It may be a fight to get a good meal in Auckland during the Rugby World Cup. The French team have already booked out Kermadec (though its brasserie will still be taking bookings) and the best places in town are already gearing up a for seven-day operation through October.
I hadn't been to TriBeCa since early 2007 and chef Hayden McMillan (formerly of Merediths and the French Cafe) has been in charge since the late summer so it seemed high time.
The name has all those capital letters because it's an abbreviation of "Triangle Below Canal", the name given to that triangular pocket of Manhattan Island south of Canal St. It's odd for a restaurant whose surroundings put one much more in mind of the Upper East Side but, then again, the real TriBeCa is boho turned chic and some parts of Parnell have been one or the other or even both of those.
I had in tow a couple of Spanish women who were remarkably noisy, considering that one drank one glass of wine and the other didn't drink. (Take my advice, though: if you ever go out to dinner with two Spanish women, it pays to have a diplomatic answer prepared to the question: "Which of us is the more attractive, do you think?").
I had last seen one of them when she was showing me round Galicia, the top left corner of Spain where the seafood (try gooseneck barnacles and razor clams) is sensational. I had to concede that, whatever McMillan's skill, our mussels were not as densely flavoursome as theirs but when both women told me they had not tried Bluff oysters, I took it on myself to introduce them.
This was the cue for giggling inquiries about whether they might be endangered by sitting with a man who was ingesting these substantial "afrodisiacos" but they became very quiet and thoughtful when the oysters arrived: six plain, with a chardonnay vinegar; three barely warmed by being fried in a delicate tempura batter with a lime aioli; and three steamed, with shallots and chives, soon put a smile on their faces.
Those oysters aside, McMillan's approach is certainly full of artifice - indeed the plating elevates the dishes into small works of art. Yet the ingredients emphasise staples: a delicate amuse-bouche was a tiny crostini topped with a translucent paring of golden beetroot and goats cheese; the side of vegetables was a big bowl of cavolo nero, that dark and bitter kale that belongs in hearty peasant soups.
My main dish displayed the same trait: a piece of lamb shoulder - an unglamorous but reliably juicy cut - had been cooked "sous vide" (a technique of slow poaching in a plastic bag) before being finished in the oven, which made it sensationally moist inside but still agreeably crisp outside. Its "mint sauce" was actually a gel made with agar (which is made from algae). Smeared across the plate, it made a striking green bed on which the thickly sliced meat was fanned.
The same principle underlay the fish dish which both of my companions ordered. It included urenika potatoes, the red ones playfully known as "tutae kuri" (ask a Maori speaker or look it up), whose virtues I had extolled to my amigas. Before I had time to tell them of their duty as reviewer's assistants to order different dishes, they had both put their hands up.
The potatoes, confited in olive oil, were sublime and the fish, also cooked sous vide and served with pipis in a saffron broth, was to match.
I'll forbear to enthuse at length about the desserts because I didn't have one - instead enjoying a piece of French Basque ewe's cheese - but I heard good reports of them.
This was memorable occasion dining - not cheap, certainly, but at barely $100 a head (without entrées) a lot better value than many a $75-a-head meals I have endured.
Need to know
$ = $20-$40; $$ = 40-60; $$$ = $60+.
(Price guide reflects three courses for one person without drinks.)
TriBeCa is one of Auckland's very best eateries so not a lot of places belong in the same company. But within a few minutes drive in one direction is:
The French Cafe
Address: 210 Symonds St
Ph: (09) 377 1911
and in the other:
Address: 91 St Georges Bay Rd, Parnell
Ph: (09) 303 9660