Restaurants housed within hotels tend to suffer from an identity crisis. Is it their raison d'etre to cater for the hotel guests or can they elevate themselves to attract independent diners as well? Few manage to do the latter to any great extent in this city but when I heard that the Sofitel, that honey of a French hotel chain, had recently opened one of its luxury hotels in what was previously the Westin in the Viaduct and that they had hooked ex-Huka lodge chef Scott Brown, as executive chef for their re-branded restaurant Lava Dining, my hopefulness ratcheted up a notch. It's all "bonjour" on the phone when I call to make a booking and "bonsoir" when we arrive, which is just such a great way to forget that you're in your home town. Walking through to the restaurant from the foyer, there are stylish water features everywhere which lend an oasis-like feel to the space.
This restaurant is situated on the edge of a private marina and little has changed in the place's look and feel since my last visit in 2009, but that's a good thing. I love the huge wall slabs of lava-like layers, the medieval wire mesh curtains that resemble elegant chainmail and the open kitchen.
Quality gratis bread rolls tide us over as we make our choices from chef Brown's tempting menu and a glass of bubbles is poured for me. Alas it's from a near-empty bottle and I can see it is sans fizz. A taste confirmed it and the waiter obligingly took it away and opened a fresh bottle. It didn't appear on the bill, which was appreciated, but had I been less discerning (or picky, take your pick) then I would have been left blaming the winery, not the treatment of the product and that would have been a disservice to them.
My dining began with a starter of clams and crispy chicken and it was a fabulous dish - almost. Fresh steamed clams and crispy morsels of salty, succulent chicken rested in a thick, creamy sauce with little chilli toasts scattered about. There was also basmati rice at the bottom of the smooth puddle of sauce but I wasn't sure why. And it got me thinking that what makes a great dish is that it doesn't leave you with any questions. This one did. What was the reason for the inclusion of basmati rice? If it had been left out, I'd have been left with a much stronger impression of this starter.
Beetroot carpaccio seems to be on every menu at the moment but my dinner date wasn't complaining - he was hankering for food that was fresh and light. Mozzarella was paired with beets and tatsoi, that leafy green that is spicy in the same way mustard greens and radishes are, and it was bursting with flavour. It was nice that the chef hadn't resorted to the more obvious choices of goat's cheese or feta to go with the beetroot, yet I wasn't sure the gentle flavour of mozzarella stood up to the other ingredients.
Both mains arrived and were raffled off in that annoying fashion that wait staff employ when they are either too lazy, untrained or don't have sufficient systems in place to track and match who ordered what. I bid on the beef, my date the duck. Now, though I am rarely one to quibble with regard to serving sizes, these mains were small. This was made even more obvious with my dinner date's meal being carefully positioned on the stark white plate to occupy only the right hand side, leaving the other half, dramatically, and depressingly, empty. It verged on presentation silliness. Otherwise the dish was splendid and full of surprising textures and flavour with toasted quinoa, black pudding and tart cranberries.
My beef was beautifully cooked, with an oxtail confit and tiny onion rings so perfectly crisped, sweet and devoid of grease that I could have eaten a plateful of them. A side of broccoli was unforgivably cold, but our fries with smoked garlic aioli were irresistible enough to ensure that we nearly, but not quite, ruined our appetite for dessert.
A cheeky "fruit & nut bar" concoction and roasted banana pudding sent us on our way with smiles on our faces.
Lava Dining is worth checking out, if only because the elegant hotel environment makes you feel as though you're on a stylish, albeit slightly expensive, holiday - food always tastes better on vacation.
From the menu: Clams & crispy chicken $26, beets and buffalo mozzarella $24, pasture fed beef $42, duck breast $40, sides of broccoli and fries $9 each, fruit & nut $18, roast banana $17.
Drinks: Fully licensed