Almost a year after my first visit to Culprit, I’m frantically running up their Wyndham St stairs to meet an old friend for dinner, panicking at my tardy 8:06pm arrival for my 8pm booking. Usually I wouldn’t fret quite so much (and turns out in a rare instance, I was the first to arrive for my dinner date), but I know Culprit’s last trolley service of the night commences at 8:15pm sharp and I don’t want to miss a round.
That’s right, trolley service. Culprit’s USP is a Kiwi-style Yum Cha of sorts, but there’s no dumplings or pork buns on offer here – it’s strictly tapas done Aotearoa style. This service happens in three sittings – 6, 7 and 8pm, and I sure as hell don’t want to miss out on one morsel.
The upstairs loft style venue has always been a tough venue to make work in its history – I was sad to see previous occupants Will and Logan’s The Black Hoof close (I loved Waiheke’s Casita Miro when this duo was at the helm, sadly it has failed to impress since). Perhaps it’s because despite its inner city location, it’s somewhat of a destination venue – you need to know exactly where you are going. First time around, I wandered around in a confused fashion asking folk where to find it (no-one knew). Finally, I spotted an alcove with the Culprit ‘signage’ discreetly projected onto an inside wall from a OHP – probably the only time I’ve seen an OHP (overhead projector) used since my high school days.
It’s a minimalist, casual-hipster space, with its feature tube lighting and wine served in stemless glasses. which is in all respects quite appropriate a setting for the simple, yet on-trend food being served up.
Finally seated and a tad over heated from the power walk up Queen St, we crack a street-side window to catch a breeze and hurriedly select wines from the well crafted wine list, opting to order by the glass as to try more of the interesting wines on offer.
Within moments the first trolley arrives with it’s petite dishes, each round bearing a wooden block announcing the price per round, in the $4-$10 range. I love being able to sample many flavours, whether it be sharing style, tapas or tasting menu, so this type of eating is right up my alley. It’s a style of dining unique to Culprit, and I love that Kyle and Jordan are trying something a little bit different.
Now you’ll have to bear with my lazy descriptions as there’s no menu on offer, so here we go.
Dish of the night goes to the beef tartare, accompanied by a truffled Jerusalem artichoke puree and parsnip chips, a dish so good I ordered a repeat. A cracker of blue cheese and peas certainly pleased, but the duck agnolotti, with its admittedly delicious broth, suffered a tad texturally (the only small complaint of the night). The lamb croquette hit the mark as did the venison carpaccio with hazlenut and beetroot. I’m never one to say no to corn cakes and I’m glad I didn’t miss out on Culprit’s spongy and silky version. The chicken-liver-parfait-made-cool with it’s donuts and pinot noir glaze again went down a treat, and the finale of Peking-duck-meets-Mexico served on house made corn chips was a winner. Paired with excellent wines, this is a meal you’ll leave with a smile on your face – the food across the board was fantastic.
There are a couple of drawbacks to the current formula however, the first being that the trolleys come in quick succession, leaving me with a queue of dishes (some sadly going cold) in front of me, knowing if I decline a dish, I won’t see that option come past again. For myself, this leads to eating and feeling full all too fast.
The second issue is that Culprit also offers larger main courses designed to share after the trolley rounds which we are pushed to order repeatedly from the moment we sit down, being given the reason that some (specifically the fish and the Momofuku-style duck, after enquiring) take up to 45 minutes to prepare. On our first visit, as we were dining as a larger group, we relented and ordered a selection despite not having much room left in the tank. Most arrived a speedy 15 minutes later, and while they were as tasty as the trolley offerings, our stomachs were very much not yet ready for more food. Sadly, due to this a lot went to waste, so on my second visit I’m (definitely) older and (maybe) wiser – declining the many offers of larger courses. It’s just as well really, as I could barely move after a good ten or so dishes, with not even a smidgeon of space left for dessert.
For those reasons, I’d love to see Culprit tweak its serving style. Auckland (and New Zealand) doesn’t have any venues serving a ‘make-your-own-tasting-menu’ a la Barcelona’s lauded Tickets and Lisbon’s Mini Bar, and I think this format would make for a more customizable dining experience at Culprit. Scrap the trolleys, make a daily menu of all the delicious bites, and let customers order what they want (or offer to bring food until they beg to stop, in classic Tickets fashion), allowing them to have the length and pacing of dining experience they desire. I simply couldn’t force the (admittedly delicious) food down as fast as it was hitting the table. I’d also like to see more menu variation so I’m driven back more often to try what’s new from these creative chefs – the trolley and main offerings were very similar to my previous experience many months prior. I’ll admit that kiwis do like to head back to their trusty local for more of the same a tad more than other cities (and Kyle and Jordan are ex-Depot, the restaurant that has nary changed a dish in four years), but I know there are no doubt many more amazing dishes in where these came from, and damn, I want to taste them.
Aucklanders, if you haven’t visited, I want to know your excuse. Visitors, put Culprit on your must-eat-at list. It’s damn fine food that’s definitely worth the visit. I dare say I’ll be back on my next trip home…