It was Guy Fawkes at dinnertime. A disco in the rain. The inside of a lolly wrapper, said James.
You can't miss Love Exposure. Head up Dominion Rd and stop when you get to something that looks like a Britney Spears concert. I haven't seen that much neon lighting since — well, actually, since this hospo trio opened Kiss Kiss and Happy Boy.
The latest hot (pink) take on Asian cuisine from Ludo and Jasper Maignot and business partner Celeste Thornley comes via Vietnam. Go for the pho ($16.90), but stay for the grilled pork shoulder ($14.90).
On a dark and stormy Saturday, Love Exposure loomed large. This site has had at least four incarnations in the past decade and none have so thoroughly embraced the glass box aesthetic.
I was concerned the rainbow palette would mess with my palate. I still can't tell you if the banana sago pudding ($8) is creamy white or rosy pink — but I'm happy to recommend you try it for yourself.
We started with a small mountain of deep-fried tofu and "Love X" sauce ($11.50). It could have been crisper, however, the flavour — sweet, spicy and redolent with kaffir lime — was great. I also really liked the "green rice" prawns ($12.50) that were almost tempura-crunchy, with a bonus intriguingly dry-but-sticky mouthfeel you sometimes get with rice flour. If that's not your thing, there was plenty of sriracha mayo for rehydration.
Our shared plate winner was the grilled pork. Lean and juicy slices of meat had been slightly charred and served with a large basket of cos lettuce, Vietnamese and regular mint and coriander (and possibly perilla leaves, though James nabbed those before I had a chance to confirm). So many places go overboard on the lettuce and skimp on the herbs. Here, the opposite was happily true.
An accompanying lemongrass and chilli "dip" was thoroughly cooked and thoroughly delicious. We slathered the dark, sludgy sauce on our lettuce cups, added liberal piles of pork and torn herbs and ate with our hands. A bit messy, but the joy of that neon lighting is that it's very forgiving of spills — wear black and no one will notice when you slop your pho.
That soup. It could have been hotter and it could have been, well, deeper. I got star anise and cinnamon and it was pleasant, but it didn't get under my skin. I am not still thinking about it. This soup is the perfectly nice guy/girl you know from your work/gym but when you finally go out for a plum cider, it will not end in eggs benedict.
Enough about that soup. Let's talk about the service, which was exemplary and also quite endearing.
James: "I don't normally like tofu, but I loved that."
Waitperson: "I KNOW. I don't like it either, but I had the tofu burger at Happy Boy and it was great and I was like, 'Yay, now I can be healthy' — and then I came here and now I can be TWICE AS HEALTHY."
"Deep-fried" is not usually a descriptor associated with good health, but I was entirely entertained and on a gloomy Saturday night, that was the main thing. In other news, the rugby had started and so had the royal wedding, but Love Exposure's purple plastic garden chairs were still packed. The week before, said the guy at the till, people had queued for 40 minutes.
We were stuffed, but we also tried the lemongrass chicken bahn mi ($13.90). It was a little sweet for me and I belatedly realised that only the pork version contained the traditional smoodge of pate. Next time.
There is just one dessert and (drum roll) Auckland, meet your new carb-craving. Cold sago doused in creamy coconut milk was topped with toasted coconut flakes, fresh banana and freeze-dried berries. A little pink cocktail umbrella completed the cheapest, most shareable dessert I've ordered since I started this job.
It wasn't perfect (if I'm honest, the sago pearls were a bit gummy) but like the fit-out and the staff, this pudding had personality. I would happily have this for breakfast.