THE BLUE BREEZE INN
"You can't talk about The Blue Breeze Inn without mentioning our BBQ pork buns, people are crazy about them" laughs Mark Wallbank, talented restaurateur at Ponsonby favourite, The Blue Breeze Inn.
In fact, the Blue Breeze BBQ pork buns were voted Auckland's favourite dish in the Metro Peugeot People's Choice Awards. "It was really humbling, actually," says Mark. "Hundreds and hundreds of our customers took the time to vote for them."
The modern Pacific-Chinese eatery was opened at Ponsonby Central two years ago but Mark's career in the kitchen began in The Ivy in London, returning to New Zealand to work in the kitchen at Bellamy's in Parliament. It was there that Mark experienced a lightning bolt moment: "When I went from kitchen to front-of-house, I'd found my calling. And just the other week, all these years later, chef Che Barrington and I win 'best restaurateurs' and 'best new restaurant' for Woodpecker Hill at the Metro Peugeot Restaurant Awards," says Mark with a smile. "I tell you - it's a long way from peeling spuds at the back of the Ivy!"
The inspiration behind the menu of The Blue Breeze Inn is the flavours of regional China and the freshness of Pacific produce.
"China is as vast as it is ancient, and there's so many flavours and textures and techniques we're still discovering", explains Mark. "It's such exciting food to be working with. My favourite dish is our pork and truffle dumpling - incredible flavours."
And for dessert? "The banana soft serve", Mark says firmly. "Soft serve ice cream is the best - it reminds people of their childhood, when you got given 50 cents by your mum to go buy something from Mr Whippy."
It's only grown-ups who can appreciate the Blue Breeze's drinks menu however, with the stand-out at the moment being the Bananarama cocktail which comes in its very own tiki mug - see if you can guess the secret ingredient!
Along with English and Mandarin, there are four regional Chinese dialects at work in the kitchen, which is the domain of chef Che Barrington. Che opened popular local restaurant MooChowChow in 2011, serving the Ponsonby strip with its first taste of modern Thai cuisine.
Chef Che loves the dynamic of the languages in the Blue Breeze kitchen, says Mark, "Because he's always learning new stuff from the staff. We're very proud of our dumpling chefs, Raymond and Kwan - they're the original granddaddies of the Auckland dumpling scene that trained all the newcomers. And of course we'd be lost without Edwin, our new head chef - such a talented man."
It's true that a great meal can be so amazing that the memory stays for years, and for Mark, it was at Neil Perry's Spice Temple in Sydney; it was an example of how much surroundings are integral to the experience of a meal - a restaurant is great food and beautiful decor.
"Spice Temple really gets it", says Mark. "Red and black lacquer, stunning play of light and shadow, mouth watering food. My favourite dishes are the lamb and cumin pancakes, warm eggplant salsa with three flavours."
And dining out isn't just about getting fed and watered, it's a chance to meet new people and spend time with friends and family. "I think that's becoming ever more important in this digital age. So our staff aren't just good waiters, they're also interesting people who are doing interesting things with their lives", says Mark.
"Our favourite time of the year is Christmas, because we get to break out those giant Chinese lions and dragons. They're full of drama and colour and I love the way they roar at the customers from the ceiling." Mark laughs, "They also bring a lot of good luck!"
The Blue Breeze Inn, 146 Ponsonby Road, T: 09 360 0303