Review: Gemmayze St, St Kevin's Arcade, Auckland
There is plenty to like about Gemmayze St, not least that it entices us back to St Kevin's Arcade, a veritable jewel in the crown of one of Auckland's most precious historic and social precincts.
The arcade, with its tiled floors, stained glass and views over the park, has a fascinating 92-year history – if its walls could speak the tales it might share would surely embellish some of the city's most colourful secrets.
Gemmayze St sits at the rear of the refurbished atrium and lays claim to a fair portion of the floor area. Chef Samir Allen and his family have furnished with flair, using impressive glass pendant lighting, copper panelling, a variety of seating arrangements and a tasteful collection of traditional artefacts, as a thoughtfully curated homage to their Lebanese roots.
The restaurant is named after an iconic eating promenade in Beirut. It was in Lebanon, where Allen worked in 2014 after spending time alongside Ben Bayly in the kitchen at The Grove, where the thought kernels of opening a Lebanese eatery on his return to Auckland began to germinate.
It opened last winter, and our experience suggests Allen and his team are on the right track. There were, in among the truly standout dishes, a couple of minor miss-hits, but this was predominantly an experience we would unhesitatingly repeat.
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Our waiter, a charming, quiet Egyptian, was very useful in steering us through the menu options. When it came to our wine selection, he was disarmingly honest. "I don't drink so I know nothing about the wine," before he hived off to seek advice. And it came, somewhat staccato and unconvincing, but much better than having no reference points, which are vital given the drinks list at Gemmayze contains more than a smattering of Lebanese beer and wine.
There is a knack to ordering at Gemmayze. You have two options: the first is to select from the menu. Alternatively you can let the kitchen choose. "Jeeb", it seems, is the key to having a veritable feast delivered to your table without having to say another word. Driven by our desire to try as many dishes as we could, this is the option we chose.
Essentially, the dishes are for sharing and the first we received were just that. The hummus and tabbouleh were outstanding. They were followed by crisp, flavour-filled falafel that came with pickled turnip and coriander.
The kibbeh nayeh was less appealing. I'm a fan of tartare, but this lamb was a bit grainy and tasteless for my liking. My favourite was the seyadeyah, a wonderful slab of moist fish with wild rice, pickled radish and baharat.
With the promised six courses for $60 each delivered, we felt nicely full and happy with our experience. But then came the lahme, lamb served with spring onion, rainbow chard and labneh. This was one of those very rare occasions when I was simply so full the lamb seemed too much. I'm not sure if it was the order of the dishes, our over-zealous devouring of the first courses or the oiliness of this particular lamb, but I didn't get it. And frankly, I could have done without another lamb dish, preferring to have tried perhaps the octopus, the haloumi or the chicken that also feature on the menu.
But, not folk to give up without trying, we struggled through. But wait, there was more! Dessert. A visual triumph, this ba'alewa was a triangle of layered deliciousness capped by a voluminous cloud of candy floss. It was sweet and nutty and... demanded to be eaten. But two large portions? What happened to sharing? One would have been plenty.
So, it seems that appreciating all Gemmayze has to offer takes an ordering strategy. "Jeeb", while excellent value, and a great way of not having to make choices, can be daunting. Perhaps the better way of ordering, at least for two, is to make your own selections and leave room for the latter courses.
Notwithstanding this embarrassment of riches, we enjoyed Gemmayze and welcome it for bringing a high-quality Middle Eastern dining experience to the cluttered Auckland table.