The snapper sashimi at Vondel. Photo / Babiche Martens

Restaurant Review: Devonport's Vondel Offers More Than You Have Any Right To Expect

The restaurant segues for both vegans and carnivores, for those in search of top-shelf coffee and a wine list more exciting than most city bistros

Cuisine: Bistro
Address: 8 Victoria Rd, Devonport
Phone: (09) 446 6444
Drinks: Fully licensed
Reservations: Not accepted
From the menu: Jackfruit taco $10; tofu “tangsu” salad $24; sashimi $26; pork belly $28; sirloin steak $30.

When Sam Bratton returned to New Zealand after some years overseas, he opened a restaurant and named it after his favourite park in Amsterdam.

“That park is like a sanctuary,” he told me. “As soon as you step inside, you forget that you’re in the middle of a city. That’s what I wanted this restaurant to be. It’s a bit of a cliche, sorry.”

But I don’t think it’s cliched. I think it’s bloody cool. And though you might not, sitting in the afternoon sun on the main street of Devonport, forget you’re in the city, you’ll enjoy enough small, lovely moments during your meal that you’ll at times forget about what’s on your mind and just enjoy where you are right now. In our busy, stressful lives, that’s a pretty good definition of sanctuary.

I have overseas memories myself (though they’re fading), and one is of staying at the Fairmont Hotel in Vancouver, where they had two hotel dogs.

The idea seemed so obvious and wonderful — hotel guests often like to explore the city on their own, so why not offer them some security, and company?

Photo / Babiche Martens

I haven’t thought about that hotel for years but it flashed into my mind as soon as Kurtis, Vondel’s resident dog, ambled over to our table for a nuzzle. He’s a beautiful, 2-year-old rescue and he’s a very good boy. He also seems to be a big drawcard for the regulars: they rub his head while owner Sam hurries around taking orders and delivering food.

Along with a solid double act in the kitchen and some young, bright waitresses on the flanks, it’s an operation full of personality. If I took the ferry back from the city each day my family would know where to look when I went missing.

Though it has the appearance of a good bar with food, Vondel offers more than you have any right to expect: top-shelf coffee, a Garage Project fridge, rotating taps of other fresh beers and a wine list more exciting than most city bistros. Then there is the menu concept, which is just sensible enough not to be gimmicky.

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Sam, a vegan himself, wanted to open a restaurant where plant-eaters and meat-eaters could kai together without anybody feeling like the odd one out.

The greatest compliment I can give to the success of that approach is that you don’t spend any time noticing which dishes are which, and even halfway through a mouthful of jackfruit taco you can find yourself thinking, “Now which was this, fish or chicken?” (I would treat that taco as a compulsory order by the way — battered jackfruit really works, appearing here with a sweet ginger dressing and fresh, crunchy slaw.)

The difference between a restaurant and that bar I was expecting comes down to the skill of the chefs who, at Vondel, cut no corners and take great pride in the things that are simple but often messed up. Serving steak in a restaurant is a huge challenge and one I think four out of five kitchens fail at, but this was one of the best Auckland sirloins I’ve ever eaten, the surface scorched and seasoned like sandpaper and the inside almost Photoshop pink.

The jackfruit taco. Photo / Babiche Martens

Though there is fanciness in other parts of the menu, they don’t mess around much with this steak dish — just a spiralled roast potato and a perfect mushroom sauce, plus a lovely piece of courgette kimchi for interest.

They must have a little fermentation factory somewhere because there are all sorts of pickly pleasures, including a trio that came with the pork belly that perhaps didn’t all work so well — the acidification process not doing enough to break down the fibrous raw rhubarb as was required to enjoy it.

That pork tasted fine but there were other dishes I enjoyed more, like crumbed, fried tofu fingers on a bright salad with a sprinkling of what took me a few moments to realise was dukkah, those hazelnuts and raw coriander seeds unfamiliar in the context of an Asian-style salad — but whatever, it worked.

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I loved the snapper sashimi too, perhaps closer to what you’d think of as ceviche with all the dressing, coriander leaves and condiments, but the freshly filleted fish still pink and not yet cooked by the acid. It was a pretty dish, including dots of freeze-dried raspberries which were again not expected, but welcome.

This is a casual sort of place but it felt just right on a late summer afternoon, with plenty of room to stretch out and some really good drinks to extend your meal either before or after. Instead of the extra pint we took a walk out on the wharf and watched people cast for fish.

You could see the high-rises clearly across the harbour, so there was no chance of forgetting where you were. But a night at Vondel in Devonport does a good job of reminding you what makes our city such a special place to be.

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