The days when gurnard was regarded as catfood are long gone and it now commands due respect, as the price fishmongers charge for it confirms. Yet it is still rare to find this fish the focus of a dish as elaborate as that presented at Kermadec Fine, the recently refurbished top-end restaurant of the Viaduct Harbour's long-established seafood specialist.
Here the fish stood up on the plate, filleted to the backbone and roasted, surrounded by a rich broth of saffron and red pepper enlivened by strips of chorizo and with outriggers of clams, delicate tuatua and a couple of meaty, grilled prawns. In sum, a praiseworthy combination of first-class ingredients, an imaginative concept and impressive technique.
The rest of the meal, if not quite so outstanding, was of a standard that justified the "Fine" title in this rebranded venture.
We started with a delightful little amuse-bouche, a Thai curry mussel soup bursting with flavour. Our first choice was the fried sardines, simple fish simply done but then garnished with an arsenal of bits and pieces including pumpernickel crumbs and savoury pickled vegetables, all of which worked. The main ingredient in our other first course, the Iberica bellotta jamon was a reasonable example of that king of hams but again the accompaniments, including melon, panzanella, crisp capers and nuts lifted it a notch or two. Various nuts pop up in several of the dishes and provide a distinguishing feature of the cooking style.
For our mains it was, as usual, tempting to drift away from the seafood and test the range of the kitchen with the poached breast of game hen with confit leg, brown bread sauce, scampi, truffle gnocchi and spring onion sounding interesting as did the venison with sweet corn custard, pickled shitake, thyme popcorn, lentils and a sauce Rouennaise.
But sticking to the seafood was well rewarded, with the gurnard a treat and a good example of crispy-skinned snapper served with a nice crab and courgette beignet and a freshly flavoured, vegetable-loaded court bouillon. This was a much lighter dish than the gurnard, as had been painstakingly explained by the staff who had learned their lines well. There were a couple of glitches but the service mostly contributed to an evening that was soothing and relaxed which, as it happened, was just what we were in the mood to welcome.
After the mains came another little dessert palate cleanser, where the berry marshmallow element went some way to overcoming my inability to understand the New Zealand fondness for this sweet.
Our desserts proper were both further examples of the level of technique here; a rich chocolate mousse, which drew the response if "you're going to have chocolate this is the sort you need", came with an intense sorbet, chocolate peppercorns and crunchy brioche crumbs. A local ingredient well used in the form of a vivid feijoa mouth-waterer starred in my "Kermadec frozen plate" of various icecreams and sorbets.
Kermadec used to be one of the most dependable venues to recommend to a stranger in town, boasting a great waterfront situation, comfort, individual decor and good food. Recently it seemed a little tired but it is now back as a real contender, deserving the buzz of customers it needs to bring a bit of life to match the excellence of the cuisine.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $256 for two starters, two mains, two desserts, and six glasses of wine.
Wine list: A first-class list with adequate choices by the glass. The Clos Henri 2010 Sauvignon Blanc and the Felton Road Dry Central Otago Riesling 2010 were worthy companions to our excellent meal and the Beaumalric Beaumes de Venise 2008 as reliable as ever.
Verdict: First-class food and decent service providing a relaxed, if not vibrant, experience.