The chicken liver parfait was encased in shiny dark chocolate. Cocoa-coated shock and awe, served cold, on a bed of shiny dark rocks.
Poor James. Without his glasses, he assumed we'd been given a truckload of these canapes masquerading as candy. Was it sweet or was it savoury? Were we coming or going? Did I like it? No matter. The follow-up was a tart marshmallow dunked in even tarter raspberry powder. Tongue-seared, palette-cleared, next course, please.
Yes, but did I like it?
I asked this question constantly as I waded through a nine-course, matched wine, $245-a-head Saturday-night experience at Meredith's Restaurant. Because I wanted to. Oh, how I wanted to.
From Thursday to Saturday nights, Meredith's offers a variety of degustation-only dinners for people who don't mind paying more for a single meal than they would for a flight out of Auckland.
But on Tuesdays, restaurant owner Michael Meredith operates a "dine by donation" scheme, where every cent you spend on food goes to a charity (last month, Garden to Table, this month Asthma Auckland). He's also a partner in the Eat My Lunch programme, providing midday meals to hundreds of schoolchildren who would otherwise go without.
Meredith (who didn't appear to be in the kitchen on the night of our visit) is a kind of culinary Robin Hood. This is not to say I felt robbed eating at his restaurant, but I was pleased there would be some sort of post-degustation redistribution of my wealth.
My dinner did not lack technique or luxe ingredients (scampi, check! Oyster, check! Eel - hmmm). I consumed my nine courses in a comfortably classy space with (mostly) very pleasant and professional service. But there was a small piece of plastic in the pre-dessert dish. When we paid the bill (in full) our waitperson advised, apropos of what I am not quite sure since we had pointed out that plastic very quietly and pleasantly, that he wished there was some sort of website where he could rate customers. Also, surely, there is a better place to put a tray of nasturtium seedling garnish and half a dozen spare chairs than the public corridor out back.The problem with spending almost $500 to go to dinner, is you want to be transported. Far, far away from your rented house, your shitty, overcrowded work commute and your Donald Trump-heavy Twitter feed. If the world really is about to end, you want to go out with your stomach - and your heart, and your soul - full.
There was fine food, but just no joy in this Dominion Rd dining room. The ambient music appeared to be a radio station (no commercials, but every so often, a back-announce) and, by night's end, the kitchen had synchronised our meals with those of the next two couples in our row of tables. Just because we were eating the same thing, didn't mean I wanted to eat with strangers - a degustation shouldn't feel like a production line.
So, did I like it? Actually, I loved the emphasis on fish and fowl and at times I really felt like I was consuming the exuberance of Pacific cuisine (lime, coconut, vibrant fruits). The waitstaff delivered mercifully succinct descriptions of each dish, and the wine matches were excellent - though expecting you to buy an extra glass to have with your canapes was, I thought, a bit rich.
Top marks for a Cloudy Bay clam, so plump it had to be cut in two, served with chewy seaweed and a miso puree; also an intensely savoury and squashy mushroom "gnocchi" in a smoky broth with slivers of pickled ox tongue. I enjoyed a gossamer-thin wrap of apple jelly with its oyster-creamed cubes of kingfish (even though James, the fisherman who had left his glasses at home, said it reminded him of the partially digested contents of a snapper stomach). And I would go back for the duck main, with its bitter citrus and delicate turbans of pumpkin - if only this whimsy and sense of play had gone beyond the plate.