The Grill by Sean Connolly, Auckland CBD

By Nici Wickes

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Address: Skycity Grand Hotel, 90 Federal Street
Phone: 363 7067
Website: skycityauckland.co.nz
Cuisine: Upmarket seafood and steaks
Rating: 7.5/10

The Grill by Sean Connolly. Photo / Babiche Martens
The Grill by Sean Connolly. Photo / Babiche Martens

It's a real man's place," uttered my sister. Looking over to where two men sat, one tucking into a plate of spare ribs and the other attacking a slab of meat with a knife that looked more hunting than dining, and beyond to a table of six men, all sporting similar business shirts, I agreed wholeheartedly.

Designed by award-winning architect Andrew Lister, who also did the stylish Bellota, The Grill is the latest addition to the ever-expanding Federal St dining enclave.

The interior is ingenious, with a cantilevered upstairs dining room as well as the ground floor space, which contains the enormous open kitchen, raw seafood bar and dining area with swivel bucket chairs and booth seating. Masculine and marvellous.

Setting up the restaurant has been the subject of a recent reality show, Under the Grill, where viewers saw the challenges involved with establishing a restaurant, complete with chef Sean Connolly - who comes with a respected reputation from Sydney - feeling the intense pressure of having only 100 days before the doors opened to the public.

The final episode is yet to run but given we were seated in a dining room that appeared furnished and finished and Connolly was wandering around, whipping up steak tartare tableside and chatting with diners, I can only assume all had worked out well.

Grappling with our man-sized menus, it occurred to me The Grill could just as easily be named Surf & Turf (though I suspect a TV show called Under the Turf may not have rated so well), given Connolly has designed a menu where there's almost as much emphasis on seafood as on carnivorous offerings. We decided to test both out.

A starter plate of raw Akaroa salmon, kingfish and bluefin tuna seemed somewhat pricey at $30 but when it arrived it was such a generous serving and was further elevated by the accompanying soy sauce, which was organic; wasabi that had been freshly grated; and white pickled ginger instead of the more common pink version. Fancy and fabulous.

I began, in cavewoman-like fashion, with the smoked free-range pork spare ribs. They arrived covered in a glass dome, which was swirling with smoke, and was dramatically lifted to reveal a glistening pile of dark, short, tender ribs the like of which I'd never experienced. Sticky and sweet, with a hint of chilli perhaps, the flavours were intense and the meat fell cleanly away from the bones. Luckily there was a finger bowl so I could clean myself up before the main course.

I stayed with my meat theme and decided to give the wagyu a try, especially as my favoured cut, rump, was on offer. The waiter advised that the chef's preference is to cook the wagyu cuts to medium, allowing the marbled fat to melt, adding to the depth of flavour.

I know the adage that "fat is flavour" and any way to maximise this is fine by me, so I happily changed my medium/rare requirement to medium. The neat, perfectly trimmed steak that arrived on a bare chopping block rewarded me in every way a good steak should - tasty, tender, succulent and oozing meat juices.

Connolly is a fan of using artisan producers and suppliers, so I was presented with one of the aforementioned hunting knives to use, and it turned out to be the finely crafted work of the famed Peter Lorimer of Nelson. Connolly commissioned him to make the steak knives for the restaurant and they are indeed a work of art.

While I was enjoying my meat fest, my sweet sister was calmly working her way through a simple dish of pan-fried hapuku with a lemon and parsley sauce.

Because we were in a "grill restaurant", we'd ordered onion rings and a side salad to go with our mains. And though I understand my next statement might be like complaining that a creme brulee is rich, the onion rings were oily. Somehow I want a place of such a seemingly high standard as The Grill to have that sorted out.

Likewise, the salad with its very "now" ingredients of beetroot, frisee, goat's curd and pink grapefruit was not very "wow" in any other way.

A creme caramel dessert was a winner, whereas the treacle tart was paired with a yoghurt sorbet that, rather than balancing the sweetness of the tart, seemed to dampen it altogether. Perhaps in the rush to get the doors open, no one from the kitchen has had a chance to sample the dish.

This, along with some of the other details (we had an outstanding Scottish waiter but others in the team seemed inexperienced or under-trained which made us nervous) can be ironed out now that the cameras have left the building and Connolly has his full attention on the reality of running a busy inner-city restaurant.

The Grill looks the part, now it can start acting it.

From the menu: Raw fish plate $30, pork spare ribs $22, hapuku wagyu rump $30, onion rings $8, beetroot & goat's curd salad $16, treacle tart $16, creme caramel $14.

Drinks: Fully licensed.

- NZ Herald

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