Soft lighting draws you in from St Patrick's Square and into the long narrow dining room. Never have I arrived here and not been greeted immediately, if not by the owner, then by one of the staff who magically appear from nowhere, and tonight is no exception. Coats and bags are secreted away with the minimum of fuss and we are ushered to our table for three, down by the big, loft-style windows at the end, through which the huge magnolia tree casts its dappled light and the unpretentious sign glows, announcing one of this city's finest restaurants with just two words - The Grove.
As soon as I opened the menu I immediately noticed how much Chef Ben Bayly's menu has changed since I last reviewed it in 2009. Back then I awarded top honours for the meal, which at the time I worried about setting a dangerous precedent for a repeat visit. Tonight, until our first dishes arrived, I swear I was half holding my breath.
Mine, a smoked onion broth, arrived in a fine china, floral tea cup. A saucer, precariously balanced on top, held succulent pieces of quail as well as a wafer thin crisped potato strip, spread with duck liver parfait. The broth looked mild-mannered enough but it exploded with heartiness. When I looked down at my place setting I was struck by how out of the ordinary it was, yet the teacup and dainty cut crystal glassware also held all the familiarity of an afternoon tea at nana's house. It was delightful.
A Coromandel crayfish entree was delicate and sweet with its plump crustacean meat, young carrots and a subtle hit of vanilla. Our other starter was presented powerfully on a startling black and white rimmed plate, the salmon lined up in a blazing trail punctuated by black dots of caviar and chive. The lardo di colonnata in this dish was slightly disconcerting for the eater and I watched as she valiantly picked at this Italian treat (thinly sliced cured pork lard) before pushing it to one side.
All three of our mains arrived looking absolutely gorgeous. Hay ash and earl grey tea coated tender rounds of wild venison on a pastry base so unbelievably rich it collapsed easily with each buttery mouthful. A port-soaked pear and poached quince added sweet notes of their own.
In another dish, snapper flesh was soft and moist and accompanied by crayfish stuffed macaroni. Buttered leeks and a chunk of smoky ham hock had us shaking our heads in wonder.
Slices of rosy veal melted with tenderness and a puree of jerusalem artichoke was the perfect musky companion.
Owner Michael Dearth is approachable in his role as sommelier, and the wine list he has created reflects his obsession with wine from New Zealand and around the world. Though he showed no sign of it, I'm sure we disappointed him hugely on the night as, for various reasons, none of us were drinking. The advantage for us was that our focus on the food never wavered and we were able to approach dessert with as much clarity as we had the bread rolls at the start of the evening.
I get emotional when food is this good so tears from me can be expected but the stoic Englishman at our table was uncharacteristically moved as he closed his mouth around a spoonful of the custard tart. He was taken thousands of miles and many years away to when as a young boy he and his mother would eat custard pies from the corner shop where he grew up in England.
Bayly's custard pie is intentionally old English style, and it is silky, comforting and clearly capable of transporting you to another time and place.
My passionfruit souffle with Milky Bar veloute was otherworldly too but that's another story, too long to go into here. You'll just have to try it for yourself.
Chef Bayly's food is approachable and soothing but achieves exquisiteness too. The service is attentive, without the annoying "hover factor". The dining space itself is suitable to anything from a casual night out to a venue fit for honouring life's most significant celebrations.
These are difficult balances to juggle yet The Grove makes it look easy.
There is a vast difference between eating and dining. At The Grove, we dined and it was, quite simply, magnificent.
From the menu: Salmon $28, crayfish $33, quail and broth $28, veal $45, wild deer $45, snapper $50, sides - brussels sprouts and bacon, bitter greens salad $10 each, custard tart $18, passionfruit souffle $18.
Drinks: Fully licensed with exceptional wine list