Restaurant Review: Make A Booking For Milenta Immediately

At this restaurant newcomer, the food is better than you’ll get anywhere


"There is nobody on earth who wouldn’t love eating here." Photo / Babiche Martens

MILENTA

Cuisine: Aotearoa-South American
Address: Victoria Park Market, 210-218 Victoria St West
Drinks: Fully licensed
Reservations: Accepted
From the menu: Oysters $5ea; chicharon $10; rice and beans $12; okra $13; kingfish tiraditos $22; picanha tartare $24; nectarines and burrata $22; tomato salad $16; dry-aged steak $75

I don’t know where law students spend their loans these days — vape stores and therapy, probably — but when I was at university in Hamilton there was only one place to splash the cash and that was Auckland’s Victoria Park Market leather jacket store.

You don’t see many leather jackets at the club these days but back then the Outback Inn coat check smelled like a tannery (unlike the rest of the bar, which smelled like a cannery), and though the Vic Park chimney has now been literally overshadowed by the Sky Tower, back then it was the tallest structure any of us had ever seen.

Nectarines and burrata. Photo / Babiche Martens

I’m sure lots of smart people have tried to work out how to bring the market’s mojo back, but it’s never really happened. A few quite good eateries, a pub specialising in board games and "Auckland's premiere Vespa dealership" … it’s been missing a drawcard tenant strong enough to make the whole precinct cool by association. Well now it has one.

Milenta is as good as restaurants get. In fact it’s so good that you need to pause reading right now and reserve a table while you still can. Take whatever slot you can get, just get in there.

I don’t want to generalise, but there is nobody on earth who wouldn’t love eating here. Don’t be the sad guy who left it too late to book.

Okay, welcome back. Here’s what you can expect: an outdoor dining room, under a large pohutukawa tree, where the infrastructure consists of little more than a shipping container-style kitchen/bar, and some decking.

Oh and there’s some vertical timber slats that create a barrier between you and the rest of the market without hiding it completely. It’s a great effect and makes me realise that part of the problem other Vic Park restaurants have had is that once you go through the front door you could really be anywhere.

Chef Elie Assaf. Photo / Babiche Martens

Because there’s no ceiling, everyone is sidelit. This makes them all look more attractive but, to be honest, everyone eating here was unnervingly attractive in the first place.

The restaurant opens at the same time as a private club, next door, and it’s very easy to imagine that within a few weeks Auckland’s most beautiful will be gravitating towards this part of town for drinks, dinner ­— or both.

Don’t let that put you off though: the chef has a warm humility that I think rubs off on the staff; no matter who is sitting next to you I can’t imagine you’ll feel out of place.

I hope not, because it’d be a shame if anything distracted you from the food, which is clever, refined and pretty enough to pass as fine dining but largely unfussy and made to be shared around the table.

Though chef Elie Assaf whakapapas to Wellington’s famous Phoenician Falafel and made Williams Eatery famous for its Middle Eastern plates, here he is on another continent altogether, bringing South American ideas to New Zealand seasonal produce.

The kingfish tiraditos. Photo / Babiche Martens

Like, chillies are in season and they’re almost a main character on Milenta’s autumn menu. Not just the bird’s eyes and jalapenos you’ll be used to from other restaurants but aji amarillo, a Peruvian native and habanero, one of the hottest but also most characterful fruit in the chilli family.

Assaf uses various tricks to mollify the spicy heat while retaining the flavour — he matches the amarillo’s tropical notes by adding mango and passionfruit to a dressing for kingfish; the habanero pops up in what was immediately my dish of the year: compressed nectarine with burrata — cold and sweet and creamy and searingly spicy, it’s a dream combination.

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I love how he does simple stuff — like paying tribute to poverty staple “rice and beans” with a cute rice cracker, a circle of purple bean puree and a crater filled with bright green oil.

Or the okra, a vegetable I’ve almost never seen heroed in an Auckland restaurant, which is blistered on the grill and suddenly as appealing as asparagus, served with a moreish black sesame mole.

Smoke and fire are everywhere on the menu — from the pohutukawa ash that does just enough to change the texture of an oyster sitting over it, to the picanha cut of beef which is seared before being re-chilled and served as a steak tartare (with potato sticks and quail egg you’re encouraged to mix up yourself like a beef-bim-bap). Potatoes are “scorched”, 55-day rib-eye “cooked over coals”, chicken “roasted over fire”.

The oysters. Photo / Babiche Martens

There are modern kitchen tricks, sure, but also a reverence for the way food has been prepared for thousands of years.

Finally a special mention for general manager Vinci Gin-Nen [read more about Vinci and the team behind Milenta in Viva Magazine — Volume Seven, on sale now].

I swear every time I’m having a great night at a restaurant I look up and he is there — he seems to be the guy you hire when you want your hospitality business to be great, so it makes sense that the first restaurant he has an ownership stake in is perfect in every way — from cocktails to crockery.

Milenta is the most impressive place you can eat in Auckland right now. So why haven’t you booked yet?

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