Rag­gle tag­gle time

The sur­round­ings are en­chant­ing and there’s po­etry on the plates

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - RESTAURANT - Kim Knight

If Alice fell down the rab­bit hole in 2017, this is where she might land — down a lane, be­hind a cur­tain, drink­ing cock­tails from a sil­ver teapot.

Pon­sonby’s Gypsy Car­a­van has a sto­ry­book charm. There are paper lanterns and feath­ered dream catch­ers. The gar­den is lit flu­oro green and there is a man set­ting fire to cast-iron fry­ing pans full of cheese.

I imag­ine it’s glo­ri­ous in sum­mer (there’s an ac­tual car­a­van down the back) but I loved it in win­ter. That gar­den, with its spiky palms and flick­er­ing heaters, was an Henri Rousseau jun­gle come to life. Tiger, tiger, burn­ing bright . . . Po­etry on our plates, too. I or­dered the av­o­cado falafel and whipped feta ($14) to con­firm my longheld be­lief that cooked av­o­cado is dis­gust­ing and now I’m ques­tion­ing ev­ery­thing. It was not overly av­o­cado-ey but it was moist and light in a most un-falafel man­ner. I ate more than my share.

The hits kept com­ing. “Any­one wear­ing hair­spray?” said the wait­per­son with a small bot­tle of ouzo and a ci­garette lighter. I asked him what the cheese ($20) was, and I think he said ke­falo­graviera, al­though once he’d set it alight and it had melted and siz­zled and gone sweet with honey and liquor, he could have also just said “de­li­cious”.

The Gypsy Car­a­van started life as part of the Street Food Col­lec­tive. It shares a phone num­ber (and man­age­ment) with neigh­bour­ing bar­be­cue restau­rant Miss Moon­shine but there is no beef brisket here. Back in May, the en­tire menu was veg­e­tar­ian or ve­gan. In the heart of win­ter the of­fer­ing is meatier — duck and lamb mains, beef tartare and oc­to­pus en­trees — and the sides are pure carb.

I wil­fully ig­nored the oc­to­pus-is-the-new-dol­phin mantra (Sil­via Killingsworth, writ­ing in the New

Yorker, says the cephalo­pod is “prob­a­bly the clos­est we’ll get to meet­ing an in­tel­li­gent alien”) and it was $19 well spent.

There is a unique toothy “give” to a well­braised oc­to­pus and this one was made even more de­li­cious with a savoury, gar­licky pil-pil sauce and a blob of soured dairy. Puffed wheat added tex­ture, fen­nel pushed the flavour bound­aries. My veg­e­tar­ian din­ing com­pan­ion had the pret­ti­est in­ter­pre­ta­tion of mashed spud, via the sko­rdalia ($17), bright with peas and beet.

Re­mem­ber when cau­li­flower was, sim­ply, a gateway to cheese? Then the pa­leo peo­ple turned it into rice and food writ­ers claimed you could use it to make a pizza base. In 2013, a Minneapolis com­pany made a charred cau­li­flower ice­cream. Now it’s $7 a head in the su­per­mar­ket, and here I am, or­der­ing a $28 cau­li­flower main.

The flo­rets are earthy with Ethiopian berbere spice mix, and they sit un­der a gi­ant caul of thinly sliced daikon, on a swish of kelp broth. Im­pres­sive, and I am not even vaguely wish­ing we’d or­dered the duck.

It’s rain­ing and windy out­side, and Pon­sonby’s main drag is mad­ness. Well-heeled peo­ple go­ing places, been places, with other places to be. In­side this fairy store for adults, I’m warm and en­chanted. We will def­i­nitely stay for dessert.

“It’s your MasterChef mo­ment,” says the wait­per­son, as he presents a vis­ually ex­tra­or­di­nary milk choco­late sphere sprout­ing a tan­gle of rasp­berry-pow­ered deep-fried parsnip strips. I’m be­wil­dered be­cause the menu de­scrip­tor starts with the words “pas­sion­fruit curd” and does not men­tion choco­late. We smash the sphere to find it full of a sweet, milky sub­stance. It is not curd, and what­ever it is ren­ders the caramelised, bis­cu­ity crumbs (new food word of the week: “feuil­letine”) at the bot­tom of the bowl soggy. If this was MasterChef some­one would be go­ing straight to the elim­i­na­tion round.

Once upon a time, it was a dark and stormy night, and they all, mostly, lived very hap­pily ever af­ter.

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