any of the cellular structure of the fish. It came with chargrilled broccolini and a very moreish bulgur salad.

The person designing these dishes knows so much about what makes a mouth happy.

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Because it tastes so good it’s easy to overlook the occasional fault. I couldn’t detect a lot of mandarin flavour in the dressing that came with the bulgur, and both this and another dish were served with a “kefir cream” which was really just thickened cream. I make kefir cream at home and it’s one of life’s great pleasures — the sourness of the lactic bacteria turning it into a royal version of yoghurt.

I’m not sure I could think of much use for it in a savoury dish and didn’t get a chance to have my mind changed here, where they haven’t given the kefir crystals enough time or warmth to do their thing.

The lamb sweetbreads with butter-fried focaccia, caper aioli and parmesan. Photo / Jason Oxenham

But the lamb sweetbreads were bang-on (we need a centralised database of Auckland’s best offal offerings — “offalings”? — let me know if you’re keen to take charge of this important project), served with every indulgence you can think of, including fried focaccia, parmesan cheese and caper aioli.

The only weird moment was the peach slices, which worked okay for flavour but … where are you getting stonefruit in June — and why?

This dinner brought me so much joy, and I’ve felt joyful again telling you about it.

Copia is a lovely experience, so if you live across town it’s worth going the extra distance. And if you live in the same part of town, it’s worth going the extra distance.

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