Address: 422 Mt Eden Rd, Mt Eden
Phone: (09) 638 7236
Cuisine: Modern NZ
I expected to be more surprised by Molten. Maybe it was in the name, but I'd conjured up explosive flavours, thrilling decor and an altogether red-hot experience. What we got was quite different. This is a self-professed neighbourhood eatery so words like welcoming, familiar, casual and easy all apply here. The restaurant and associated bar, Molten Wine Bar, are situated in the heart of Mt Eden village and as I peered through the window to the cosily lit dining room, I wondered what changes I'd find since the departure of owner-chef Michael Van de Elzen, now of TV show Food Truck fame, who sold the restaurant last year. Our waiter informed us that many of Michael's dishes remained on the menu alongside those of the new chef, Robert Richardson.
The dining room is small and intimate with fewer than 40 seats, but there's more out the back in the courtyard and I was amazed, on a trip to the bathroom, to find it bustling with patrons. How had they passed our table unnoticed by us? They hadn't, they'd ducked through from the neighbouring bar. Clever locals these Mt Eden-ites.
The menu is full of seasonal produce - figs, feijoas, apples, courgettes and new season globe artichoke - in delightful-sounding dishes. We couldn't resist sharing the fresh fig starter and the waiter obligingly got this order away while we continued to peruse the menu.
Stuffed with gorgonzola, wrapped in prosciutto and baked with a drizzle of balsamic reduction, I'll be honest, they weren't quite as good as they could have been. Sometimes figs err on the side of being bitter and tough-skinned and these ones fell into that camp, making them clumsy to eat and deterring from some of the flavours that were vying for attention.
Our entrees were more impressive. I had some of the best hot-smoked salmon I've had in a long time. It was unbelievably soft and delicately smoked, in-house, and melted in my mouth. Served on a simple salad of sliced fennel and apple, with pickles adding their lively piquant quality, it was the sort of entree you dream about, as delectable as it was pretty. My friend's entree looked the antithesis of mine. Hers was a plateful of dark duck livers and portobello mushrooms draped in a marsala cream sauce and to describe it as rich would be an understatement. This was hearty bistro fare and she lapped it up.
I stayed with the seafood theme for my main dish and selected the market fish, gurnard. Now, gurnard is a fabulous, but tricky-to-fillet, fish, and often yields fillets on the smaller side, so overcooking is always a risk. Unfortunately the chef at Molten had fallen into this trap and my modest, skin-on fillets had spent too long in the pan and were dry which, despite the other elements on my plate being perfectly acceptable, I couldn't forgive. Our other main, the Southern lamb flank, was a full-flavoured dish and I marvelled at my dining companion's stamina tackling it after the duck liver entree. Thick slices of lamb were served with some rather drab confit lamb beignets and a red cabbage and lentil emulsion and after a while she put down her cutlery exhausted, as much from the chewing (this lamb cut could have benefited from more of a slow-cook to render it tender), as from the intensity of so many flavours going on.
By this stage we were well settled in and satiated but on we ate, convincing ourselves that having an alcohol-free evening gave us license for indulging in other tempting vices - desserts. A bombe alaska was a must-have, or so we thought. Although spectacular to look at and flambeed at the table, this huge portion of almond flavoured ice cream topped with lemon curd, on a biscuit base and smothered in piped soft meringue, fell into the pattern we'd experienced with many of the dishes at Molten - there were too many flavours involved and they didn't particularly like each other. Here we had the essence of almond, sharp lemon, sugary meringue - all at full strength and competing with one another.
Our other sweet choice of a feijoa sorbet was more refreshing, yet the sickle-shaped pieces of toasted coconut appeared over-sized and out of place. We couldn't help wondering, why the extravagant gestures? They seemed more suited to a fine-dining establishment than a neighbourhood eatery. Molten appears be straddling, uncomfortably at times, bistro and fine dining or perhaps it's more a case of holding on to too many of the old menu items and not fully embracing and moving into a new era and making it their own.
I look forward to when they do, as this is a pleasant eatery with a comforting ambience that makes one feel completely safe and well-looked after.
From the menu: Smoked salmon $24, duck Livers $23.50, prosciutto & fig $23.50, market fish $35, Southern lamb $34.50, bombe Alaska $15, feijoa sorbet $14.50
Drinks: Fully licensed, Molten Wine Bar next door
* Check out Viva's brand new Facebook page, the place to find out what's hot in fashion, beauty, food, wine and design.By Nici Wickes