More Asian kitschy-cool, more squint inducing fluorescent lighting, more melamine and acrylic tableware – at Love Exposure.
The family of restaurants by the Maignot/Thornley hospitality team, now includes their newest member Love Exposure. Bathed in green and purple light, it sticks out like a sore thumb on the corner of Dominion and Onslow Road. On just their second day of service, the crowds had flocked to Love Exposure and every purple-coloured plastic chair in the joint had a bum on it.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be inside of head of a person experiencing a bout of mania? That’s how I would describe the décor. It is bedazzling and chaotic, with lights flashing in different colours, a loud mural running along the pink bar, and fake plastic roses everywhere.
The camo-printed plastic table cloths had me raising my eyebrow slightly, but the metal serviette holders and holster of red melamine chopsticks were a nice Vietnamese touch. This particular spot has had a number of Vietnamese restaurants as prior tenants, including Two Monkeys, and my favourite iteration, Peasant. So how does Love Exposure stack up?
Love Exposure’s menu is a short and sweet one. If you’re overly protective of your own meal you can order a banh mi sandwich, vermicelli salad or pho noodle soup for one. Or if in the spirit of sharing, there a number of smaller plates to sample, including prawns coated in young green rice with Sriracha mayo, and spring rolls done the naughty way (fried) or the nice way (fresh).
Elliot and I started with a plate of the deep fried tofu, covered in Love X spicy sauce, chopped coriander, kaffir lime, crushed peanuts and fried garlic ($11.50). A small mountain of crispy but greaseless tofu arrived, drizzled with a mysterious concoction of Love X spicy sauce which had a fabulously hot kick to it. It bore no resemblance to the sweet chilli sauce, more sweet than chilli in content, that usually adorns this dish.
The generous garnish of chopped coriander kept this fresh and light and the chopped peanuts and fried shallots added extra texture. We were unsure where the fried garlic had got to.
Elliott ordered the grilled pork with pork pate bahn mi sandwich, which arrived in a long, crunchy baguette with cucumber, pickled carrot and daikon radish, coriander and crushed peanuts ($13.50). You can also order a lemon grass chicken or tofu version, although in my opinion no bahn mi is complete without a generous lashing of velvety pate. I could wax lyrical about how delicious the grilled pork in this sandwich is.
The Vietnamese are covert kings of ‘cue, and the sweet, charcoaled scent in Love Exposure’s grilled pork is as good as any I tasted in Vietnam. And in hindsight I wish I had ordered their shared plate of grilled pork shoulder as I am certain this will be equally as good. Just a hint right there. I note that the pickled vegetables had an odd, floral flavour which Elliott thought was honeysuckle, and I thought was rosewater. It’s not bad, it’s just a bit weird.
If you haven’t visited Vietnam, you must, if just to taste what a beautiful bowl of rare beef pho bo really tastes like, with a seemingly endless supply of fresh herbs to pile on top. But beware, once tasted, no Vietnamese food in this country will even come close.
Love Exposure’s pho ($16.90) is certainly the best I’ve had in Auckland in recent memory; there’s definitely no MSG in their soup, but it could have done with some extra salt. It comes with a side of beansprouts, coriander and Vietnamese mint to dunk into your soup, but I was still yearning for some ngo gai, also known as thorny or sawtooth coriander, and some tender Thai basil to throw into the mix.
If Love Exposure started serving those herbs alongside their pho, then I would kiss kiss their feet.