Monday, February 2

Food Review: Sautee Cafe Bistro & Bar

Cuisine: Middle Eastern/Turkish
Price: Around $20 per main
Location: 27/2 Nuffield Street, Newmarket, Auckland

My interest in Sautee was peaked when a friend mentioned it served great Middle Eastern food and belly dancing. I love Turkish cuisine, but rarely eat it, due to it being hard to find quality restaurants. So off I went to Sautee with three friends.

The restaurant was extremely spacious, to the point I wondered why they didn't fit more seating into the place. Still, it was to our benefit as we had a bit of privacy and the large glass windows let in plenty of light. The menu was expansive with many smaller and large option including seafood, meat and vegetable focused dishes. If you are a vegetarian, you could easily cope at Sautee.

Our mains arrived, and they were slightly more enjoyable than the first courses. The beef cheek meat was incredibly tender, falling apart into juicy pieces in the mouth. The broth was lacking, with a conventional richness and none of the dozen or so ingredients really shining through. The rice was overcooked, leading to it being overlooked by everyone.

We decided to order several of the smaller and large dishes to share; starting with the cabbage dolma, lamb gozleme and Syrian falafels. For mains we choose the Morco saffron beef cheek, calamari meze, meze platter and meatball soup.

As we waited I observed something unusual; there was only one dedicated wait staff for the twenty or so diners. The server was constantly busy, making it hard to flag her down. For instance after ten minutes of waiting for water, I had to go up and ask for it myself, as well as additional food menus. Not entirely unexpectedly, the wait time for our food was even worse. The starters took over twenty minutes to arrive, and the mains closer to forty minutes after the starter. Luckily we were in good company, and not famished, but the extremely long wait time was, none the less, inexcusable.

The food arrived, and did look rather good. We dug in, but my tongue cried out in indifference. While the dishes had all the constituent parts to create something amazing, nothing really stood out. Everything looked great, but didn't necessarily taste great. The dolma's filling was too soggy, the gozleme lacking that characteristically sharp feta taste I'd come to expect. The falalels were perhaps the best part, with a fantastically crunchy exterior and crumbly centre. A bit dry though.

As we began the long wait for our plates to be cleared and the mains to arrive, we were relieved by the unannounced entrance of the belly dancer. The young lady certainly seemed skilled at what she did, and it was an enjoyable spectacle. At one point she asked my friend to join her, but she was unfortunately too embarrassed, which certainly made our night more memorable. Just as suddenly as she appeared, the dancer disappeared. Perhaps she could do with an introduction next time, as well as an encore at the end?

The meatball soup shared the beef cheek's qualities. The meat portion was excellently prepared, moist and well seasoned, but the sauce lacking. 
The unlikely winner of the meal was the calamari meze. The squid was cooked to perfection; firm but with no hint of chewiness. The light seasoning and dollop of yoghurt, created something mouth watering.
The meze platter was also done well, the variety of dips and small bites meant you couldn't get bored. The taramasalata was the highlight, the taste extremely fresh, the fish roe poignant but not overpowering.

The meal over, we waddled to pay and reflect. The food satisfied all the basic requirements for good Turkish/Middle Eastern food, but the whole was not greater than the sum of the parts. What was worth getting excited about, was the texture of the dishes. The beef cheek was lustily soft and the falafel enviously crunchy. But the seasoning and taste fell short.
The belly dancing was a nice distraction, but they could have done a better job introducing her. The overburdened chef and waitress meant our service was extremely poor for such a restaurant.
It's a shame that the overall experience was rather mediocre, because it seems that Sautee might have something special up its sleeve. I only hope that the sparks of quality get teased out.