V T STATION : RESTAURANT REVIEW
3.25 stars out of 5 (A quarter of the way between Good and Excellent)
Auckland, New Zealand
Visited June 2021, and July 2020
Want to open an Indian restaurant in NZ ? A hack will tell you to pack it with boring dishes, to keep the prices low (Why ? Indian food is often labour-intensive but you still want to sell it cheap) and probably use Saaris for décor ( for garnish, keep a sign outside saying “ curry + rice, naan for $ 10 for weekend lunch only). The owners of V T Station instead elect to make use of their minds. Jazz up the idea, Madam-ji or Sir-ji and since you want to present North, Central and South Indian dishes, why not recruit a railway theme to weave it together? The rough finish to the ceiling and half the walls will tie in nicely anyway with industrial chic that’s haunted world décor in recent decades. Cover the other half of the walls in wood laminate and grill-encased little lights and label each table with names of Mumbai’s local train stations. Top it up with an overhead luggage rack, filled not with wares filched from Warehouse but actual vintage-looking suitcases from when sidelocks were as long as today’s dish descriptions. Wah-la ! that’s Auckland’s V. T Station.
It’s a worthy place to visit for more reasons than one, but coming here in large groups is not likely to end well. Their dish design is much better suited to smaller groups. A 3 course meal for two people now averages $ 100, without alcohol, which is par for the course if you want well-crafted cuisine in center-city. But front-of-house is not going to pamper you here, and the décor’s impact reduces with time, so the focus will eventually fall squarely on the nosh.
Tired of dreary Paneer ? Upgrade to the tallest hat with ‘Bishop’s Tikka’ - a masterpiece of melt-in-the-mouth creamy softness, presented in fine-dining style no less, with dominoed discs parked beside a stylish swipe of yoghurt sauce. ‘Corn Chilli’ is a technical triumph, battered individual kernels of corn tossed in tangy Manchurian sauce, creating a crunchy textural hoot, catapulted again by a splendid rollercoaster mash-up of Indo-Chinese condiments.
“Medu Wada” is a tough-to-get-right savoury doughnut made from deep fried batter of black gram. The best specimens are crunchy-soft blasts, that when paired with exactly sharp chutneys, are a ticket to heaven and back. V.T Station’s Medu Wada is not bad, but you lose it in its eccentric placement on the plate, an inspired touch of a whale-tail of banana leaf jutting out from one end, the vadas snowed over by two separate but equally good coconut chutneys, and a swimming pool of ‘sambhar’ finely executed here as a smooth lentil gravy.
Cocktails, just as in “1947” (the owners’ other impressive Indian restaurant), entice you with their variety and creativity and there’s a little booklet full of them, all priced above twenty dollars. One that blended tequila, mezcal, amaro, beet syrup, lemon, cardamon and bitter flamed cherries tasted almost healthful – more dulcetly inveigling was a gin cocktail that introduced butterfly pea tea to grapefruit tonic.
Some of the deliberately chosen aluminium plates that show some wear and tear, selected no doubt for their local humble connexion with the train station, look like prison plates. My cousin sister who has good taste, commented what a snazzy touch they were, so I conclude there must be some chic fashion here that is beyond my bumpkin brain. Months later, at least half of them were replaced with cozier ceramics.
V.T Station pulls out the royal treatment whenever paneer comes into play and that excellence continues with ‘Green Platform’ – the old stand-by of palak paneer rendered here as a luxurious silken gravy of spinach, with accents of garlic, the paneer featured not as boring squares, but butter-soft little spheres bobbing in rich sauce. It goes swimmingly well with cheese-‘n’-garlic naan – the junior-size versions of stuffed flatbread which are a superb balance of softness, flavour and heft.
This is the only restaurant in Auckland where you can find ‘Daulat Ki Chaat’ – a whipped milk dessert where the white cloud-like mass is so delicate that it vanishes when placed in your mouth. This is topped with a textural complement of a variety of finely chopped dry fruits – alas I did not detect that bewitching perfume which would truly make this an empyrean dessert.
The second visit a year later showed that the place still had ample patrons, with a liberal smattering of Pakehas also joining the party. The V T Station sign-post outside on the pavement was gone, replaced by tables with umbrellas (why let go of valuable business tables, in lieu of a sentimental train station signpost ?). To help Aucklanders reduce the burdensome weight off their wallets, the price of some dishes has been bumped up by an average of four dollars.
Fig Chaat gave way to Chandi Chowk ki Chaat, which is a beautiful presentation of a classic street-food (savoury-sweet-sour snack of potatoes, puffed rice, fried bits of chickpeas flour), softly delicious in its interplay of flavors, ringed by teasing sauces, redly bejeweled with pomegranate. Koliwada prawns were very tender, but these average sized specimens were mostly flavorless.
Tawa fish was a riveting beast - on a blind tasting, I would report that this is very soft Tandoori Chicken - so smouldering was its smoke. The fish flavour was consumed by the hearth, and the meen moili (coconut-milk-based stew with mild spices) pool in which it rested, did nothing to resurrect the piscine soul. At $24, for a place with pedestrian service and one which is not a luxury restaurant, the size seemed small, the impression fed by the fact that these were prepared fillets taken off the bone and presented by themselves – presenting a whole fish would have come across as better value for money.
After the fourth appetizer that evening, the three of us understood this is indeed a good restaurant for dieting. There were three pieces of " Veg Galouti Kebab " presented at $18. The menu says it is a royal dish and boy are they right ! With mashed beetroot and chickpeas coaxed into a patty which is stuffed with yoghurt, cheese, spices and then griddled, this is ultra-soft, handsomely roasted and sports a profound umami that is next-level unctuous with creamy and savoury depths. It looked simple but was hands down the high-five dish of the evening.
Service remained mediocre. Front of house comprises a bunch of youngsters who have little idea of what hospitality is. It is interesting to see that neither the chefs nor the owners have put their foot down to ensure the waitstaff put their best foot forward, in step with the considered cuisine and specialized décor.
None among the three of us - seasoned consumers of Indian cuisine - could identify Butter chicken as a true-blue (or true orange) version of what we know this much-mismanaged dish to be. It had an agreeable, creamy, ever so slightly tart masala blend, with reasonably tender chicken, but bonafide butter chicken it was not. I gave up red meat years ago so I cannot tell you much about the Sikandari Shank (marinated lamb shanks in subtle stock gravy) except that it is safe from me, but of my companions both of whom have a good palate, one declared it excellent whilst the other averred it was good. Of the grand total of two desserts they have, the marquee player ‘ Daulat Ki Chaat ‘ was unavailable that night, and what we had – the wittily named ‘Lentil We Meet Again “ – presented a forgettable lentil-based pulled-fudge pudding that might not pass muster even in a home dinner party ( Lentil We Will Not Meet Again ).
V T Station, ultimately, is an interesting ride, with first-class fare of varying pedigrees, and carriage hosts who look like they have not slept properly after nights of bumpy berths. The place urgently needs a manager to introduce genuine hospitality, and the kitchen should either put a “Dieting Assistance” sign on their appetizers or increase the quantity. The derailed dessert department could do with additional gauge. With its inventive railway themed décor and cuisine that’s a cut above, it is still a welcome addition to Auckland’s ho-hum arena of Indian restaurants. 3.25 / 5 Upnworld
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