Can lunch ever really compete with dinner as the ultimate dining occasion? Most definitely. Especially when it involves taking a trip to the country - well, a mere 40 minutes from Auckland's CBD actually - through rolling hills to a beautifully restored villa with white wicker furniture set out on a wide shaded verandah, perfect for catching the breeze on a hot summer's day. I'm talking about Bracu, Simunovich Olive Estate's restaurant in rural Bombay.
Our reserved table on the verandah hadn't yet been vacated by the time we arrived for our late lunch, probably because the diners from an earlier sitting couldn't be prised from their seats and who could blame them? The indoor experience is a far cry from hardship though; the dining room/bar is a beautifully wallpapered sanctuary, an interesting mix of gracious and almost-gauche design, with the gentle clatter of cutlery, clinking glasses and happy conversation as a background track.
I had been introduced to chef Mikey Newlands' food through a mandarin souffle I'd had at a recent pop-up dining event. It had been so insanely good that this alone had encouraged me to visit Bracu again, where he's been head chef for just on a year.
His lunch menu is restrained yet tantalising and with a commitment to seasonal cooking, it reads like a meander through the restaurant's five kitchen gardens close by.
We started with freshly baked sourdough, served with impossibly soft and creamy cultured butter, a neat snowy pile of sea salt and a bottle of olive oil from the estate. Next came starters that surprised and delighted us for the most part; a fresh macadamia nut "cheese" tart was clever and made me feel virtuous given that it wasn't cheese as we know it - oozing with gooey, fatty deliciousness. Instead, a soft creamy mound of ground fresh macadamia nuts afforded mouthfuls of sweet tanginess.
Potato gnocchi came with juicy pieces of scampi, crispy leeks and lardons. The flavours were delicate, salty, immensely pleasurable but unfortunately the pieces of gnocchi were tiny - deliberately - and so lost any chance to be truly soft and pillow-like which is one of the great attractions of gnocchi. The pork and pistacho terrine was magnificent - gutsy and chunky and served with a gentle apple reduction and warm, feather-light brioche.
Between courses we relocated to the verandah to a table overlooking the clipped hedging and down the rows of silvery green puff-ball olive trees. It was a sublime setting and when our mains arrived I swear we all let out a collective sigh, moving us to the next stage of contentment.
I tucked into a pork cheek, plumb and shiny, braised to tender and paired with the most interesting ingredients to turn this dish into a textural wonder - fresh corn, barley, chunks of king prawns and XO sauce to tie it together.
Too heavy for a lunch dish? I wasn't complaining. Neither was the friend who'd opted for the tuna salad - a delicate, light dish with perfectly cooked yellow fin tuna and flavours of spring onion, ginger and an intriguing, bright green seaweed sauce-come-puree.
Duck at Bracu is served on braised lentils with a cherry reduction and if anything this was the weakest dish but only because duck is so readily available on menus now that I am hardly ever surprised by it. The side dishes let the side down and whether it was because the dining room had been at absolute capacity for lunch and they'd run out of steam or attention or ingredients, but the promised "smoked butter" on new potatoes was indiscernible and the raisin and caper topping on the steamed broccoli and zucchini was not enough to mask their wateriness.
I realised I was trying to re-live the fantasy of that first souffle when I ordered the berry souffle to finish. It wasn't a patch on the citrus one I remembered but the chocolate gelato it came with made up for it. A silky date creme brulee tart was ruined by a pastry base so tough I was afraid of sending it shooting across to another table as I tried to cut through it. I pondered why they would send it out, given that they must have noticed the same thing when portioning it in the kitchen.
But such is the graciousness with which an afternoon at Bracu offers that it was impossible to spoil our mood and we departed feeling grateful for our trip to the country.
From the menu: Macadamia tart $18, pork terrine $22, potato gnocchi $22, grilled tuna salad $22, duck with lentils $39, pork cheek $39. Sides: potatoes and seasonal greens $9 each, creme brulee tart $17, cherry souffle $17.
Drinks: Rare wine library, top quality wines by the glass