Way back in 2012, Barack Obama was completing the first term of his presidency and about to win his second.
New Zealand lay under a long, dark National cloud and we went about our daily lives completely unaware of an approaching phenomenon we now know as ‘the Jacinda-effect’. Meanwhile, on Ponsonby Road a hitherto successful gourmet pizza restaurant, quietly metamorphasised into the exciting and vibrant Mekong Baby. Auckland’s first and still, in this writer’s opinion, premier Asian-fusion restaurant and bar.
Now, six years later Barack is, sadly, president no more. National has gladly, some would say, gone the same way, and Meryl Streep continues to hone and perfect her craft - just as Mekong Baby continues to develop and refine hers.
If a week is a long time in politics, then one has to wonder at the continued success represented by six years at the top of the Auckland restaurant game. The comparison is perhaps gratuitous but that shouldn’t detract from the significant achievement.
Sandra Law, director and co-founder of digital media buying agency Law + Chaos has been meeting friends and clients at Mekong Baby from the very beginning. From a customer’s perspective she puts its longevity down to excellent service and the depth and breadth of the menu. “The flavours are divine, and the range of dishes, from the pork belly [Mekong prepares and serves 30-40kg of this dish every day!] to the tofu and coriander rissoles, is perfectly portioned and beautifully presented.
“Invariably, there will be someone in the group who proclaims themselves gluten-free or vegan, or is subjecting themselves to some fad diet, but we can always be confident that Mekong Baby’s menu caters for us all, as well as providing a surprise or two in the discovery of a fresh and new flavour.”
Of course, none of this happens by accident and begs the question as to how Mekong Baby has achieved this milestone.
We sat down with head chef Raj (appointed in 2018) and asked him what he attributes the restaurant’s success to. He first mentioned the service: “I really do think our staff training results in an extremely good understanding of everyone’s role in delivering a smooth service whether it be from the kitchen or the bar. There are 30 staff employed at Mekong Baby and I would say that we really are a well-oiled machine in the sense of all the different components working efficiently and effectively together,” he says.
Raj also credits the restaurant’s success to the flavours created from fresh, quality ingredients, which are constantly being monitored, reviewed and refined. “Every item that enters the kitchen is individually checked before we accept a delivery.” The relationship between restaurant and supplier is also key to underscoring the focus on quality and freshness. “Once a week I will meet with all our suppliers. I’ll ask them what’s happening in the market, what’s available, what are prices doing, what seasonal variations might be impacting on quality, and so on.”
The consequences of a supplier choosing to put off meetings or taking things for granted are swift and final. “A year or so ago, one of our meat suppliers started finding reasons for not meeting each week and I felt they weren’t valuing our business as much as they should. So after a discussion with Dominique [Parat, Mekong Baby’s owner] we made the decision to look for someone else.”
That new supplier was the Carve Meat Co. “Carve has been brilliant,” reckons Raj. “They really love what they do and their products are amazing. We sit down each week and I’m really happy with the service they provide us.”
An added benefit is that all their meat is ethically raised. “This is becoming more of an issue within society as a whole and it’s an increasingly important consideration when people are making decisions about which restaurant to dine at,” says Raj.
Likewise, food allergies appear to be more prevalent, from Raj’s perspective at least - “or perhaps it’s just that restaurants are making more of an effort to cater for them.”
Whatever the case may be, Raj is quick to point out that the restaurant recently achieved a 100% score in its annual food safety certification. That certification required Raj to get to grips with over 300 pages of standards, processes and systems, covering everything from catering to allergies to the monitoring of temperatures in the chillers. “It means, for example, that temperatures aren’t just taken from the chiller temperature display, we put a glass of water in each one and test the temperature with a thermometer.” In other words, absolutely nothing is left to chance.
Raj has been at Mekong Baby since its establishment, and been with Dominique for years before that. He has no doubt he’ll be around for a little while yet.
It’s certainly true that Mekong Baby continues to surprise and has developed and matured into one of the more durable jewels in the Ponsonby Road crown.
MEKONG BABY, 262 Ponsonby Road, T: 09 360 1113, www.mekongbaby.co.nz