Address: 33 Sale St, Auckland
Phone: (09) 358 1702
We spent: $365 for two
Rating: 19 — Outstanding

Rosemary doesn't usually eat shellfish. It's a textural thing. She doesn't like squidge. But tonight she was up for anything.

A mussel. An oyster. Raw fish. Venison tartare. When the waitperson set down a serious knife I felt serious relief my dinner date was finally going to get something cooked.

I needn't have worried. She loved every mouthful. Her childhood was (I'm sure she won't mind me saying) a wee while ago, but when she downed a raw Te Matuku oyster with three seaweeds and a subtle oystery-saltwater jelly, she grinned like a 6-year-old. "Oh," she said with widened eyes. "It's the sea!"

One of the joys of this job is taking other people to dinner. It's easy to get blase about buffalo milk icecream et al when your credit card is being reimbursed on a monthly basis. Rosemary texted the next day: "I was so pleased to find I could eat and enjoy things I never would have chosen from a menu."

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To be honest, raw venison with salted blueberries, chocolate, deer blood and blobs of emulsified egg yolk would not have been my first choice, either. It smelled primal and, post-mixing, looked like dog food, but this was lip-smackingly, saliva-inducingly good. An earlier plate of silken kingfish with a citrus salt, gooseberry and daikon was perfect. Next time you lose electricity, consider decamping to to Clooney — its raw dishes are epic.

Last year, Clooney overheated. Chef Jacob Kear and owner Tony Stewart parted company and the latter announced he was shutting shop. Six months later and Kear is cooking in Kyoto and Auckland's sexiest restaurant is back. The new chef comes via Australia's Vue de Monde and Marque and (this is quite a big Michelin-starred deal) L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Taipei.

It was a joy to watch Nobu Lee through the narrow horizontal window into his new life. The kitchen was calm, his face serene and he was exacting with a squeezy bottle. His food is clean, fresh and faultless.

The overriding flavour profiles are pleasantly sour and slightly salty. Our $120 four-course degustation (plus four canapes, house-baked sourdough and a kiwifruit palate-cleanser) featured lightly pickled vegetables and seasonal citrus. Most of my juice matches ($55) were fermented. Even the sweetest dish — a slab of Te Mana lamb with kumara — maintained an interesting edge, thanks to the deployment of molasses.

The lamb was truly sublime (pink and tender, fatty and crisp) and the portion-to-plate ratio far bigger than you might expect for a degustation. I applaud the serving of a main at the main moment of the meal.

A word about that juice match: get the wine. I know kombucha is on trend but my first course of yellow tea (what even is yellow tea?) and grapefruit smelled like Rotorua.

A word about the wine match: settle in for the long-haul. Our sommelier announced he would be taking us on a journey and, on occasion, I wanted to ask, "Are we there yet?" (Highlights: a super-dry Aussie riesling collab called Mesh and Waiheke superstar Destiny Bay's "Destinae" cabernet blend.)

Clooney Restaurant: 33 Sale St, Auckland CBD. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
Clooney Restaurant: 33 Sale St, Auckland CBD. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Our service experience was a touch uneven. We couldn't hear every food explanation; we wouldn't have minded slightly less enthusiasm about the wine. It's subjective, isn't it? A degustation dinner is a performance piece and sometimes, you just have to go with it.

Every high-end restaurant in the country is cashing in on the current foodie quest to define Kiwi cuisine. Clooney's take is "a retrospective look at Kiwi food culture through canapes". I loved this bite-sized culinary history lesson that started with a single plump mussel on an extraordinary edible shell, served with river stones, dry ice and a commentary on pre-European gastronomy.

The final canape was "fish, chips and L&P". A squish of smoky eel between two crackly discs of potato was a little mouthful of yum, but it was the ceramic beaker of lemon curd-flavoured liquid that made me think harder. Beverages are having a bit of a moment (witness the explosion of fine-dining juice pairings) but they are rarely as integral to the dish as this one was. Sweet-salty-tangy against the oily crunch of the "chip". I licked my fingers. I too, was grinning like a 6-year-old.