While Auckland's winters are better thought of as temperamental as opposed to bitterly cold, we'll take any excuse we can, particularly if it involves cosying up to vodka.
It's universally agreed upon that the Russians drink it best. Call it biology or years of practice – Russians know their vodka. So, when the Dish team discovered Vodka Room, a brass-clad homage to the very best of Russian cuisine and masterfully-curated cocktails in the heart of Ponsonby, we found it difficult to curb our enthusiasm.
This artfully embellished cocktail bar, eatery and karaoke room (warm up your vocal chords, ladies) is quite literally the recipe for an enjoyable and (depending on how many shots are consumed) memorable night out. During our visit, we take a seat in the gilded courtyard, an interior fit for a well-earned round of Moscow Mules.
Head chef Murray Wiblin (think Ebisu and Tyler Street Garage) tells us that Auckland quite simply needed something new, and in a city inundated with Asian-fusion cuisines, Russian fare represented unchartered culinary waters.
On a balmy Friday night, the cocktails are coming thick and fast. There's the tart but not overpowering Cosmonaut; a combination of cranberry vodka, crème de peche, orange bitters and lime, or the sharp shooting Dirty Skyy Martini. We approach chef Murray's menu with vigour and settle on a "trust the chef" option, grazing on a number of signature dishes hand-picked by the kitchen.
If you're feeling brave, don't shy away from a few shots with dinner. The vodka menu here is, as its name might suggest, extensive to say the least, with each and every dish designed to complement the hard stuff. There's five different vodka menus to sip and savour, tailored to suit every palate and budget. There's the Economy Menu, Business Class, First Class, Prestige and – if you're serious about your vodka and – the Private Collection.
To talk about Russian vodka etiquette, we must understand it. While the origins of vodka are still a little hazy; nobody is entirely sure who or even where its invention can be attributed to – one thing is widely agreed upon – vodka is the national drink staunchly claimed by both Russia and Poland.
Both nations have been imbibing the spirit since the 14th century. Russians drank vodka to not only warm up, but because the raw materials – namely grains – were easily accessible to them, unlike grapes that only grow in the southernmost regions. While wine and cheese is a widely acknowledged food match, unbeknown to most Kiwis is just how well vodka pairs with just about anything.
Chef Murray reaffirms this with a line-up of the Russian classics, served alongside warm, light and fluffy traditional black bread. Hungry punters will delight in a decadent menu of shared plates and salty and fermented side dishes, namely the caviar, gravlax, Korean-style kimchi, salmon roe, pickles, sour cream and deliciously tender pork belly.
Warm dishes like the Lazy Mushroom Stroganov – a melt-in-your-mouth combination of pillowy potato dumplings, baby onions and sour cream, immediately piques our interest, while the heartier dishes like the Pork Belly Shashlik or the Tabaka Chicken Spatchcock serve as ideal grazing plates. The menu here is playful yet sophisticated, with diners encouraged to take a punt and try something new at every turn.
If you're strong enough to bypass a sweet cocktail for dessert, make your way upstairs and enjoy a few rounds of jubilant karaoke, in one of the exclusive bottle-service karaoke rooms. You'd be surprised what belting out a few '80s ballads can do for the digestion.
5 Rose Road,
Phone: 09 360 5050
Opening hours: 1
Monday to Friday, 12pm – 12am.
Saturday, 12pm – 3am,
Sunday, 12pm – 12am.