Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour
21 Viaduct Harbour Ave
Ph: (09) 354 7478
Verdict: Not feeling the lava.
Eleven. Not counting the "How were those oysters?" when I was paying the bill. At Lava Dining, we were asked whether everything was all right with what we were eating 11 times in two hours. I reckon that verges on harassment.
People in the trade say the inquiry is insurance against a diner's later refusal to pay, but such calculation seems at odds with the notion of hospitality. A good waiter should be able to tell from 10m away whether a diner is happy. If he must ask, he shouldn't do so 11 times.
Our waiter asked before I'd taken a mouthful of the main course and I told him he was being a bit previous. So he returned two minutes later to ask again. Hot on his heels was the maitre d' with his own inquiry. In an uncharacteristic display of self-restraint, I did not tell him to bugger off.
In fact, everything was somewhat less all right than I had hoped. Nick Honeyman's work at the erstwhile Dallows at Sale St, The Commons and Everybody's Izakaya has defied criticism but this was a meal that was good only in parts and disappointing as a whole.
The hotel has had a troubled few years, so it is little wonder that no money has been spent on a new fit-out, particularly since it would mean binning the distinctive and expensive wall panels of marble.
The menu is promisingly short - four entrees, four mains - and the food has the original stamp that one would expect of Honeyman. Aiming for the most unusual items, we bypassed wagyu tartare, cured salmon, beef sirloin and lamb rump. We chose an entree of congee, the rice porridge popular in various forms all over Asia, and another that paired scallops with braised pork cheek.
Both were pleasingly hearty winter comfort food, an impression underlined by the decision to serve them in deep bowls, rather than arranging everything showily on the plate. The pork dish worked superbly, the sweetness of the shredded and compressed meat happily marrying with the meaty scallop and smoked eel.
The mushroom congee was also rich and tasty - like a super-sloppy risotto really, but lent lovely Japanese touches with leaves of delicate seaweed and nicely chewy mushrooms
But mains were more problematic: in a fish "lasagne", the fish was cooked sous vide (which always lends the flesh a slightly creepy texture) and combined with beetroot (in lieu of pasta) and brie. The taste of the beetroot quite monstered the fish and the idea just didn't come off.
Even more odd was an open raviolo (only one could be detected so "ravioli" was an exaggeration), which amounted to a selection of vegetables roasted (onion, purple carrot, baby beetroot) and raw, with a thin single leaf of pasta. It was absolutely delicious, but it just didn't feel like a dish with any impelling idea. It was more like a plate of Sunday night fireside nosh for a classy vegetarian.
Sides of chickpea fries and red cabbage slaw with chopped boiled egg were excellent, as was a coconut brulee with pina colada foam that we shared for dessert. But for a chef whose assurance has always impressed, it seemed like a stumble.
Oh, I almost forgot: those oysters were wonderful. It would be unkind of me to leave the man at the desk wondering one minute longer.