Dining "al fresco" is my thing in summer. I adore it. I drag the dinner table out to the deck and, providing the westerly is behaving, light the candles and away we go, dining as the warm breath of summer tickles our skin. Imagine a restaurant where you can do the same. Surprisingly, for a country that enjoys the outdoors so much, decent and inspiring options are limited (I'm talking more than the pavement chaos that is everywhere). But I'd been told to check out The Tasting Shed, in Kumeu, where I'd heard owners Jo and Ganesh Raj had created something special.
We arrived at twilight and I felt as though we'd walked into one of those flash magazines that show off award-winning, designer baches. It was gorgeous. A neatly clipped lawn creeps right up to gardens of overflowing lavender and a stunning, wooden packing box, with sides that open up completely to the night, sits squarely on the patch of green. And this is just the side dining room. The main building is just as impressive. A high-studded concrete and wood "shed", with an adjoining terrace, that provides the all-important link between the cosy interior and the expanse of the rural countryside outside, is cleverly designed and bursts with rustic charm without any of the clumsiness that can so oft spoil this theme.
The menu, created by chef Sara Simpson, who has done stints at Clooney and Terroir at Craggy Range, offers an interesting variety of, as you'd expect from the name, tasting plates but in reality they easily qualify as tapas, entrees or even small mains, as we discovered.
Macaroni cheese croquettes were deliciously tacky. Granted, they had oodles more finesse than that service station lasagne of old (let's be honest, who could resist it?) but they were in essence, batons of fried mac 'n' cheese - and we loved them. We gobbled our way through lamb and pork meatballs but the star of the sharing plates was the squid dumplings; quenelles of minced and chopped squid, fried to golden, lined up on a sensational salad of shredded daikon and apple, flecked with fragrant leaves of pickled ginger and drenched in a perfectly balanced dressing of rock sugar, sharpened by citrus. This is the sort of dish that is so unexpected and moreish that it alone would have made the 25-minute drive from the city worth it.
But there were more pleasant surprises to come. A red roasted pork belly is given the char siu treatment and was magnificently aromatic, with hits of sesame oil, honey, rice wine and soy sauce. Its pairing with sweet cubes of fresh sweet pineapple, roasted cauliflower and Szechuan pepper was pure genius. The Asian influence continued with the fish of the day but this time we veered towards Indonesia. Pan-fried snapper was served on a sticky black rice puree, coconut cream reduction and tender bok choy. The gentle flavours favoured the fish. A dish, of carrots, split lengthwise and cooked confit and tossed with creamy feta, toasted almonds and a spicy harissa, and another of broccoli served with anchovy butter and capers that had been fried until they burst into delightful, crunchy khaki flowers, proved that humble vegetables can shine too.
Throughout the evening the floor staff, including the owner, managed a busy dining room with an ease, professionalism and friendliness that I'd almost forgotten you could expect when going out for dinner. To prove just how lovely they were, when I ordered the chocolate pithivier for dessert our waitress corrected my awful pronunciation with such grace that I barely noticed my faux pas. Our other dessert - the pistachio cake - was the only moment in the evening where I found myself questioning the sense of a dish. The hero of it (the cake) was presented as torn up bits of what looked like a failed muffin, the flavour of which wasn't big enough to let it get away with the unsettling presentation. The pithivier (PTVA, in case you were wondering) on the other hand, was divine - a warm chocolate pie really.
The menu changes frequently at The Tasting Shed so I'd say go west and go now, but I also have every faith that chef Simpson's next menu is likely to be just as inspired because ... she's got talent and with such a fantastic location and splendid design, this is summer dining as it should be.
From the menu: Lamb & pork meatballs $15, macaroni cheese croquettes $14, squid dumplings $16, snapper $22, roasted pork belly $21, confit carrots and feta $13, broccoli with anchovy butter $13, chocolate pithivier $13, pistachio cake $12.
Drinks: Fully licensed