He lent over the dinner table and said, "You look like you've just had sex." He was referring to my flushed cheeks and quickness of breath, I presume. "I blame Nick Honeyman" was all I could utter. I'd just taken the last mouthful of my main dish at The Commons and the sheer brilliance of the food was taking my breath away. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me bring you up to speed: The Commons in Takapuna is the newest venture from the canny team that has brought us Everybody's, Roxy and, more recently, Libertine. They're on a roll, with lots of media coverage, and there's no doubt as to their ability to design, develop and structure clever business deals but in my opinion, their biggest coup by far is securing chef Honeyman to head up their newest kitchen. He's a chef of enormous talent and invention, who had already begun to attract enough attention to be included in the line-up of Auckland's best chefs.
In this new venture Honeyman is challenging diners, through an unconventional approach to the menu, to relinquish control to him and his talented kitchen and front-of-house team. He invites diners to join him on a ride of the unexpected by ordering from a menu where dishes are described in no more than one or two words (for those who can't resist, flipping the menu reveals a glossary describing each dish in more detail). We were happy to play his game of trust, ordering entirely from the scantily worded menu, and throughout our night there were surprises galore, all of them pleasant.
For my entree I couldn't go past the romantic-sounding "Land & Sea" and from the first mouthful I was indeed smitten. Carefully de-boned chicken wings sat alongside perfectly cooked scallops atop a rectangle of confit pig's head meat that was unfatty, earthy and rich with sweet flavour. Bringing the whole lot together was a golden sweetcorn puree, reminding me how ordinary ingredients can become quite magical in the right hands. The dish looked spectacular with every detail tended to, down to the slivers of konbu (seaweed) that looked like thin shavings of intricately patterned tree bark.
Meanwhile, my dining companion was having his own fun, discovering the complex layers of a dish that had earned the menu description of, quite simply, "venison". A stolen forkful revealed to me deep charcoal from an inky puree, hints of Middle Eastern cuisine with roasted eggplant; the sharp, sweet bite from shards of black pepper meringue; and the high, tart note from freeze-dried raspberries. And venison, which melted in your mouth.
When the first course has been so dazzling, I'm often left with a bittersweet feeling, tinged with apprehension. Perhaps the chef may have put all his effort into the entrees and petered out by main?
But no. My duck main course arrived and my delight continued to soar. Spicy and bold, this was an astonishing dish full of voluptuous flavours. Succulent, rosy slices of duck breast, along with boneless leg meat, were served with a smooth, sweet, peanut custard that was charged with chilli and other Thai spices, creating one of the most harmonious, sweet curry flavours I've eaten. Dehydrated coconut milk "rocks" collapsed in my mouth to round off the flavour profile. It was when I sat back to enjoy the flavours bouncing around that my dining companion looked up and made his comment on my demeanour. He'd been engrossed in his gently sturdy dish of ox cheeks and scotch steak, served with smoked potato and a mix of soft sweet onions and shallots that, when I tried a sample, reminded me of some of the best french onion soups I'd tasted. It was the perfect complement for the beef.
Desserts were yet more art on a plate and music for the mouth, though my choice, Roquefort and white chocolate, didn't quite hit the mark, with the king of cheeses barely hinted at. A small blemish in an otherwise faultless line-up.
The excellent service, the wine list crammed with plenty of quality wines offered by the glass, the surrounds (sit upstairs if you can) ... I was thrilled. Honeyman's bold, brilliantly thought-out and beautifully executed menu means that dining in Takapuna has become a whole new, exciting adventure. Bravo.
From the menu: Land & sea $22, venison $22, duck panang $36, ox cheeks & scotch, chickpea fries $8, broccolini & lemon $8, Roquefort & white chocolate $15, peanut butter & chocolate $15
Drinks: Fully licensed. Great selection of wine by glass