Phone: (09) 360 2122
Cuisine: Modern NZ
Degustation dining can be a bit like going to a film festival movie - chances are you're in for a mind-expanding experience but you could be forgiven for fearing that it may prove too earnest to strictly qualify as fun. All those courses, all that concentration required ... will you simply lose the plot half way through and find yourself yearning for the credits to roll?
My level of excitement outweighed any nervousness though as we were welcomed into the small, sophisticated dining room of Sidart in Ponsonby.
Since opening in 2009, owner and head chef Sid Sahrawat has steadfastly built this restaurant's reputation to the point where the accolades continue to accumulate for his innovative approach to cuisine.
One such innovation has proven to be a definite winner. Following the lead of Ben Shewry, of Melbourne's Attica, the concept sees Tuesday night diners being offered a set "test menu" of dishes that the kitchen is trialling and perfecting.
The concept has proved so popular since its introduction a year ago that Sahrawat scrapped the regular a la carte menu altogether and now offers only degustation menus. Each menu runs for a week, then they get creative all over again on a Tuesday when a new menu is designed. This essentially means Sidart's menu changes every week. Now that's seasonal!
We were seated and our attention was brought to the menu, folded away in a discreet black envelope. We were told we could either have a sneak peek or trust the kitchen.
I like to know what I'm looking for, so I immediately ripped open the envelope. (Don't worry, I'm not the type to Google how a movie ends, but when it comes to food, my curiosity knows no such restraint.)
We began with a dazzlingly colourful dish of ribbons of beetroot which drifted lazily on the plate alongside a raspberry sorbet, smear of green-black watercress, more beetroot, this time in a puree, with cashews and rice crisps providing texture.
This was a fresh and exuberant start and a great launch pad for the next three dishes. First, a stunningly prepared piece of kingfish coated in leek ash, perfectly seared and topped with a coconut jelly and served on a celeriac puree. Next, John Dory pan-fried on a sweet parsnip and garlic puree with a dab of smoked yoghurt and a minty salsa verde to give it a lift, and black squid ink giving the dish a dramatic look but lending little by way of flavour. The third fish course, a neat tile of hapuka with a puree of that marvellously musty vegetable, Jerusalem artichoke. A topping of the most temptingly delicious brown butter crumble proved a highlight for me - the combination of nutty browned butter and fish is a match made in heaven in my world.
We moved from sea to land and tucked into a pork belly with a perfectly formed surface of sticky, crunchy crackling and crisp rounds of green apple and baby cucumbers saving this dish from unwelcome richness. While I questioned whether the spinach puree was too overpowering, my dining companions declared the combination outstanding. Then came the beef fillet served with a walnut mousse, foie gras and bright green leaves of Brussels sprouts like tiny lettuce cups and before we knew it, that was the end of the savoury courses.
They hadn't been faultless - most courses are served room temperature or slightly warm, which becomes monotonous, and sweetness prevails with many of the dishes lacking sufficient contrasting acidity, but I suspect this is a palate preference for Sahrawat.
And there was no denying the technical skill and creative genius of the kitchen team. We must have sampled more than 40 different components making up the six savoury courses.
We finished with two sweet courses: a white chocolate and fennel seed bavarois served with an intriguing coffee mousse, and the grand finale, which was just dreamy - honey and ginger ice cream, cubes of brown butter and muscovado sponge, honeycomb and pretty pieces of soft rose-pink, poached rhubarb.
Sidart may be listed as a fine dining restaurant and the idea of a degustation-only menu may appear restricting to some, but that couldn't be further from the truth - this is a playful restaurant where diners are given the opportunity to get swept up in the story, mesmerised right up to the very end.
From the menu: Tuesday test kitchen - eight courses $80 a person (with wine matching add $80).
Drinks: Fully licensed