Canton Cafe in Kingsland serves my most favouritest seafood dish in the entire world: Steamed Garlic Prawns. Big call, I know.
I dream about this dish. I would marry this dish (sorry C).
The dish, however, is definitely not for the faint hearted....see piles of yellow bitty bits smothering the prawns? That my friends is garlic, glorious glorious garlic. You probably shouldn't order this on your first date, if you're a vampire, or if you plan to speak to anyone for the rest of the night. But if you're like me and have an almost Gallic obsession with garlic, you just won't care. One can never have too much garlic I say.
Voted in the Top 50 Asian Restaurants in 2008 and Best Chinese Restaurant 2003 & 2005 by Metro Magazine, Canton Cafe is an institution on the Auckland culinary scene.
To be honest though, I've sat on this review for ages now. We have about 4 or 5 Chinese restaurants on our favourite list and Canton Cafe is one of them. We've been coming to this restaurant for many many years. My parents know the owners and the manager (having said that, the Hong Kong community in Auckland is rather small and Mum seems to know pretty much every Chinese restaurant owner in the city). We go there for birthdays, special occasions and even when we just don't feel like cooking. We went there a couple of weeks ago to celebrate my Mum being cancer free for 3 years.
So how could I review this restaurant objectively? Maybe I'd be overly critical since we go there all the time or maybe I wouldn't even notice the flaws since it's pretty much our "local".
Well, I've decided I'm just going to tell you what I thought and then you can go try it for yourself and see if you agree. I will also try and lay out what to expect from your Canton Cafe experience. Sound like a plan, Stan?
The restaurant is in the main strip of shops in Kingsland. It's really difficult to find a park but sometimes you strike it lucky and get one right out front. Some nights you circle the back streets for yonks, especially if there is a rugby game on at Eden Park. Be warned.
The atmosphere is very typical of a Hong Kong eatery: loud conversation, brisk waiters, clanging china and cutlery and an open kitchen where you can see (and hear) the chefs banging out the dishes. The tables are covered in plastic sheets for spillage and the place is really quite crammed. An authentic experience, I reckon.
Warning number 3: there is usually two rounds for dinner service. Meaning you have to either book around 6pm and be out by 8pm or book after 8pm. The out times are strictly enforced with firm hints. You will often still be eating your meal when they plonk on your table the sweet soup as dessert or the platter of what we have nicknamed the "F-off Fruit" at which point you know your time is a-ticking. Some people are offended by this. I think it adds to the charm of the place and we have a giggle about it every time we go.
Canton Cafe has a big sign that says no MSG. I usually get a really bad headache when there is loads of MSG added to dishes and I don't get that when we eat at Canton. What you find though is that sometimes the food is quite salty, maybe to compensate for the lack of MSG?
So on to the food.
First up, is the Soy Sauce Hapuka. I'm not sure what it's called on the menu, but in Cantonese it literally translates to "soy sauce king hapuka" if that helps at all. We always order this dish. The hapuka fillets are cut into chunks and deep fried then tossed in a slightly sweet soy sauce sauce, garlic, onions, spring onions and capsicum. It's packed with flavour and seriously good.
Next up we had the Squid Stir Fry with Snow Peas. Again this might not be on the menu. We usually ask what kind of veges they have on offer as the selection is seasonal and pick what we like the sound of. Then pick what you want it stir fried with - squid, fish, dried meats, chicken, pork etc. The stir fry usually comes with little bits of other vegetables to bulk it out like sliced carrots, celery and Chinese mushrooms. It's really garlicky (yum!) but a tad salty. The squid was cooked to absolute perfection. So tender it pretty much melted in your mouth.
The Crispy Roast Pork is a Canton Cafe signature dish. I've come here before late in the afternoon and eaten it as it came out of the oven. Crispy porky bliss. What's special about Canton Cafe's pork belly is that they choose really good cuts with a decent chunk of fat but also with a decent chunk meat. The crackling is crunchy and crispy. You can dip it in the sweet and sour dip that it comes with but I prefer my roast pork au naturale.
The Duck Hotpot with lotus root and fermented red bean curd was recommended to us by May (the lovely manager). The duck had been slowly braised in a thick sauce of fermented red bean curd and loads of star anise. It was hearty and warming and really tasty. The only down side was that there were little bits of star anise and bone chips that we kept biting into and the pieces of duck were rather bony and didn't have much meat.
And now, what you've all been waiting for...the Steamed Garlic Prawns. We order this every single time we come for dinner. Even if it's just me and C. We can demolish this entire plate with just the two of us. In essence, it is a really simple dish: prawns, sliced in half lengthwise, topped with loads of garlic and steamed. The steaming mellows out the garlic so you don't get that spicy kick at all. But there is something about that sauce, that salty prawny pink broth that has soaked into the garlic and prawns that makes the dish sensational. I have tried many many times to recreate this dish but without success. It's one of my food mysteries that I have yet to solve - so if you know of a good recipe....please please please let me know!
At the end of the meal you can opt for the sweet soup (which changes day to day) or the fruit platter. That night we had Red Bean soup an oldie but a goodie. And even left well before our time was up to go....bowling!
Mum doing her happy dance when she gets a strike
Great bowling action by E.
C and I were in the same team and were definitely not on form. I missed the pegs completely far too many times. Clearly not very coordinated.
At a glance:
477 New North Road,
(09) 846 7888
(09) 846 7888
Service: Waiters are efficient, speedy and may seem a little brisk to the uninitiated.
Food: Generous portions, can be a tad salty, good authentic Cantonese tucker.
Setting: Noisy, crowded, and always busy: some would find it hectic, some would call it atmospheric.
Price (NZD): $110 for dinner for 5 (5 dishes). I reckon really good value, considering we had all seafood dishes.
Summary: Great authentic Cantonese food. To fully enjoy your experience you need to be prepared for the hustle and bustle and watch out for sticking to your time slots. Definitely book ahead if you can, they also do a takeaway menu if you would prefer a more tranquil dining experience. We go there often and would definitely recommend to others.