Peter Thornley knows every stallholder and smallholding on the highways and byways of the Bombay Hills. The woman who brings lemons and limes in the boot of her Morris Minor. The Dutchman who sells the best strawberries at the side of the road - and when today's crop is gone, he is, too. Where to pick watercress.
Chatting in his kitchen, one feels he has completed a circle. He began in the country, at Akaroa; moved to the cities, at Thornley's in Christchurch, Icon at Te Papa, utterly urban uber-chef at Soul Bar on the Viaduct.
Then the Simunovich family asked him to consult on a new project. Among 30,000 olive trees on their estate they would re-create a historic hilltop kauri villa as a wedding venue and conference centre, with a rare wine library housing 2500 bottles of premium vintages. State-of-the-culinary-art kitchen with computer-controlled ovens. And restaurant, inside the villa, outside on the verandah.
Daniel Kemp, from the Bach in Taupo, would manage the restaurant and bring his oenological expertise to the cellar. All they needed was a ...
Thornley quit consulting and began commuting from his Devonport villa to green hills, valleys and veges. He brought his passion for produce and obsession for cooking, refreshed by visits to the soaring perfectionist Thomas Keller's French Laundry in the Napa Valley and the late Bernard Loiseau's La Côte d'Or, shrine of nouvelle cuisine.
Thornley calls his menu "simple food, lovingly crafted with a worldly and sophisticated twist".
It echoes Keller in its fondness for tastings of usually five to nine dishes and whimsical names - "Bacon and Eggs" disguises parma ham, poached quail eggs, jerusalem artichoke mousseline, parmigiano reggiano crisp, sage latte. "Surf and Turf" is not the 70s staple but pan-roasted longline-caught hapuka, braised oxtail, butter-poached scampi and vegetable fondue. The classic cooking and clean presentation references La Cote d'Or.
Jude has an affection for pomegranate. A passing mention sent her to the most intricate entree - packets of whitlof filled with grilled French goat's cheese, set against red raisin, tea and pomegranate puree, pear salad, a dash of beetroot and hazelnut dressing. Flavours, textures cascade around the palate, off the tongue.
As they did with my more traditional opening, delicately roasted quail breast and "faux foie gras", for those who don't like geese to suffer too much for their parts.
Awake to its potential, Thornley has a whitlof thing going on. It sprouted again in Jude's main - pork belly braised all day in honey and spices, crackling teased with salt and ginger - this time caramelised and croquetted.
He'd roasted my duck (it's been a while), this with fennel, poached and roasted, sharpened with lemon vinaigrette and the estate's olive juice.
I should mention that we added vegetable sides: griddle roasted butternut with amaretto and fried sage, and watercress, fennel and red onion salad. I should mention them because they were exceptional.
The wine list runs to 10 pages so we took the house's recommendations: glasses of Gibbston Valley blanc de pinot noir and Peregrine pinot noir for me, Craggy Range Gimblet Gravels chardonnay for Jude. My first was too chilled, didn't get the best of it; might have preferred something stronger with the duck.
Jude revelled in bitter chocolate pudding; I revisited Thornley's vintage "lemons, limes and lavender" of burnt lemon cream, lavender-infused citrus salad, gelato of local limes.
Local. Close to home. For many readers, Bracu isn't, and someone has to drive 40 minutes each way. Worth the trip? Yes. For the view from the verandah on a sunny Sunday; for a foursome to eat in the kitchen while chef and his brigade provide the floor show; or a dozen to book the wine library to eat, drink and make merry (GPS co-ordinates for the helicopter landing pad are thoughtfully provided on the website).
Bracu gets 4 1/2 stars because of a couple of mis-steps in the service and because the wine choices didn't gel for me. Thornley's food, however, is five-star, from chasing down those locally farmed ingredients to the cuisine on the plate. He has completed a circle: that first restaurant, in Akaroa, was called French Farm.
Address: Simunovich Olive Estate
49 Main Rd Bombay
Phone: (09) 236 1030, website (see link below) www.simuolive.co.nz
Open: Wed-Sun 10.30am-late
From the menu: Oyster stew (poached Clevedon coast oysters, Ilam hardy potato tortellini, thyme buttered nage) $19
Pot-roasted Cornish hen and wild rabbit, shaved truffle chestnuts, broad beans and marjoram cream $29
Rhubarb chibouste, spice sauté, granny smith apples, crumbled Bombay biscuit with apple pan juices $15
Vegetarian: Ask the chef - he is