166 Jervois Rd, Herne Bay
Ph: (09) 376 5597
Where do meals come from? Well, the kitchen, obviously, but before that they have to be invented. In lamentably few restaurants is there anything in the way of inventiveness going on. If salt and pepper squid, pork belly and creme brulee were ever banned, half the restaurants in the country would have to close.
Since reality television made celebrity chefs a dime a dozen, anyone can have access to great recipes. But most of them are proof of Ecclesiastes' wisdom that there is no new thing under the sun.
Don't tell Geoff Scott I said so, since he spends most Wednesdays proving the opposite. At his restaurant Vinnies, in Jervois Rd in Herne Bay, he uses the midweek evening as a showcase for a day spent "playing around" with ideas.
Vinnies is an Auckland institution. It's now more than a quarter-century old and Scott has owned it for nine years. For the past four years he has offered, in addition to the a la carte menu, a degustation called "Seven for Seventy" - seven courses for $70. Since the normal seven-course degustation is twice that (the five-course is $120), it's a steal, but there's a catch: at least some, and probably most, of what you are served will be a new idea and it may not work. If it doesn't, they'd love you to say so and tell them why.
Sid Sahrawat runs a similar Tuesday Test Kitchen at Sidart in Three Lamps, although the difference is that it's a low-price dry run of the menu that will be used the whole week.
I clicked on the Seven for Seventy when trying to decide whether to eat at Vinnies, which we haven't done for almost seven years. Given the implicit contract between kitchen and customer, it seemed unfair to run the reviewer's ruler over them, but I was intrigued.
After eating there I found myself uncharacteristically short of critical comments. A small fillet of the freshest snapper fried old-school style (egg and flour) was accompanied by pickled peppers and fennel - the tang of the pickle playing neatly off the sumptuousness of the buttery fish; cheese on toast was tripe-cream brie from Puhoi on a wafer-thin slice of house-made walnut bread; and marshmallows made with yuzu, that tangy Japanese citrus, made for a perfect marriage of sweet and sour.
The next Wednesday I was back, not to eat but to listen as, shortly after lunch, Scott briefed his team on the plan for the evening. They've been talking off and on since the weekend about what might be done with the choice ingredients he has at hand - fresh octopus (a rarity); the first of the season's feijoas; saffron from Karaka - and though a menu of sorts is coming together (the saffron will go in icecream; a salad will be built around the slow-cooked octopus), there's still plenty of room for ideas.
Scott says the Seven for Seventy menu serves a dual purpose.
"Wednesday is one of our slower nights and we wanted to give people a reason to come out midweek."
It also gives the kitchen the chance to "have a play around with some ideas", he says. "We'll give something a showing, and give it a tweak. All the feedback from customers is noted and we use it to adjust and modify. If something strikes a chord we will develop it further and include it in the menu."
There have been a few disasters, he concedes - a stubbornly tough piece of goat - but even though most ideas end up edible, only one in a dozen ends up on a menu.
One that will probably put in an appearance over the winter is a rabbit dish - working title "Oma, rapeti" - which is a rabbit pie.
At the time I got out of the kitchen at Vinnies - I couldn't stand the heat, if you must know - they were talking about an idea that involved carrots, cabbage and camomile tea.
If the literary reference escapes you, I genuinely feel sorry for you. But Scott reported the next day that at 4.14pm, they came up with the idea of cooking the carrots in strong camomile tea and pan-frying sliced fresh chestnuts with the cabbage. Mr McGregor would have been very pleased.
"I suppose someone has cooked carrots in camomile tea, but it was original. It is slightly humorous idea and I suspect it will make it on to the menu."
I did Google "carrots and camomile tea" and found that no one had thought of cooking the former in the latter but there is one recipe for a vintage (1-year-old) carrot braised in butter with whole camomile flowers and served with sorrel stems and jus.
The chef is Rene Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen, which is among the world's very top restaurants.