Thursday, December 23, 2010

OPINION: Dis-oriented

Auckland's oldest Chinese restaurant, the New Orient, has closed after nearly 40 years in business. This follows the closure of the city's oldest Japanese restaurant, Ariake, which folded in the same week after 30 years - Lincoln Tan, NZ Herald, 6 April

Well, that's a shame. Or is it?

If there's one subject your correspondent is qualified to rabbit on about, have a beef with, not chicken out of, having an opinion on, this is it: 12 years as a professional glutton - otherwise known as a restaurant columnist - under his slightly expanded belt, now blogging about food on the country's most-visited eating-out site,

With the connivance of people like me, we've convinced ourselves that Auckland is a gourmet society. That folks eat out often, and expensively, and adventurously, every weekend and sometimes on school nights, too.

Look at the awnings in any suburban shopping strip: Thai, Italian, French, Indian, cafe bistro brasserie breakfast lunch dinner. Or takeaway. And the numbers: one reasonably exhaustive dining-out website lists 3912 eateries in what we should learn
That's inflated because some can list themselves two or three times - under, say, "Italian" and "Mediterranean" and "European".

But the ratio, which is an indication of popularity among the populace, is an indicator, if not arbiter of the public's taste: Asian 95, Chinese 177, French 45, Indian 327, Italian 156, Japanese 183, Thai 272, Vietnamese 23. (Yet to find the 10 Cajun/Creole places. Love Jambalaya. Love Zydeco more. Or the two Russian or three Swiss, but have to admit I haven't looked very hard for the last two.)

Truth is, when Middle Auckland has a hunger for eating out, it's invariably the tried and true rather than the novelty and new. The Thai on the corner, the Indian next to the supermarket, the corner Italian rarely offer cutting-edge cuisine: an average home cook can usually turn out the same dishes, often with higher-quality ingredients, but the diners keep going back to their local heroes.

Perhaps those three cuisines are most popular because folk want to revisit the backpacking adventures of youth or the roller-case holidays of middle-age - even if the curry-house recipes were created by Bangladeshis in Birmingham and the pastas in New York's red-sauce diners, not handed down from a Tuscan grandmother. And don't start me on "Thai" diners in suburban Auckland.

Of course there are some highly honourable exceptions to these generalisations but, in the main, or on the entree, the operators of the two dearly departed summed up their dilemma in Lincoln Tan's article:

"Operators of the two restaurants say changing expectations from Kiwis and new migrants have largely contributed to their demise.

'It used to be enough to have sweet and sour pork and fried won tons on the menu to make it an exotic restaurant to Kiwis, but times have changed,' said director David Lam, who has been involved with the New Orient since 1973. 'We have just not been able to keep up with the new restaurants, and it is sad that we have to close...'

"Ariake manager Miyuki Sakairi said the restaurant suffered because it tried to keep things too traditional. 'To survive in Auckland restaurants need to give diners good food and new experiences,' she said."

They've put their chopsticks on it, right there. This dilemma is not restricted to ethnic, heritage, or cultural themed eateries. Take the dog for its walk through your main street, be it in Onehunga or Howick or Browns Bay at, oh, seven o'clock on any night of the week, and you'll pass restaurants with empty tables.

People ain't going out to eat. They're staying home and watching Masterchef. And the pain of the recession has, mostly, been felt in middle-range suburban restaurants rather than top-end places on the Viaduct or Ponsonby Rd or in the city's best: our world-class Meredith's, French Café, O'Connell St Bistro, Euro, The Grove and SidArt.

But it is easier for an eatery that brands itself as, say, Modern NZ or Contemporary to move with the times. Or, as the restaurant critics like to say, meet the zeitgeist. Or is it the schadenfreude? No, that's a German sausage, isn't it?

As Mr Lam and Ms Sakairi have found, to their cost, modern tastes are lighter. A chef at a Michelin-star restaurant in London until he came home two years ago, suggested over lunch recently: around the millennium came a preference for baby food. Baby carrots, baby peas, baby potatoes, baby ... "oh, I only eat meat once a week because I can't stand to see those pigs suffer but I will have just the littlest bit of that porky belly ..."

With it, a liking for little portions, otherwise known as tapas or mezze or, "I'll have the risotto as my main but could you give me the entrée size, please?"

And heaven forfend that food look and taste like the animal it came from; that one be served full-flavoured meats with gravies or sauces, or the devil's spawn, potato; that one be served anything that will get one in strife with one's personal trainer tomorrow.

So it's not altogether surprising that Ariake and New Orient, which didn't move with the times, find themselves going pork belly-up. But it is amusing to read that SkyCity has rebranded its Ming Court Chinese restaurant as "Jade Dragon".

There was a place - Formica tables and white china, as much white bread-and-butter and tea as you wanted, gluttonous and glutinous bowls of chow mein for $3 - called the Jade Dragon. But that was in the '70s. And it was in Hamilton.

- Ewan McDonald is editor of The Aucklander Ewan McDonald | 6th May 2010

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