The new Milenta restaurant in Victoria Park – in cold weather the roof is closed and the heaters on. Photo / Babiche Martens
If you can’t stand the heat, don’t sit too close to the kitchen. Restaurant critic Kim Knight discovers a sizzling newcomer.
In their own words: Milenta is a South American bistro where chefs work
“Intuitively with fire and the best seasonal produce available to prepare meals over charcoal in an open outdoor kitchen.”
First impressions: I don’t know anyone at this party, but the room has a campfire glow that makes everyone stronger and bolder. No person (or plate) could look bad in this light. I can smell wood smoke and, through the occasional space, see glimpses of the night sky. The roof has been extended against the rain and by the time you read this heaters will have been installed, but I suspect a seat in Milenta will still feel like late summer at your friend’s house.
In the kitchen: Chef Elie Assaf moved from Beirut to Wellington with his family when he was 10, cutting his teeth in his family’s restaurant, Phoenician Falafel. Most recently, he cooked at the Williams Eatery in Auckland.
On the floor: A warm welcome and detailed knowledge of the menu. (Although I’m still curious – was that a bit of mussels in my shrimp ceviche?)
The neighborhood: Longtime Aucklanders just can’t give up those weekends they wasted buying dyed t-shirts and sandalwood soap from the stalls that once occupied this historic municipal rubbish dump . Today, Victoria Park Market offers good food and stylish, shared workspaces, but echoes of the 1980s remain. Milenta, for example, is located near the Celebrity Walk of Fame. Launched 26 years before Instagram, the course testifies to the permanence of, well, concrete.
The menu: My vegetarian friend won’t miss a new opening – though the $75 main event is a piece of 55-day-aged rib eye, slow-cooked over coals and served with real bone marrow-filled bone. “Actually,” she says, when I raise an eyebrow, “This menu really appeals.” The waiter advises a hungry diner to prepare a large plate himself, but I resist the urge to order half a chicken (no mean feat from a seat so close to the flames I can see the sizzle).
Best Bite #1: Is okra this year’s Jerusalem artichoke? In these sneezing and snotty Covid times, it’s a brave chef making a rockstar out of a vegetable best known for its mucilaginous center, but slender green fingers are having a moment. Milenta served them in blister packs – crispy on the outside and slippery on the inside, with a sensational sesame mole for dipping. If you’ve only ever had okra and okra, this is a must (and, at $13, considerably cheaper than beef).
Best Bite #2: Has the rice pudding gone bad? Did the pilaf go well? A whole Pacific rose apple stuffed with rice and pine nuts was soft (with crispy bits), sweet (with a tangy tomato punch), and quite unique. Listen, I’m not saying I would order this instead of the pork belly, but I would definitely consider it a side dish. The apple was one of two conundrums we tried – a very fresh burrata, brimming with rich cream and served with marinated feijoa and sliced persimmon – could easily have doubled as dessert.
The jury is still out: Te Matuku’s raw oysters arrived in a (literally) steaming clay pot, studded with little gems of salmon roe. Visually it was the dish of the night, but it didn’t quite work for me. The menu said “smoky pōhutukawa” (a nod to the big tree overhead – a relic from when this part of town was still a cliff) but the steaming cardamom and cinnamon dominated. The smell was warm; cold oysters. I enjoyed the shock of this contrast but, ultimately, I couldn’t get my nose and tongue to work in unison. The oysters are too “clean” for this treatment and my taste buds were, quite simply, confused.
On the side: If you’ve ever been a guide, you’ll know there’s something about a wood fire that makes potatoes incredibly creamy and recommendable. Milenta takes the classic and goes to the “restaurant” (baby spuds, black olives). He doesn’t skimp on portions, so you’ll only need a bowl between two (or four), especially if you’re also ordering (and you should) the queijo butter parāoa. I baked these tapioca flour bread dumplings at home; frying them and stuffing the butter with strong cheese is next level comfort.
Dessert: When the center of the dulce de leche flan custard quivered slightly before moving away from my spoon, I passed out. Just one of two sweet offerings on the menu, it was smothered in a caramel sauce bordering on bitter and was, for me, a dream ending to a delicious evening.
Milenta is perfect for: Barbecue lovers and boundary pushers.
How much: Snacks ($10-$13), raw ($19-$24), small ($14-$22), large ($48-$75), and sweet ($14-$16). Where: Milenta, Victoria Park Market, 210-218 Victoria St West, Auckland. milenta.co.nz.
by Yvonne Lorkin
Just a few weeks ago, I swore that if one more person said to me, “Yvonne, you really have to go to Milenta”, I would have burst a drain. “I know okay, I know!” I would scream into the FOMO abyss. Still, all it takes is one glance at their neat, compact, and ultra-interesting drink list for calm to set in. Most restaurants I’ve been to since the lockdown was lifted have had one, maybe two sparkling wines available by the glass. Not Milenta. They make four. They’re not cheap though, from $20 for a funky Pet Nat or Moet to $25 for Veuve or Laurent Perrier, but they’re the perfect start to your salivating South American vacation. Pisco is my cheesecake from the cocktail list. If I see it, I must have it. Milenta makes one with calvados, agave, passion fruit, vanilla, lime and bitters, but you might want to try their Smoke & Mirrors made with mezcal and dram. ‘Aperol, their grilled pineapple G&T or the Colibrí. Crunchy IPAs and pilsners from Sawmill and Hallertau dominate the beer section, and when it comes to wine, oh joy and jubilation, more than half the list is available by the glass. However, if you can afford $74 for a bottle of Unico Zelo Jade & Jasper Adelaide Hills Fiano 2021, you – and everyone else at your table – won’t regret it. Craving a powerful, muscular red you can chew? Then the Pedregal Roble Tannat from Uruguay at $61 a bottle will more than cut the mustard. There are still a few dozen wines worth mentioning if space permits. Nice Milenta list.