For readers with incense-laced memories of scanning racks of tie-dyed dresses, silver jewellery and suncatchers at Auckland’s Victoria Park Market, the addition of smart South American restaurant Milenta will bring a smile. Elegantly understated, small and unassuming, there is nothing themey or forced about this place, but like the 1980s stalls that came before, it has a strong identity.
The sharp scent of the wood-fired oven in action beckons you through the door. The fire is Milenta’s calling card; the website speaks rather grandly of staff working “intuitively with fire and the best seasonal produce available to prepare dishes over wood coals in an open, outdoor kitchen”. The whole restaurant is outdoors, tucked beneath a pōhutukawa tree and sheltered by cleverly designed panels, so you feel like you are dining in a friend’s beautiful courtyard.
Unfortunately, the race is on as soon as we take our seats – “We need the table at 8pm, okay?” says the server. That would have given us a tight 90 minutes if we had found the restaurant in time for our booking. As it is, we’re 10 minutes late, partly because the Victoria Park Market signage has not been updated to reflect the restaurant’s arrival, and on this particular evening, the complex is an inky ghost town.
Duly warned, we waste no time, aided by the well-edited menu, which categorises each dish as a “snack”, “raw”, “small”, “large” or “sweet”. Everything sounds good, from the fried parāoa bread with queijo butter ($12) to the grilled pork belly ($48), but we make some firm, rapid decisions, with no regrets.
All of executive chef Elie Assaf’s food is spectacular to look at: colourful and texturally diverse. He’s a busy guy – formerly at Williams Eatery, he also runs Dime Catering and is one of the team behind the popular Five Boroughs burger pop-ups. He grew up helping out in his parents’ Lebanese restaurant, Phoenician Cuisine, in Wellington. Now, he is taking on the entire South American continent.
We start with a snack – chicharon (pork crackling) dusted with herb salt vinegar ($10). It’s a tad dry although pleasantly piquant, and pairs well with a glass of rosé. From the “raw” portion of the menu, I can heartily recommend the kingfish tiradito ($22) – bite-sized pieces of fish cured in lime juice, topped with thin strands of chilli and aji amarillo sauce, with the added delight of passion fruit. The dish is as hot and tangy, sweet and cool as expected, but it’s the passion-fruit twist that lifts it to a different level. It’s outstanding.
The roast chicken ($39) and heirloom tomatoes ($16) are a very successful (accidental) pairing. Whole poached heirloom cherry tomatoes are served with orange blossom-pickled onions and home-made whipped ricotta, a single piece of pancetta and a scattering of basil leaves. The dish is fresh, light and infused with a subtle salty-vinegar bite. Naturally, the chicken is roasted over the wood fire, giving it a slightly smoky flavour and a wonderful juicy tenderness. It is served with three fat green pickled shishito peppers, a little mound of atchara or pickled papaya, and a bowl of salsa picante. As with the tomatoes, the effect is light, bright and refreshing, without the heaviness that can sink some roast chickens.
Fifteen minutes before our table needs to be turned over, we’re asked if we’d like a quick wine before we leave. We counter by asking if it would be possible to get dessert instead, and the lovely serving staff make it work for us, sliding a generous slab of tres leches cake ($16) onto the table about three minutes after we order. This Latin American classic is a sponge or butter cake literally soaked in three forms of milk – condensed, evaporated and heavy cream. Milenta’s version is served with three photo-ready raspberries and a scoop of smoked raspberry ice cream, which cuts through the heavy, musky sweetness of the cake.
Milenta is great – it deserves to be packed every night. Don’t let its open-air aspect put you off in winter; there are heaters and roof panels to keep you cosy. Just make sure you understand your booking so you don’t have to scuttle off into the dark before you’re ready.
Menu: Seasonal menu consisting of snacks, raw dishes, small and large plates, and desserts. Prices range from $5 for a single freshly shucked oyster to $75 for the 55-day aged ribeye.
Where: Victoria Park Market, 210-218 Victoria Street West, Auckland.
Hours: Wednesday to Saturday, noon-4pm and 6pm till late.