Antoine's owner to be honoured at Taste festival

By Josie Steenhart

Hospitality veteran Tony Astle and his restaurant Antoine's will be honoured at a special Taste celebration.

Head chef and owner of Antoine's restaurant in Parnell, Tony Astle. Photo / Babiche Martens
Head chef and owner of Antoine's restaurant in Parnell, Tony Astle. Photo / Babiche Martens

An elegant wooden staircase framed with glossy leaves leads you off the paved courtyard from Parnell Rise. Ring the brass bell and the freshly painted door of the old villa will swing quietly open to reveal a welcoming waiter in starchy whites with a soft French accent.

Stepping inside reveals comforting scents of cooking, gilt mirrors, large vases of flowers, gleaming wine glasses, warm candlelight and more of that beautifully starched white, this time draping the tables.

You're at Antoine's, established in 1973 as one of Auckland's most refined, sophisticated and understatedly glamorous places to dine by then 22-year-old chef Tony Astle. Forty years on, Antoine's has retained much the same reputation, the same chef (albeit older and wiser) and even some of the same dishes.

Three menus are on offer - the "Specials", which changes regularly and offers just two starters and two mains (currently including whitebait timbale with tuna tataki and oven-roasted quail with wild mushroom risotto and truffle jus), the "table" menu, designed for the discerning but contemporary palate (grilled venison back steak with beetroot and chocolate jus, white wine-poached pears with blue cheese and prosciutto), and "Nostalgia", a careful selection of retro favourites like French onion soup, roast duck with Grand Marnier sauce or chicken, leek and wild mushroom pie.

Astle was, and is, no shrinking violet. He has opinions, albeit often tongue-in-cheek, and he'll happily voice them. He also really, really knows his stuff, having run a prestigious and successful restaurant for four decades, while nurturing new generations of top chefs like Michael Meredith and Simon Gault.

What was he like at 22? "Same as I am now - obnoxious, self-opinionated. I missed out on teenagehood really because I wanted my own restaurant, so I just worked and worked and worked and saved and saved and saved."

The restaurant scene back in 1970s Auckland "was things in baskets, well-done steaks and Chicken Maryland. Everything was fried. There was no such thing as lamb - lamb was inedible in New Zealand because it was so tough. They didn't kill it properly, and it was the way it was transported.

"So, we opened [at 333 Parnell Rd]. We had everything in French with English subtitles, we were very pretentious. The dearest main course was $5.95, and that was very expensive - we were told by accountants it was too expensive and we wouldn't survive, because it was two dollars more than anyone else."

Then came the 80s. "Best time ever in the restaurant trade," says Astle. "Booming, booming. That's when the world was your oyster - there was so much money around. Antoine's was very, very fashionable because it was the "up" end of the market and you could buy the dearest wine you could get your hands on. They used to have competitions - you'd see people sitting around and if someone was drinking Dom, they had to have Krug. If someone was drinking Krug they had to have Cristal, and they'd send it round to tables - it was just open slather.

"Coming in here was like coming into Dallas, with the big padded shoulders, the big dresses. It was actually very funny. In those days, we used to redecorate every year - it would cost a fortune but you could afford it, and people wanted you to, they wanted something new all the time."

"It made us think outside the square. You had to out-do everyone else so you had to think a little more outrageously than everyone else, and I was pretty good at that. Our food changed quite a lot. That's when we first put degustation on the menu - no one had even heard of it before that. Six courses, all things that didn't go together, purees, mousses - all small, you'd need binoculars to see what food you had, but big plates. I never got into huge plates though - they didn't fit into the dishwasher."

More recently it's the trickier parts of animals that seem to be what really gets Astle, and many of his fans, going. Brains, tongues, tripe, necks, hooves, livers and testicles, which in their rawest form might make even hardened chefs a touch squeamish, but in Astle's experienced hands become perfectly cooked, deliciously flavourful delicacies that aren't easily forgotten.

When they know they're in expert hands like his, are people getting more adventurous? "I think so," Astle says. "Because I was the only one who ever cooked offal. Now the younger chefs are learning how to cook it. Before, it was thought of as working-class food, people who couldn't afford real food ate offal, whereas now offal is not cheap - it's actually dearer than most meats, so it's becoming trendy, and it will become more trendy."

"Tripe is hugely popular here [at Antoine's] with young and old, because people haven't had it like we do it. I've put a Thai-inspired tripe on the menu, and young people like that because they like Thai flavours. We also do a pig's trotter and tripe spring roll - it's hugely popular too, but that's with something else added - you don't see it or know it's there so you eat it and the flavours are wonderful."

So what does the future hold? Astle talks me through plans he's making to set up a cooking school, and sponsorship schemes to get fresh blood into the industry without loading them up with debt.

As for Antoine's, we're in luck for at least a bit longer. "No one else would employ me," scoffs Astle. "Can you imagine it! I was thinking maybe we'd do 40 years and then disappear, but now I think 50 - I've got another 10. I've got plenty of energy."

A Tribute to Antoine's

Those lucky enough to find themselves in the exclusive Carlton Party Hire Corporate Marquee at the Taste Festival on Thursday night can experience "A Tribute To Antoine's" - a premier dining experience featuring Tony Astle and his renowned proteges, Simon Gault and Michael Meredith. Each will be cooking up a storm, with three courses and wine and beer matches all giving a nod to the Antoine's menu.

Of his own dish, the main, Astle isn't giving much away - "I think I'll do a lamb neck fillet with a surprise - I can't tell you yet what it is", but takes some pleasure in speculating on what his former trainees might have in mind.

"Simon is doing the entree, Michael's doing the dessert. I don't know what they're doing. They're keeping me out of it, but I've heard whispers. I would think they're going to take my menu and show how you can break it down into something very modern."

"I think Simon will do a variation on a steak tartare. I was the steak tartare initiator for New Zealand, but Simon will do it his way. He imports the ingredients for molecular cooking, so it will be Simon Gault's this, Simon Gault's that - but it will be a deconstructed raw meat thing I would think."

"I think Michael will do something like a deconstructed bread and butter pudding, which I will hate with a passion but it will be his, and it will be pretty and beautiful."

- NZ Herald

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