Bar Magda, Auckland
New opening Bar Magda is plating up seasonal food and drink with a delightful Filipino twist. Maddie Ballard investigates.
Entering Bar Magda, the moody new barbistro on Auckland’s Cross Street, you might believe that despite Covid restrictions, you’ve somehow ended up in Berlin. The basement space, run by hospitality superstars Carlo Buenaventura, Matt Venables and Craig Thompson, recalls the subterranean bars of Europe. Full of dramatic shadows and warm red glow, it’s effortlessly cool – the sort of place you’d choose to impress a date. But it’s also a relaxed neighbourhood bar, perfect for enjoying a long dinner with friends and sipping your way through a few dangerously delicious cocktails on almost any night of the week. Largely designed, executed and funded by Carlo, Matt and Craig themselves, all while working full-time jobs, opening Bar Magda was certainly a labour of love. “Trying to all get together at once to meet suppliers was a challenge,” admits Matt. “And it was a risk. We weren’t backed by someone – we were using all our own money.” But the effort has resulted in a unique space that fills a niche. The space, which used to house X Nightclub, is split into two halves: a bistro (for those wanting a full meal) and a bar (for those after casual drinks and small bites). There’s an area just for walk-ins. And it’s open properly late – till 2am on Friday and Saturday nights – a relative rarity among Auckland’s restaurants. “First and foremost, we wanted a place we’d want to come to ourselves,” says Craig. “We wanted somewhere you could come on a Friday or Saturday at 12am to just sit and chat over a cocktail before you go home. Or equally, a great little neighbourhood bar for any night of the week, with amazing food.” The menu, designed by Carlo, presents the best local produce New Zealand has to offer through a Filipino lens. “There’s an abundance of produce in New Zealand,” says Carlo. “I wanted to showcase seasonality while also being creative with the food and flavours I grew up with.” The menu is veggie-heavy, with presentation highlighting the natural beauty of the ingredients – the exquisite bunch of radicchio on our plate of pork rillette stole the show – and even the salads promising excitement. The crisp apple, soft fresh herbs and hum of witloof in the Magda Salad, a take on the traditional Waldorf, offered a genuine mouth party. The menu’s focus isn’t traditional Filipino food, Carlo is quick to mention. Instead, the Filipino influence comes through in the Sutukil cooking techniques the menu favours, usually seen in Filipino casual restaurants: Sugba (meaning ‘to charcoal or grill’), Tuwa (meaning ‘to braise’) and Kilaw (meaning ‘to marinate in acid’). The menu’s flavours do recall Filipino favourites. The market fish “suglaw”, for example, plays on the traditional Filipino dish suglaw, a mixture of grilled pork belly and ceviche, but omits the pork and adds a bright rhubarb leche de tigre, a serious ginger kick and delicate shavings of bonito. Meanwhile, the lamb ribs “pyanggang”, based on a traditional Filipino blackened coconut chicken dish and maybe our favourite dish of the night, are unctuous and meltingly crisp-tender, painted with vivid green sambal to cut the richness. We also love the dishes that draw on less old-school Filipino favourites. A potato dish with cultured cream, egg yolk and black pepper contains all the components of a traditional carbonara (“a dish that every 1990s Filipino bistro would have had on the menu,” says Carlo) but subs out the pasta for potatoes, a genius move. Similarly, the Parmesan Custard, a piped plate of umami goodness cut through with the acid sting of preserved spring onion and gherkin, offers a clever take on Cheez Whiz, a popular Filipino convenience food. The menu is presented like that of a Filipino eatery, offering appetisers, then something cold, then something hot. The focus is on small plates – and, as Carlo says, “there’s no such thing as a side dish”. Overall, the team hoped to have a menu of ideal bar snacks.
“It doesn’t always have to be fries or fried chicken,” says Carlo. “We wanted something a bit more mature, a bit more like something you’d find in Japan or Europe.” Bar Magda’s daring little plates make a great accompaniment to one of the drinks, whether from the wine list or the cocktail menu designed by Matt. Like the food menu, the drinks list spotlights seasonal produce. “Cocktails are a great way to utilise seasonal products,” says Matt. “I make my own shrubs and cordials, then turn those into pretty and unique drinks.” He sure does. We sampled a perfectly sweet-sour kiwifruit/rosemary shrub, using coconut vinegar (what they use in the Philippines), white rum, fino sherry, egg white and lemon juice. And the Devil’s Medicine cocktail, from the “Something Stirred” menu – tequila, milk punch honey syrup, citrus, red wine, mezcal spray and a stick of crystallised ginger – was delightfully fruity and heady. Meanwhile, the wine list favours natural, organic wines and draws on Bar Magda’s colour theme of warm reds, oranges and pinks. Matt wanted to challenge Kiwis to explore a new way of drinking. “The drinks list contains big sections of apéritifs and digestifs, which are big in Europe,” he explains. “I especially wanted to showcase the vermouth available locally and around the world.” Matt recommends starting the night with an apéritif, then having a bottle of wine with dinner and finishing off with a cocktail. So far, Bar Magda has been welcomed by Aucklanders with open arms – no mean feat in the city’s increasingly crowded hospitality scene. “We’re not designers, we were worried about what people would think of the space,” admits Matt. “But reception has been very good. And people are loving the food and drinks.” Craig notes that they’re already starting to get some regulars. We’re not surprised. Offering food and drinks that are both delicious and a little bit different in a unique space, Bar Magda is well worth visiting, more than once. barmagda.co.nz