Address: Grand Hotel, 90 Federal St, City
Ph: (09) 363 7030
From the menu: Garlic and rosemary pizzetta $6, ricotta and honey $14, octopus $18, spinach gnudi $18, Sardinian ravioli $26, tuna crudo $22, pappardelle with wild boar $28, rum baba $14, strawberry semi-freddo $14
Drinks: Extensive wine list of more than 200 wines from Italy and New Zealand
Sweeping through the foyer of the Grand Hotel, you can now see there's a restaurant at the far end. At last. Dine was always so hidden away, enclosed in the internal space, and though that gave it the allure of a private club, you did have to remember it was there.
Now the space has loosened up considerably with newly opened Italian restaurant and bar Gusto by Sean Connolly. They've bashed out walls and replaced the stately furniture (no more leather armchairs) but had the good sense to leave the majestic circular chandeliers.
Colourful tiles brighten the space and a cool, sturdy marble bench offers seating around the open kitchen as well as a chef's table in the kitchen for those wanting to experience the hustle and bustle of service.
We were shown to our table and for the next two-and-a-half hours, I was enchanted by some of the most glorious food I've eaten in a while.
We flew in the face of the traditional Italian order of things by ducking and diving around the menu, from antipasto straight to secondi, then reversing to pasta, followed by more secondi, insalata and then back to pasta.
We did, however, leave the dolci for last. Sort of, which is to say we started with it, too.
At Gusto they offer a small hill of house-made ricotta, drizzled in honey and topped with buttery pine nuts. Initially we smeared it on torn pieces of warm garlic and rosemary pizzetta, but then we came to our senses and ate it on its own by the small, soft forkful.
I have always thought of ricotta as an acquired taste because it is the epitome of subtlety when it comes to cheese, the flavour so delicate, the texture almost fluffy. This version was exceptional and had me declaring to my dining companion, "This is the food I want to eat." She kindly pointed out it was the food I was eating.
Next, octopus tentacles came draped lazily and beautifully across a speckled plate - everything about them, including the pearly white suckers, meltingly tender. They were simply dressed with a spritz of lemon juice, olive oil and parsley.
Then five little ravioli parcels, stuffed with mashed potato, pecorino and mint in true Sardinian style, lined up in a puddle of sage butter. Arguably the mint was too strong for the full-flavoured pecorino and crisp sage leaves, but you could also say it was full of gusto!
A plateful of gnudi was the opposite. Shy little dumplings, made with ricotta as opposed to potato, were so light they were like gnocchi without gravity and they came covered in an exquisite tomato and basil sauce that brimmed with sunshine.
Chunks of tuna, at their peak of freshness, were served in a crudo with thinly sliced crisp granny smith apple and radish, which added a ping of acidity and texture for a dazzling combination.
But the best was still to come. At Gusto, they make all but the penne pasta on site, and a dish of pappardelle with wild boar ragu was simply divine. How could pasta ribbons be so thin yet still hold up to the bite so perfectly? And how could a ragu, peppered with peas, be so brutally good?
Chunks of soft boar blended with the flavours imbued from slow cooking in red wine and hard herbs, but there was a whisper of something else. What was it ... citrusy but not lemon, vibrant and alive, entirely unexpected. Then I got it. Orange zest. So rarely used in savoury dishes, yet it can define a dish when it is.
We'd crammed in a feast that the average Italian family would take all day to enjoy and we had had more than enough nourishing food, but who in their right mind would pass up a rum baba? Not me. It drives me wild - moist and lovely despite its plain Jane appearance, this is a sweet that should not be missed.
And Connolly knows how to do it right; a slightly salty dough, left to soak in rum and syrup, split down the middle at the table and doused with a fresh splash of Appleton's finest, plus a generous dollop of thick vanilla mascarpone. Unimaginably delicious.
The food and design at Gusto at the Grand is fantastic and this new establishment makes you feel as though dining in a hotel is a glorious idea again.