Restaurant review: Bracken, Dunedin

By Kim Knight

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Address: 95 Filleul St, Dunedin
Phone: (03) 477 9779
Cost: The seven-course degustation is $99 per person (wine matches, $65).
Rating out of 10: Food: 8 Service: 8 Value: 8 Ambience: 8

Bracken restaurant, Dunedin.
Bracken restaurant, Dunedin.

Approximately 700 years ago, I flatted with a woman from Dunedin. She favoured cheap red wine, played Kenny Rogers loudly in the living room and could not cook.

Occasionally, she still phones me with a food question. Can she swap sherry vinegar for malt vinegar in a caponata? How long does it take to cook frozen peas?

I went to stay with Kirstin recently. Obviously, we ate out.

Bracken is set inside an historic Dunedin villa and owner Ken O'Connell was part of the initial training team for New Zealand's appearance at next week's Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany. Judge him for yourself over a five, seven or nine-course degustation menu that changes every couple of weeks.

The food? A high-end mash-up of every major restaurant trend of the past two decades.

Consider our first course: baby carrots, preserved apricot gel, walnuts, carrot and creme fraiche brik pastry cigar and chickweed. Molecular gastronomy meets wild food foraging; the more-plants-less-meat movement with a nod to the Middle East.

And it was delicious. The carrots were slightly charred and served warm, and the brik gave a crunchy-creamy textural foil.

"Amazing," said Gail. "I've never had that in my life." Across the table, Jason raised an eyebrow. "You've had carrot."

I wasn't sure I had the stomach for a drawn-out degustation on a Tuesday night, but our party of five was done and dusted within two hours, and the portions were not overwhelming. Excellent service was only slightly marred when a request to split the bill caused drama.

Our second course (based on the slow-cooked egg that's everywhere right now) was good, though a parmesan topping competed unnecessarily with the rich yolk. Ham hock terrine (excellent) with (trend alert) chardonnay-pickled cauliflower and capers, was followed by the obligatory anything-but-snapper fish course.

The same week the Ministry of Primary Industries was under fire for failing to prosecute for the illegal dumping of elephant fish, said species starred at Bracken. A relative of the shark, more commonly battered and served with tomato sauce and a scoop, tonight it had been cooked sous-vide. It came with an incredible miso butter and - serious trend alert - iceplant leaves, picked from the Otago Peninsula and lightly cooked in vegetable stock and butter.

Aged beef rump was perfect. I hadn't anticipated enjoying an accompanying thick, fresh, green onion foam as much as I did - classic steak and onions without the grease.

The seven-course degustation comes with two puddings. I really tried to like a tamarillo and chocolate combo, but the bitter skin on a slice of the fresh fruit made my mouth pucker. The lemon vacharin (with everything lemon) on a beautiful, over-sized cut-glass serving plate, was far more successful.

Dunedin is the city that mostly makes headlines for the wildlife (student keg parties in the Botanic Gardens; sea lions swimming laps of the St Clair Hot Salt Water Pool), but the week of my visit, it had also just pipped Wellington as New Zealand's best place to live. The food definitely gets my vote.

- Canvas

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