Driving down Mt Eden Rd and through the village, I noticed the casual cafes and pubs I passed were all comfortably full, if not overflowing, even though it was a week night. I was heading for Bowmans, a restaurant further past the main shops, which has seemingly been there forever, yet always flies under the radar.
When we arrived the dining room was sparsely populated. There was a time when I considered it one of my go-to favourites for a "slightly informal formal" dining option. That was some time ago, however, and in the years since my last visit it appears the kitchen at Bowmans has moved towards the culinary trend for incorporating complex molecular gastronomy into their menu.
A chef's tasting plate for starters arrived in a stack of lacquered layered containers, tiffin-style, which was initially quite impressive and fun as we unveiled each layer, but flavour-wise the elements lacked lustre. When we asked our waitress whether we should approach them in any particular order, we were met with a shrug. So we started with the warm ones - sauteed prawns, pieces of crispy salmon, mushroom arancini - before moving on to the soft goat's cheese mousse, which was really just whipped cheese, beets and a divine honey syrup, and sashimi with puffed rice and ginger. "Fine" is how I'd describe them all but, at $22-$25, I'd prefer to be leaping for a word like "magnificent".
Our mains hit the mark more and were the sort that you'd keep coming back for, essential for any local eatery I'd have thought. My Hawkes Bay lamb was some of the best I've eaten - a rump and a rib, both cooked to their strengths. The rump had been cooked sous vide then finished in the oven to colour and caramelise, before being served sliced into thick, medium rare, meaty chunks. The rib had been slowly roasted and left with its fatty layer intact - crispy from the long slow heat, it was deliciously tender. Combined with a kumara puree, which grounded the dish in our country, and lemon and almonds to give it a Middle Eastern twist, it was tremendous.
Across the table my dining partner was carefully dissecting his snapper dish as he gave me such detail as "fish so fresh you can taste the ocean", "leaving the skin on is a plus in my books, it keeps it moist" and "the pairing of fish with a fresh avocado puree is surprisingly sensational". He finally gave in to eating it and enjoyed it wholeheartedly.
We also spent some nervous minutes before deciding that a glass of wine we had was corked but it was replaced mostly without fuss and the replacement didn't appear on our bill.
Now, I had begun to feel as though Bowmans might have lost its way, unsure whether it should be a destination restaurant, in which case the food needs to be outstanding enough to travel for, or more of a local eatery, where you can relax into some decent, unfussy food that brings comfort.
Meanwhile, a group at a neighbouring table were already on to desserts and what unfolded there was rather extraordinary. The dessert that came with the degustation involved some extravagant theatrics; the table was covered with a plastic sheet and the chef builds the dessert - applying squiggles and scoops, crumbs and gels, directly on to the surface in an extravagant, artistic manner. The guests then ate from the finished "installation". In another environment and with a chef who embraced the "act" of it more, it might work, but at Bowmans it felt forced and the magic of a true performance was sorely missing.
In the end,it was the simple dishes that impressed us the most; a beautifully cooked lamb cut with crispy skin that served as a reminder of the roasts of my childhood, snapper so fresh we were looking for the dinghy and gently poached tamarillos my nana would have approved of. Dishes lost their potency once too much clutter was added.
Somehow, Bowmans needs to find its soul again and I'd be surprised if that didn't involve getting back to basics.
From the menu: Chef's tasting platter $22pp, salmon sashimi $24, lamb rump $37, fish of the day (snapper) $38, Valhrona chocolate mousse $17, poached tamarillos $17
Drinks: Fully licensed