Let's eat: Please Sir, can I have more ...

By Peter Calder

The Botanist
Address: City Works Depot, 90 Wellesley St West
Ph: (09) 308 9494

The food at The Botanist is delicious but there should be more of it on a full-size plate. Photo / Michael Craig
The food at The Botanist is delicious but there should be more of it on a full-size plate. Photo / Michael Craig

Verdict: Very good and very unsatisfying

That's it. I've had it with share plates. I've tried for years to like them. Eight, to be precise: I first met them in 2006 at Point in Pt Chevalier where they were called "small plates" and described (I don't think this was a black joke) as "a concept from the United States". Now I am admitting defeat.

I'd always suspected that they were just a sneaky way of increasing profit margins but I cut them some slack because the Professor and I could try a variety of dishes and put the kitchen through its paces. (We can also do the same thing by ordering several entrees in places smart enough to offer main dishes in entree size).

But what if you don't want to share? Here's the thing: if you can make a small plate, it doesn't seem much of a stretch to make a big one; you just buy a bigger plate, put twice as much on it and call it - ah, that's right, dinner.

The Botanist is part of the new and cool (more on the coolness below) restaurant in the foodie precinct called The City Works Depot on the western edge of the CBD. It caught my eye because its website advertises Breakfast, Lunch and Floristry and I never even knew that "floristry" was a word. You can buy flowers and plants there, too.

They also do dinner Wednesday to Friday and, when we turned up, it was only their second week, which is to say their fourth night, of evening operation. This prompted the Professor to remark on the way home that it would not be fair to review the place.

In a break with a tradition well established in our marriage of doing what she tells me to do (she says things work better that way), I demurred. They've been open in the daytime for weeks and even if it was their first night, my unshakeable conviction is that if a restaurant is open for business and charging full price, it is fair game.

My other unshakeable conviction is that a restaurant at night in Auckland in winter needs some form of heating. I suspect that the Botanist's northwest-facing premises are rather splendid on a summer evening, or even on a sunny late autumn afternoon. But in the cold snap that bit last week, it was not so much cool as bloody glacial.

The young man who served us, whose manner was intended to be friendly but came off as very ingratiating, mentioned -- as part of a long litany of apologies for stuff that they were still getting together -- that the heater was coming. But making the room warm and opening for business should be done in that order, rather than the other way around. Even one of those fabric sausages with which you block draughts from coming under doors would have helped.

The section of the menu misleadingly headed "mains" comprises six dishes which cost $12 or $13, so you don't really need to be told that they are going to be small. For the most part they are very good, as you would expect from chef Sara Simpson (a Clooney alumna who deeply impressed at The Tasting Shed in Kumeu).

Meatballs of lamb and pork were sumptuously rich in taste, as was the thick tomato sauce they came in. Squid steak deserved the name, thick, beefy and tender and nicely matched with the piquant Korean-style greens called kimchi. The most striking dish of the night was medium-rare duck breast, topped with a duck egg, which had been poached to a silky, glassy smoothness at 63C.

By contrast, some dishes seemed more suited to warmer weather: zesty goat-cheese panna cotta -- each of which made only a mouthful -- nicely set off with beetroot; salmon, cured with miso in a salad of endive.

There's virtuosity on show here, but a dining experience is about more than appreciating virtuosity. It's just too hard to eat with a group when everybody's politely saying, "No, go on, please, you have the last bit." These were all dishes to be eaten by two at most and preferably one. That may work for lunch, or for something to brighten up a few glasses of wine, but the option of a few full-size chef's choice mains each night would make for a more palatable experience.

- Herald on Sunday

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