Auckland’s leafy slopes waited a long time for this. There’s nothing quite like a restaurant that identifies its audience and perfectly tailors the experience to suit those diners. Almost any night at Copia you’re likely to walk in to the dining room and find it filled with couples or groups of locals, many (if I may be permitted to say so) of an age where you can bet they’re collecting or about to get superannuation, who are familiar with the site of the former busy Plant Barn and who know really classy food and wine when they devour it.
The owner/chefs, Ken O’Connell and Sam Sykes have mastered the art of hospitality that the good folk of adjacent Remuera and Orākei seek. Music is muted, service comes with a smile and parking is the best in the city (free and spacious). The gorgeous view is oriented in a westerly direction over tidal Hobson Bay towards the city skyline, kitchen gardens surround the deck and a fantastic gin menu and well-thought- out wine and cocktail lists are offered.
Very recently, the owners added a surprise element to the dining area furnishings – O’Connell had fond memories of dining at Clooney so went to that restaurant’s closing auction. He scored one of the fabulous round tables with its accompanying, almost-circular banquette and that has completely changed the formerly sedate mood of the room.
But if you’re Gen X, Y or Z, don’t be put off by my nod to the older folk like me who love this place. I suggested to my son and his wife they go there for a special occasion; they loved the subdued ambience, the fact they could talk quietly away from the distraction of three pre-schoolers, and were more than impressed with the delicious cooking.
O’Connell is a masterful Irish chef, and thus any meal should start with his brown soda bread – it’s good, and served with tasty butter it transported me immediately back to Ireland where last year I became an almost- connoisseur of this malty, chewy bread. O’Connell and Sykes (originally from Auckland) worked together on and off over the past 10 years, sharing the kitchen at Mt Cook and briefly at the O’Connell’s Bracken in Dunedin.
The chefs’ philosophy is shared on their menu. “We have no stories, just good food, we believe in community, healthy eating & conscious dining.” Amen to that.
They arrived in Auckland eager to meet local producers and start a kitchen garden. They’ve achieved that and have branched out to supplement their garden greens with a vegetable plot they’ve also established at the Māngere Community Gardens. They also rejoice in the fresh fare they’re purchasing from the city’s Kelmarna Gardens. Local really is everything to this restaurant.
Their menu is short, seasonal and smart – ostensibly offered as small and large sharing plates but in reality working better as a traditional selection of starters and mains. I watched an elderly couple struggle over sharing the light-as-air brik pastry cigar filled with whipped goat’s curd and beetroot that I had loved. It was hard to split and share but perhaps they didn’t notice or were not told about the offer on the menu: “Add 1 more, $8”.
In early summer the garden was producing tomatoes. I ordered a salad of tomatoes with basil ice and spied the chef snipping a couple of heritage beauties to add to my plate. On a later summer visit, the tomato dish had evolved and was equally lovely; heirloom tomatoes, spring onion espuma, apricots and honeydew melon, refreshing and sweet mouthfuls that buzzed with flavour.
Other standouts on the starter menu are moist generous slabs of sustainably caught raw albacore tuna with a supporting eclectic cast of herbs and seaweed crackers, some gin-cured salmon with an avocado-citrus sorbet, and thin slices of pork coppa with compressed watermelon, fresh fig and fresh rocket that truly danced on my tongue.
Main choices range through everything you ever want when you dine out. Not food you cook at home, but instead duck breast, pork-rack cutlet, whole baby flounder, minced lamb with BBQ cabbage and a glorious beef scotch fillet that was smothered in bone-marrow crumb and horseradish butter. It’s well designed food that rarely trips up, although my colourful duck serving could have done with a little more jus to lift the garden-herb cracked wheat it was sitting on.
There are constantly a couple of dishes that exude taste and flavour without meat or fish. Sides, although not necessary for most of the large plates, include some wonderful crunchy roast Agria spuds with shaved fennel and Asian greens bathed in miso and sesame.
The dessert selection is small – just four dishes. Chocolate delice, a symphony of fresh and macerated strawberries with shortbread and whipped cream, cheese with chutney and the kitchen’s own crackers and, for me the pick, a large medallion of lemon curd ice atop citrus and passionfruit, surrounded by crisp pistachio meringue. Fruity sweet but not overly sugary. Lovely work from a kitchen that will entice me, and others, back. LAURAINE JACOBS