Phone: (09) 354 7478
Cuisine: Modern NZ
From the menu: Tete de porc $24, Wagyu tartare $24, Fish lasagne $42, Savannah eye fillet $43, Chickpea fries $10, Broccoli $10, Beetroot cheesecake $16, Cheeses $28
Drinks: Fully licensed
The artist in residence wasn't. In residence, that is, on the night we dined at Sofitel's signature restaurant Lava Dining. Chef Nick Honeyman (ex-The Commons, Everybody's Izakaya, Dallows) is the newly appointed executive chef and as I've long been a fan and a follower of Honeyman's food - he's got the knack of pushing flavours and texture together, nudging European influences into Asian-inspired dishes and taking what's on our own doorstep and making it sing gloriously - I got along smartly to try out his new menu.
It's an impressive French-owned hotel, this one, built around a marina with a foyer that embraces giant pebbled ponds, white lions guarding the entrance and giant vases overflowing with floral arrangements. The entire design manages to pull off ostentatious-ness as only the French can - with style.
The charm continues through to Lava Dining where it becomes more modern and sleek with chain mail curtain drops and majestic slab partitions, burnt orange and earthy in layered intrigue, which divide the room effectively into more intimate seating areas.
We settled in, freshly baked bread smothered in soft, smoked butter and glass of bubbles in hand, to peruse a menu that read so well we got the jitters hoping we were making the right choices.
My dining companion initially glared at his tiny starter, a wagyu tartare, but was soon swooning with delight as the layers of French cheese custard and onion sauce merged with peppery nasturtium leaf, crunchy brioche and meltingly soft pieces of beef.
I began with an interesting combination of pork head, rendered down and formed into discs of rich, shredded meat, topped with seared scallops, the whole lot underpinned with a musky cauliflower puree and spruced with a dish of "buttered popcorn".
Like all good hotel restaurants there's a steak on the menu at Lava Dining and for my dining companion, like all good businessmen, it was a must-have. Honeyman serves savannah eye fillet with smoked baby carrots, a shallot and ginger reduction and, as a nod to surf 'n' turf I presume, a tiger prawn. Of the mouthfuls I stole, it was the shallot and ginger preparation that was the highlight of this dish - soft and sweet with peaks of the high heat that ginger creates. I could have had a bowl of only this and been happy.
My main dish, fish lasagne, was typical of Honeyman's creative approach to the classics. In place of pasta were broad sheets of thin beetroot, interlaced with fillets of John Dory. A smooth and creamy brie de meaux sauce was a gorgeous advancement on regular bechamel, and the small jug of dashi added another dimension altogether. But - and it is a big but - the fish was criminally over-cooked and for the foundation of a dish to be so drastically misjudged I had to wonder what was going on in the kitchen.
It wasn't just the fish that alerted me. At times the food lit us up - the mouthfeel of wagyu with French cheese custard, the tenderness of the straps of beetroot in the lasagne, the dancing flavours of shallot and ginger confit, the intenseness of the pork head - but the misdemeanours kept cropping up.
As I mentioned, Honeyman wasn't in the kitchen the night we visited - at this level it doesn't usually concern me and nor should it - but I suspect had he been in the house, he wouldn't have overcooked the fish, under-roasted the broccoli or over-seasoned the chickpea fries - or sent French cheese out cold. This is food created with soul, but it risks being rendered a cheap reproduction at the hands of others.
We finished with a dessert I failed to entirely appreciate - either it was too clever or I am too dumb. Flavours of cassia, beetroot and mixed spices, textures of crumb and ice cream, shards of dehydrated something, probably beets, and a white chocolate and beet preparation was too rooted in the savoury for a dessert.
Under the new chef, Lava Dining is far from ordinary and I'd not hesitate to recommend it. But when dishes are as clever and complex as these, they need to appear effortless and harmonious throughout because if they don't, if the seduction is interrupted, doubt can start to creep in and the magic is lost. The answer doesn't lie in requiring that the chef need pull back-to-back shifts, seven days of operation, but rather in a menu that can.