37 Drake St, Freemans Bay
Ph: (09) 9292790
Matterhorn, which opened down an alleyway off Cuba St in Wellington more than 50 years ago, is such an institution in the capital that Fat Freddys Drop recorded their first album there. Now the brand comes to Auckland, in the room that was Libertine, though it remains to be seen whether it will achieve the same cachet as the original as the clubrooms of the cognoscenti.
Closer to a fine-dining room than a bistro (though without silly fine-dining prices), it certainly replicates the original's stygian gloom. An internal partition has created a more intimate feel but it's all dark-wood panelling and low lighting - most of the illumination comes from glass oil lamps on the tables.
The menu, by executive chef Sean Marshall (also in charge at The White Rabbit) opens with a raw section (oysters, tuna, salmon and even a vegetarian option). The Bluffies with wasabi pannacotta, miso and a Lilliputian savoury wafer were good enough to shake, though not demolish, my conviction that nothing, except perhaps a fork, should come between an oyster and a mouth.
Marshall's famous fish soup is a dish of exquisite refinement: a fat barbecued prawn; a slice of octopus; a scallop topped with a scallop mousse and a slice of raw tuna; and a single tortellino of squid, the pasta blackened with squid ink, are all lapped by a fragrant broth poured at the tableside for maximum theatrical effect.
I was somewhat less impressed by a duck "Wellington", in which the brioche parcel was filled with braised duck meat and liver sausage that wanted for distinctive taste, although the pickled cherries on the side helped; it was also closer to cold than lukewarm.
Mains were more successful: the colourfully named "plate of pig" consisted of desiccated crackling (like the pork scratchings in a celestial pub); slow-roasted belly that you could cut with a fork; a pattie of sausage meat flavoured with fennel; and the finest black pudding I've had, with the possible exception of the fabled Clonakilty version in County Cork. Vinegary Savoy cabbage, like a delicate sauerkraut, completed the effect.
The Professor's choice was a souffle of superbly stinky gorgonzola, set off perfectly by a bitter salad (endive; radicchio) that foregrounded fresh pear. Other main options include wild deer and barbecued veal rib.
Whatever you do, leave room for desserts such as candied figs (ask for extra licorice) or bitter chocolate with caramelised milk (it's dehydrated first, evidently). The Professor's apricots came with a silky custard and a fromage frais that made her wonder why "apricots" was the first word in the menu description. She seemed to be saying that it's not virtuous enough. It's dessert, I said. Some people are never satisfied.
Raw $14-$15; entrees $19-$30; mains $28-$34; desserts $16
Verdict: Fine dining at bistro prices