Herald on Sunday Rating: 2.5/5
Address: Sofitel Auckland, 21 Viaduct Harbour Ave
Ph: (09) 909 9000
I once stayed a couple of nights at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. It was not at my own expense - the cheapest room rate, of about $550 a night, is a bit rich for my taste - but as a guest of the people who made Jurassic Park.
The studio made things simple: if we ate in the hotel, they would pay; as soon as we stepped out into the Californian sunshine, we were on our own.
It sounded like a tempting offer and I have to admit that the first night, my finger ran down to the very bottom of the restaurant's wine list - they had grand cru Burgundy by the half bottle - to find something to accompany my whole Maine lobster (not a patch on a New Zealand crayfish).
But I soon sought out the little pizza caravan in a car park round the back, the local Mexican, the brunch joints at the Farmers Market. The fact is that flash hotels tend to deal in bland and unchallenging food for business travellers and unadventurous top-end tourists.
Lava Dining is in a hotel sited in an exquisitely hideous part of town: it's like Pyongyang re-imagined by the people who made the pillars that hold up motorway bridges, with a little help from the designers of The Truman Show.
Originally the Westin, later the Lighter Quay, the hotel was closed for more than a year after a dispute between the management and private investors who, in an extraordinary arrangement, owned all the rooms. But at last it was rescued by the world's largest hotel chain, Accor, and reopened in June under the Sofitel brand. Scott Brown, who used to run the kitchens at Huka Lodge (which is much more upmarket than that shabby Four Seasons place in LA), was wheeled in to brighten up the dining.
Not that it needed much brightening up: I had a very fine meal at the Westin's Q restaurant about four years ago and an even better time sampling Robert Oliver's marvellous Pasifika home cooking when he used the room for the launch of his cookbook, Me'a Kai. I'd like to say that my experience at Lava Dining was the equal of those two, but that would be a lie.
The room is unchanged - black-and-orange plastic panels and hanging curtains of steel mesh - but the atmosphere is about two notches more formal. No problem if that's what you're after, of course, although greeting guests with a "bonsoir" seems a bit odd in Auckland in 2012.
The prices are also pretty formal (entrees average $25; mains nudge $40) and the food is rather fussy and characterless: there's ample technique on show, but not much in the way of joy or soul, and if the portion sizes are not quite stingy, they certainly commend the idea of a damn good lunch before you head there for dinner.
After half a dozen oysters (when we asked where they were from, the waiter cryptically answered "north of Auckland"; I was going to say "Do you mean Ireland?", but thought better of it), we moved to the most unusual entrees from an alluring list. My whitebait was dusted with chilli pepper, flash-fried and served on a creamy pool of potato puree. The idea was a sort of deconstructed fritter, I suppose, but the tastes did not marry (the chilli, though faint, quite crushed the delicate whitebait). The Prof was much taken with a tiny warm salad medley of beets and carrots, though I could scarcely see it and I was sitting next to her.
Two small fillets of John Dory, the skin slashed and crisped, were well discharged, and the accompaniments - tender squid and a mildly spicy capsicum stew - were thoughtfully assembled. But my "crispy gnocchi" were a serious misfire: they came out like tiny ginger gems, their hard skin failing to absorb the sauce, described as a green minestrone, that dressed them. None of the dishes here lacked for imagination, but on the plate they never delivered the wow factor, particularly when the price per gram was taken into account.
Desserts - a superb, gelato-like coconut mousse and a hokey-pokey take on the old Eskimo pie - left a sweet taste in the mouth, but if I was staying in that hotel, even if someone else was picking up the tab, I'd head for the Viaduct on my own coin.
Small, perfectly formed and quite unsatisfying.