Chamate is somewhat of an anomaly, a blip in the Asian restaurant scene in Auckland. Why? Because this restaurant has somehow managed to marry together the impossible: authentic Chinese food, ambience and service, all at an affordable price.
William Chen recently wrote an article in Stone Soup about why Asian restaurants are the way they are, and I had happily come to accept the utilitarian décor and service (not necessarily) without a smile. But after discovering Chamate, now I won’t always have to.
Chamate can be found on Swanson Street in the CBD, and walking past you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a new upmarket restaurant, with its ceiling high windows, modern Scandi furniture and exposed-bulb chandeliers. You can take the Chinese food out of a drab restaurant, but you can’t take the alphanumerical coding out of a Chinese menu, and here you order by writing down said codes on a piece of paper and handing it off to your waiter/waitress.
The menu covers a bit of everything, from dim sum to hand pulled noodles, although it is evident that it excels at larger dishes ordered to share between the table. The starters consist of cold entrees such as kou shui ji (slobbery chicken) and cucumber with smashed garlic ($8.80). We ordered the cucumbers, a refreshing starter lightly macerated with garlic, the latter delivering the perfect hint of the allium without being too overpowering.
The menu also boasts a number of hand pulled noodle dishes. It is mesmerising to watch the noodle master gleefully bouncing lengths of noodle dough behind the counter, with fine strands of noodles appearing almost by magic from between his fingers. While waiting I had spied a delicious looking plate of crispy fried chicken heavily laced with dried chillies ($21.80) that Elliott and I decided we must have too.
We also ordered the chicken Shanghai xiao long bao ($8.80) and the spicy ma po tofu from the Four Seasons menu. The Four Seasons menu consists of main dishes for one and come with rice, a vegetable dish and another side. The ma po tofu was savoury and comforting but quite spicy, which is how I like it, and was enough for Elliott and I to try another dish on the menu without over extending the limits of our stomachs. It came served with a side of roasted peanuts and a salad whose dressing was a little too sweet and a bit of an afterthought.
The astute among you will have noticed that their xiao long bao dumplings are made with chicken, not pork. This is because Chamate is also a halal restaurant, so don’t expect to find any porcine dishes on the menu. The xiao long bao were a reasonable rendition, although I think the pork version to be generally tastier.
The chicken with chillies was perfectly fried without a lick of grease, and the leftovers were still crispy when devoured later that night. Although bedecked with chillies, the heat had thankfully not been transposed to the chicken itself, providing a fresh piquant note. Beware though that the chicken comes with bones, so pick away with care.
Dominion Road will always be the home of cheap and cheerful Chinese food, but when you crave a little extra extra, Chamate (is it Char-mar,tay, or char-mayte? I’m still not sure) will have you covered.