Cazador, Auckland

Some 200 issues ago, Cuisine featured restaurant reviews from Plimmer House, Petit Lyon and La Spaghettata. Plimmer House became home to Boulcott Street Bistro, Kent Baddeley from Petit Lyon has only recently closed the doors on his Hawke’s Bay restaurant, 1024, and reluctantly hung up his apron and Paul Hoather from La Spaghettata has retired to Nelson, leaving Charley Noble in capable hands. Interestingly, the site of Petit Lyon on Willis Street became home to my very first restaurant, Giverny, to be followed by Paul Hoather (the White House) and is now home to Bistro Jano. Some things change, some stay the same.

And, 200 issues and 32 years ago, Iranians Tony and Barbara Lolaiy opened their restaurant Cazador in an unprepossessing location between Balmoral and Mt Roskill, at the far end of Auckland’s Dominion Road. Wild food was the theme and Tony hunted much of what was on the menu. And that menu was extensive – 45 items of Iranian and southern Mediterranean-influenced dishes, comfortably unique  in Auckland and possibly in the country. Cazador was a restaurant for people who accepted that if you’re going to eat meat, then something has to die.

Then, in 2012, it was taken over by their son Dariush – who had been in London working in the kitchens of St. John and Moro – and his wife Rebecca Smidt. Cazador still  has the unmistakable air of a chef-owned restaurant; Dariush presides  over the kitchen and Rebecca runs the floor, a warm and welcoming hostess in the small dining room, greeting guests, bussing tables, doing the bar (sherry is her favourite thing) and taking bookings.

This second generation wanted to change Cazador, to create something similar to the gastropubs they had seen in London.

They retained the 70s rough-plastered hacienda interior as well as all of Tony’s taxidermied trophies; winged ducks, antlered deer, heads of Southland tahr and goats proudly displayed on wall mounts and perches seem to invite respect rather than horror. The dining room is relaxed with its olive-green velvet banquette seating and dark polished flooring, the tables dressed with old-fashioned jars filled with posies of fresh flowers picked by Barbara.

The food still has its roots in the mysterious flavours of Persia but is now influenced by Dariush and Rebecca’s travels through Mexico. The menu is short, ever changing and self-confident. That confidence is evident in an excellent charcuterie platter, featuring a superb duck-liver parfait, slices of a fine boar and prune terrine and seriously good hare rillettes. It’s evident in the very best of New Zealand game, given the gentlest of attention so it tastes acutely of itself.

Venison has been on the menu in one form or another for 32 years. Whole animals are hung for at least two weeks before Tony – still involved behind the scenes – breaks them down into various cuts. The true star of the menu is the venison pasta, the shoulder first hung and salted then slowly cooked on the bone, with a great deal of care and attention going into the ensuing braise. The meat is then pulled and mixed back into a ripe gravy, resulting in a rich, earthy stew that insinuates itself into the wide ribbons of handmade butter-yellow pasta.

Cazador is an ambitious, gastronomic restaurant that manages the trick of being both comfort food and technically thrilling at the same time. With Rebecca pregnant with the couple’s second child, a third generation could well be waiting in the wings.