Ed Verner doesn't mind if you don't like every dish at Pasture - so long as you remember it.
If I'm honest, I didn't like the fermented rice icecream with beetroot cooked in last year's plums, served with fire-singed soy milk skin. But I did love the experience of it. The sheer daring of a "dessert" featuring vegetables and the funk of ferment.
There is no place like Pasture anywhere in Auckland. It seats only 25, the menu is set (six courses plus snacks for $115), they make their own butter and grind their own rye flour. Those jars on top of the oven steaming your second course? "Guts and heads," says Verner, cheerfully. "Want to smell?" It's fish sauce in progress. And no, we'll stick to the fish on our plate. Crispy warehou skin with a rocket emulsion and vinegar powder, served on unglazed terracotta. It sets the scene, deliciously, for a night that anyone who is interested in where food is going (and where it has come from) should experience, ASAP.
This is intellectual dining, but it's presented with warmth and humour. For two hours, we sat at the pass and watched things smoke, steam and spit on the open fire, where most of the cooking is done.
As Verner poured a hot weed sauce over a slab of pork loin flavoured with eel bones and pickled elderflower, he said: "Nasturtium and onion flower. Picked this morning. I reckon I'm doing the council a favour."
The pork (smoky, succulent) was our sixth dish. After the warehou we'd had mushroom chawanmushi - silken steamed custard, intensely redolent of the earth, even though the stock was infused with seaweed.
A terrifically endlessly crusty sourdough is a house specialty, and it's enhanced with cheesy, aged butter. Verner's dad is a sailmaker and he sewed the cloth bags the bread comes in. He also made the wooden cutlery holders. Pasture really is a labour of love that Verner and wife Laura (front-of-house extraordinaire) have been planning for months.
By "planning", I mean hunting, gathering and pickling. The jars of their labour are lined up behind the bar, where some very challenging wine and juice pairings ($65 and $50, respectively) were being poured. Bellbird Spring's "sous voile" might, we were warned, smell strange and taste like sherry (it did). A lemon and sage soda was delicious; parsnip, barley and lemon juice was horrible - though my dining companion loved it.
You get a copy of the menu when you arrive, but the descriptors are as minimal as the dining room's Scandi/Japanese aesthetic. Nothing could have prepared us for egg yolk cooked to a soft caramel with smoked butter, barley and pickled baby kawakawa leaves. It's basically porridge, but it's high on my list of dishes to eat again before I die.
Pasture's ethos is sustainability: minimum waste, meats others don't want, plants found and foraged. One main course was celeriac (baked in a salt crust, deep-fried in beef fat, smoked over the open fire). One dessert was an orange (two days in the making, with edible skin and thick, sweet, hay-flavoured cream). It all looks so simple. It tastes anything but.
Auckland is currently drowning in burger joints and melted cheese - grown-ups should consider booking a table at Pasture.