Phone: Ph (09) 363 6365
When we arrived on the 53rd floor of the Sky Tower, sunset was barely holding nightfall at bay. A few wisps of cloud above the Waitakeres flamed pink. The waxing crescent moon hung beyond the Te Atatu Peninsula, along which street lamps were strung like a necklace. A river of tail lights streamed up College Hill.
The Sugar Club occupies the north and west quadrants of that level (the rather industrial HQ of the Sky Walk occupies the east side, and you walk past its intimidating rig of cables and platforms to go to the loo, which is a bit bizarre). It is the newest venture of Peter Gordon, the celebrity chef whose eponymous dine by Peter Gordon in the SkyCity Grand Hotel closed at the end of May.
The name The Sugar Club has loomed large in his career: he was the chef in three restaurants under that banner, in Wellington's Vivian St in the 1980s when he was just 23, and twice in London (Notting Hill and later Soho) in the 1990s. Now the idea has come home to roost, on a very high perch indeed.
The ravishing decor, reportedly inspired by the fevered Italian tragic romance I Am Love, is - like that film - both rapturous and understated.
The bar glows as if gold-plated, screens of burnished metal divide the space and bulbous lampshades direct light on to the food, but the chairs have a Danish simplicity and the dark carpet does not clamour for attention.
The menu is composed of 15 small plates (three are vegetarian) and half a dozen desserts for which you pay between $21 and $30 - the price drops the more you eat. Thus it would take several visits to try everything on offer, which I should mention before saying that, among the dishes we ordered, the wow factor was in short supply.
The fact that it was the restaurant's eighth night may excuse some of the clumsy service - being menaced with an order pad before we'd opened the menu is a bad look - although our waitress, who spoke to us as though hailing a passing ship in a force nine gale, was plainly experienced. But the man in the kitchen should have needed no bedding-in period.
There was not much wrong with a dish of scallops from two hemispheres, Atlantic and Northland, which came on a beetroot relish (rather than the sweet chilli sauce that was a feature of the dish when it was on the menu at dine). The duck-and-pumpkin laksa was quite superb, its spicy curry rich and deeply layered, with no sharp bite, so that the flavour of the sliced meat still shone through.
However, I thought the twice-cooked pork belly rather routine: I'd love to know the source of the meat, which had a more assertive flavour than any pork I've encountered, and the kina cream was a nice touch. But it was barely bigger than a matchbox, and an accompanying apple slaw was unimaginative.
The Professor's lamb rack (actually two tiny cutlets) was so grievously undercooked as to be blue and cool in the middle, which is an elementary blunder, though to the waitress' credit, she offered to have my dish re-served as well, so we could eat together. A piece of hapuku, by contrast, was noticeably overcooked, although the panko-crumb coating, which tasted of prawn, was most effective.
The only truly striking dish was a dessert: a sorbet of avocado and yuzu (a sour Japanese citrus fruit) on top of coconut tapioca. Here at last was something original and deeply impressive.
The Sugar Club is not outrageously expensive, it should be said, but given the hoopla that has preceded it, its arrival in the Auckland dining scene is only a modest success.
Better must be to come.
I see that SkyCity has finally admitted that it's impossible to find your car in their underground car park, where walking around is like getting lost in an MC Escher lithograph while under the influence of powerful hallucinogenics. There are stacks of "take one" tickets on which you can write your space number and a "Find Your Car" computer that searches for your number plate. It's a start I suppose, but I think the architect who designed the damn thing should be required to escort you personally to your car, apologising all the while. For five years.
Verdict: A modest achievement