The Sugar Club
Level 53, Sky Tower, Auckland
Ph: (09) 363 6365
We spent $364 for two.
Rating: 17 — Great
Outstanding (19-20), great (16-18), good (13-15), disappointing (the rest).
Fashion is fickle. One day you're in, next day you're on sale with free delivery from a knock-off outlet near you.
Food is like frocks, but backwards. Lamb shanks used to be $3 apiece, then you couldn't afford them because every second restaurant started slopping them on polenta.
Remember polenta? Boiled cornmeal. Very popular in pre-paleo (diet) times.
In his book The Tastemakers, David Sax notes food trends are springing up quicker and growing faster than ever before: "We are living in a goldrush ... mined with ladles and saucepans instead of pickaxes and dynamite."
Here's a little local example. In 2004, David Chang put pork belly bao on his menu at Momofuku, New York. Last year, an Auckland restaurant took out an advertisement for its pork belly bao: "Born May 2013 at The Blue Breeze Inn — shamelessly copied ever since." Hmm. The street vendors of Taiwan might have something to say about that. It's a little-known fact that copyright law rarely extends to recipes — but it's also good manners to not, you know, copy.
If New Zealand has a true food trendsetter, it's Peter Gordon. Frequently cited as the godfather of fusion, in 1987, his Wellington Sugar Club epitomised the best of "Pacific Rim" cuisine. Restaurant historian Perrin Rowland described Gordon's point of view as "startling and unique". Early menus included silverbeet with beef pesto. Herbs did not come from a packet.
Where better to eat for the Canvas fashion issue then, than The Sugar Club's Sky Tower reboot? Outside, the city at its blingiest. Inside, a showcase of the country's finest produce. Saffron from Te Anau. Salmon from Mt Cook. Perigord truffle from Canterbury, sniffed out by a dog called Cassie.
Choose a tasting menu for the entire table ($155) or build your own three-to-five-course dinner ($100-$125).
The portions are small. A crayfish linguine featured one thumbnail-sized piece of tail and two straggly bits of leg or antennae. Recent dining trends include street eats, shared plates and fine-casual fare. The Sugar Club is defying fashion — but is this itty-bitty approach simply old-fashioned?
The flavours were faultless but fleeting and, in the absence of a fifth or sixth mouthful, you start paying very close attention to texture. The chicken custard (underneath that gloriously pungent grated-at-your-table truffle) was slightly eggy. The broth-soaked meat in my rare breed pork boil-up was magnificent against bitter, fresh watercress, but two marble-sized "doughboys" were extremely dense; reminiscent of half-cooked pasta.
You'll go home relatively full if you order the red meat dishes. Cambridge duck had soft background spice notes and the burnt cream underneath the perfectly cooked venison was one of the most swoonable, spoonable swishes I've eaten. I had the South Island monkfish in homage to a West Coast childhood and it was every bit as sweet and flaky as I remember.
Serious timing issues need some attention. Our booking was for 6.30pm. The day before, someone phoned to advise we would only have the table for two hours. It was 7pm before we got our first drink. By 7.40, we had been served just one course. Probably they were not going to kick us out — but I tried to imagine how an infrequent and less confident diner might feel and I was annoyed and anxious on their behalf.
This is a special occasion place, with a special occasion gold-and-marble-accented vibe. You want to be able to relax and enjoy this to the bitter chocolate end.
Honey parfait with a mango sorbet was crunchy (meringue shards), creamy (coconut tapioca) and completely delightful. Across the table, one for the grown-ups. Intensely dark chocolate was paired with sesame wafers and anise-scented Thai basil icecream.
You could not eat it in components but taken together it was elegant and adult. It was the dessert equivalent of a cigarette after dinner. So wrong, so right.