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Have you noticed how many chefs these days never have time to make your dinner? A star chef must have his name (there does not seem to be a female of the species) attached to at least two restaurants and be planning another; several books occupying prime display space in bookstores; a (preferably eponymous) television show; a website; and a range of condiments and sauces bearing his name, which will be mandatory ingredients in any recipe he publishes.
So they are no longer chefs; they are brands. One, a household name, told me it wasn't about making a dollar, but "building the brand". Beats me how this works, but maybe a brand is like the million-pound note in the Mark Twain story; if you have one, you never need do anything so vulgar as actually spend money.
Yet I can't shake a slightly grumpy scepticism about dining at the restaurant of a famous chef when he's not there. There's a reason a painting by Raphael is more valuable than a painting attributed to the studio of Raphael. A movie made by someone who has closely studied Woody Allen movies is not a Woody Allen movie. And call me a nitpicker, but if Josh Emett is filming MasterChef, he ain't cooking my dinner, even if that is his name on the door.
Rata (named for the crimson-blossomed forest tree, a relative of the pohutukawa) is indissolubly linked with its "owner and operator" Emett, whose signature is on the corporate livery.
He is regularly described as "New Zealand's only Michelin-starred chef" which stretches a point a little since Michelin stars are awarded to restaurants, not chefs, and Emett was working alongside a chap by the name of Gordon Ramsay when the stars shone on him.
Emett's stand-in at Rata is head chef Chris Scott, who arrived last winter, bearing the big reputation of his Hamilton cafe, Zinc. He's no slouch in the kitchen but I spent the evening waiting for a wow moment to turn the good into the memorable, and it never came.
Tucked in behind the historic 1876 courthouse, the place isn't easy to find; we ended up with a waitress standing on the street waving frantically as I gazed around with a phone stuck to my ear.
But inside, the new building is a delightful blend of old (rough-sawn timber ceiling) and new (Swedish-style pine chairs; floor-to-ceiling glass). Massive photographs of the Fiordland bush fill a couple of walls.
The menu, encouragingly, bears the date of dining, since accompaniments change according to what's available. Beyond the now-standard bites, starter and mains is a made-to-share section labelled Feasts, which, when we were there, comprised roast duck and beef Wellington.
We were much impressed by tiny goat cheese profiteroles. Their choux pastry virtually melted on the tongue to surrender a filling of tangy whipped chevre, sweetened with honey (made by bees that have harvested from rata, naturally). The combination of cheese and honey is not new but I've noticed several places doing it recently (Sean Connolly's honey and ricotta was a recent standout) and Rata's version played in sweet and savoury waves across the palate.
Carpaccio of tongue - a meat I've always enjoyed - may have been more flavoursome if the thin slivers hadn't been corpse-cold, though croutons soaked with garlic oil made for a great contrast in texture.
From the starters menu we chose a crayfish risotto to share - despite my reservation about ordering seafood so far from the coast. The risotto grains were perfectly al dente but the dish as a whole was impossibly salty, particularly the foam that attractively lapped the edges.
A venison duo was by far the best dish of the night: an osso buco comprised shredded meat, presumably shin, encased in a pastry shell atop two generous slabs of roasted loin that had a deep, rich flavour with not a trace of cloying gaminess. Thin discs of beetroot, red and white, and a potato mousse sharpened with horseradish completed the picture. The Professor spoke warmly of tarakihi, with squid and braised sweet peppers.
Desserts of stewed plum and grilled peach tipped a hat to the end of a great summer, with nice flourishes (coconut and buffalo yoghurt, respectively) and finished a meal that was very good, but marred by a shortage of surprise. From a Michelin-starred chef, one might be inclined to expect more.
Verdict: Lacking the wow factor.