Restaurant review: Clooney, Freemans Bay

By Peter Calder

1 comment
Address:33 Sale St, Freemans Bay
Phone: (09) 358 1702

Jacob Kear is the new head chef at Clooney. Photo / Babiche Martens
Jacob Kear is the new head chef at Clooney. Photo / Babiche Martens

A funny thing happened on the way to Clooney. When I booked, they asked me for my credit card number. This got a bit tricky when I realised they would want to know the name on the card, since I had booked under an assumed name, but I toughed it out.

I knew why they were asking for the card details: the place charges $170 a head without drinks and if you don't turn up, you'll get pinged. It's a common practice in upscale places in the Northern Hemisphere, but I've never encountered it here, and it feels a bit off.

Anyway, nowhere in my emailed booking confirmation or in the reconfirming phone call the day before we were to dine, was any mention made of this. I told the woman on the desk as we left that I had studied law only by watching legal dramas on television, but I was pretty sure no contract had been entered into and they'd be on shaky ground charging the card. She didn't seem interested.

For eight years or so, Clooney has been the domain of Des Harris, a Logan Brown alumnus who has turned out some of the best fine-dining food in town (and an unforgettable carrot; see for details).

Harris moved on in October, to consultancy work among other things - he's the guiding spirit behind Chris Rupe's Augustus Bistro - and the new man in charge is Jacob Kear, a Japanese American who has worked at all three branches of Noma and cooked for Very Famous People I've never heard of.

The tall, handsome and extravagantly tattooed Kear, whose head of hair makes me pine for my lost youth, spent little time in the kitchen the night we were there. Rather, he stood at the pass, managing to exude a sort of patient urgency, as he inspected minutely everything that the kitchen team (I think I counted eight) presented to the waiting staff. But the dishes are all of his creation and showcase the happy marriage of Japanese and European traditions (the overused "fusion" is far too unsubtle a word) that constitutes one of the best developments in local gastronomy in the past few years.

It is not my habit to describe meals in detail, since it's even more boring to write that stuff than to read it, but of the dishes that came to the table, some memories linger: drops of fragrant pine floated on an amuse-bouche of "tomato water" - that's what they called it. Another paired sashimi of clam with slivers of unripe gooseberry.

Yuba, the skin that forms during tofu-making, provided a textured top to a silky corn custard; a cauliflower dish, a bit like a risotto, was mounded over a soft-boiled duck-egg yolk and rimmed with parsley oil (it reminded me of the way the whisky laps round the edge of your porridge at a Scottish B&B).

In short, you won't find anything here exactly as you've met it before, though interestingly, much of the fare is extraordinarily simple in concept: that custard, for example, is a derivative of the chawanmushi any halfway decent Japanese restaurant offers, but its dominant flavour, typically mushroom or shrimp, is here replaced by the most New World of ingredients.

It's pricey - dearer than Pasture, The French Cafe, Sidart and Merediths - and when you order a bottle of sparkling water, it maintains the former Clooney's practice of topping up your glass all night and charging you for two or three.

And it fell short of perfect: a piece of pumpkin, served with crisp cherry blossoms (believe it!) was a shade undercooked and it seemed very odd indeed to bring out some fermented sourdough bread and aged butter midway through the meal.

There was also a briskness about the service that didn't really contribute to the sense of occasion: normally I object to long waits between courses, but a few more moments would have been welcome before the waiter came bounding back for his next breathlessly high-speed recitation of constituents.

But these are small complaints about a memorable meal.

Best of all, they give you a copy of the evening's menu to take away. I wish I'd known that in advance. It would have saved me scribbling surreptitiously on my lap and left me to luxuriate in the food, which is what it deserves.

Verdict: Exquisite food at high prices.

13-course tasting menu $170pp; $270pp with wine or sake match.


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