Last night I attended a new pop up at Coco’s Cantina on K Rd. Coco’s Cantina is a rustic Italian kitchen with family-style dining. While the Cocos are galavanting and eating their way through Italy (team building exercise: BOSS LEVEL), the restaurant is being “house sat” by fledgling food businesses Judge Bao and The Pie Piper.
I’ve blogged about Judge Bao before and mentioned their friends The Pie Piper who regularly impress foodies at The Street Collective on Ponsonby Road with their bao and pies.
On different day, the setting could be called romantic. The lighting was dim with small flowers and candles at the tables. We were seated on long tables and served family-style with a mix of food media present. I fan-girled a little bit but didn’t introduce myself to any of the foodie heroes at the other tables. Um…not there yet.
We sampled a range of dishes from Judge Bao’s ambitious pop up menu and ended with slice of pie of our choice from The Pie Piper. We dined as guests of Judge Bao and The Pie Piper.
Everything was flavourful with a wink to traditional Chinese cooking and American classics like meatloaf, cheese grits and sweet potato pie. The menu is surprisingly adventurous and bold. Chinese cuisine covers a large variety of styles and flavours, though Judge Bao draws inspiration from Guangzhou/Canton which is near Hong Kong (where I was born).
We began with a steamed bao with dipping sauces. We each received either a plain white bun or a black sesame bun made by hand by the Judge Bao team. These were great to curb the hunger so we could relax and ease into our meal.
Brisket meat balls with a generous chunk of bone marrow all covered in a kitsch black bean sauce. I grew up in Chinese takeaways so I know black bean sauce very well. I’d kind of forgotten about it though. It’s one of those distinct umami hits that’s just waiting to come back. I love bone marrow and this was like eating fat. You either like fat or you don’t. If you don’t, move over and let me at it. This one is for the meat lovers in the house.
Every cuisine has fried chicken because fried chicken is delicious people pleaser. I don’t know any meat-eating person who doesn’t love fried chicken. Judge Bao’s fried chicken is called the Dirty Bird and was on point though the orange, bright tasting douban mayo underneath was fascinating. As my friend Miss A said, “I probably didn’t NEED that second piece of chicken”. You’re right Miss A, but life is too short for regrets.
The meatloaf with brisket and lap cheong (Chinese sausage) was a hit. Chinese American meatloaf. Yes, it happened. This was served with a spicy ketchup and fresh coriander. Meatloaf isn’t common in New Zealand, even though it should be. It was cool to see this retro North American classic fused with Chinese ingredients.
The most impressive dish of the night was the whole steamed fish. Silver warehou isn’t a fish I remember seeing on a menu but the delicate flavour and texture was perfect for steaming. The bones are large which makes excavation easy.
By this time, I’d had a few glasses of wine and was feeling bold. Sitting at the head of our table, I may have ended up with the fish head on my plate for further adventurous eating. No shame.
With a Chinese tea to help digest, we prepared ourselves for the next portion of our dinner…
The Pie Piper
Suzanne from The Pie Piper gave us a little intro on the pies we could choose from. I knew the plum pie would be perfect for me. It was the best combination of tart filling and buttery sweet crust. Pouring over orange infused heavy cream didn’t hurt either.
The others were happy with the tropical Lychee Coconut Cream Pie, and Sweet Potato Black Sesame Pie (a play on pumpkin pies and peanut butter pie).
The pies were served with 3 ice cream flavours: Vanilla, Hakanoa Ginger (OMG heaven) and Matcha (green tea). Hakanoa was the best. I hope this become an actual thing. Until then, I’ll just have to drizzle my Hakanoa ginger syrup on ice cream and pretend.
Get yourself a slice of pop up
The whole evening, including the location was a play on kitsch and new twists on old classics. Jamie and Debbie from Judge Bao and Suzanne and Danielle from The Pie Piper were gracious hosts and I enjoyed the casual dining style. Even though it was Chinese modern, there wasn’t a speck of rice, noodle or chopstick in sight.
For next little while, you can enjoy an exciting combination of modern Chinese and classic American pies. Take your adventurous foodie friends and make a night of it.
The pop up runs from 10 to 12 September and 16 to 19 September 2015. Dinner served from 5pm to late. They are not taking bookings so first in first served. Get in before they’re gone!
Coco’s Cantina, 376 K Rd, Auckland