dine by Peter Gordon, SkyCity Grand Hotel

By Ewan McDonald

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Herald rating: * * * * 1/2
Address: SkyCity Grand Hotel, 90 Federal St
Phone: (09) 363 7030
Web: www.skycityauckland.co.nz
Open: Dinner 7 days, lunch Mon-Fri
Cuisine: Fusion
From the menu: Spiced chickpea fritters, eggplant and cumin relish, broad bean, herb and pickled guindilla chilli salad $21; Five-spiced duck breast on galangal and lime leaf, braised brown rice with red coconut curry sauce, lychees, coriander and lemon balm salad $36; Lychee ginger jelly with minted pineapple, coconut yuzu foam, pineapple crisp $17
Vegetarian: Easy peasy
Wine: And very good it is, too

We thought we'd let him get his feet under the table before we got ours under his. Ben Mills became head chef at dine by Peter Gordon just before Christmas.

Sounds like a big step up for a 25-year-old but it's more like a big lift down: Mills was at Orbit, SkyCity's problem child atop the SkyTower. He takes over from Cobus Klopper, Gordon's right-hand man at dine for all its three-and-a-bit years.

Difficult, when one fellow's name is above the door and a different chap wears the flash white togs embroidered "Head Chef", to tell how much is Gordon's work and how much Mills'. At the moment, neither. Gordon is in London and Mills on his honeymoon.

Scan the current menu and one senses the Crown Prince of Fusion has mellowed. Or, 15 years on, his food has lost the shock value of its original culinary gang-bang of ingredients, textures and styles.

(On style, Tom Skyring's decor is timeless. With its wooden panels, chandeliers, marble, tablecloths and leather, I liken it to a nice pastiche of the Hamilton Hotel dining room in the 1970s.

This is a mistake: Jude was a - teenage, I hasten to add - waitress at the Hamilton Hotel dining room in the 1970s, and she would prefer me to describe it as "positing a creative tension with the post-modernist style of food".)

First glances still intimidate. "Five-spiced duck breast on galangal and lime leaf, braised brown rice with red coconut curry sauce, lychees, coriander and lemon balm salad."

A spot of post-modernist deconstruction and it's not too far removed from the duck curry you pick up from the Thai takeaway.

Like my entree: "Steamed asparagus with Serrano ham, a deep-fried shichimi spiced egg and watercress", aka bacon and eggs with asparagus on the side. Damn nice bacon and eggs, though, as you'd expect for a speck over 20 bucks.

Jude was rapt with "Sauteed vine-wrapped Zany Zeus haloumi on a salad of hazelnuts, green beans, pomegranate roast grapes, pea cherry tomatoes and rocket with sherry vinegar dressing".

It's been on Gordon's menus since he opened - only the accompaniments have been tuned - and retains its joyous bounce of taste and titillation.

Gordon can still go over the top. He takes a simple piece of hapuka, crumbs it in panko and crusts it with crab, bakes the whole and serves it on roast kumara, woodear mushrooms and Asian greens, in a red lentil and pandan coconut broth, with crisp curry leaves. Phew. Makes you full just reading it, but Jude thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. Or experiences.

Besides that, my poussin, lightly roasted with a tasty almond skordalia, sautéed kale, slow-cooked carrots and lotus crisps, seemed positively home-cooking. Come to think of it, if we're rendering down these dishes ... roast chook, gravy, cabbage, carrots ...

We'd arrived at dessert, where you'd think someone could really go to town fusing flash flavours. "Valrhona Guanaja 70 per cent chocolate & membrillo delice" was a delicious chocolate and fruit cake, with raspberries and caramelised hazelnuts; "Vanilla creme brulee with rhubarb and Sichuan pepper compote and a poppy Florentine" got the taste buds zinging, too.

The refined dine gets so many things right. Perhaps they could promote corporate or business lunches and leave tables for tourists and couples (for it is a quite delectable couples' restaurant) in the evenings?

SkyCity management may not have noticed but people who wear suits to work are looking for places to eat during the day. Strikes me they'd love to dine and whine.

What the Greater Auckland hospitality industry could do is take Julie Woodyear-Smith, dine's general manager, and make her officer-in-charge of staff training for the region.

Her staff are uniformly brilliant, as well as brilliantly uniformed. They know the menu, the wines, they are interested, helpful, personable.

Lord, if more restaurants followed this example, people might appreciate going out to eat in Auckland.

In one line, dine has become a much better restaurant as it's matured.

- NZ Herald

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