Salmon as performance art and chicken with caviar - restaurant critic Kim Knight recommends becoming a lady who lunches in luxury.
The only Bill Hammond artwork I'll ever be able to afford is a poster pinned above my kitchen sink.
I've had it for more than a decade and every single time I look at it (which is every single day) I see something different. It is more than the sum of its parts but its parts are also glorious.
I thought about that image while I was waiting for my lunch date to arrive at Onslow. Stunning in its entirety, the restaurant is also a series of small visual moments. A perfectly placed grey-blue poppy seed head. Exactly the right-shaped short amber vase. Drinking glasses with a heavy vertical ridge; cloth napkins with an old man's handkerchief burgundy stripe and the softness of a much-loved shirt. Restaurants have more predictable components than a work of art (tables, chairs, etc) but they are no less interesting to consider.
What are Helen and Josh Emett saying with this new place that's open to the public but also services a seriously luxe apartment building on Princes St?
"Best possible first-class airport lounge," said Erica. "And now I really, really, really want to be looking out onto a runway."
If the tsunami of excellent new Auckland restaurant openings goes against all dire Covid-related predictions, then consider this: The wealthy will always want to eat well and now they don't even need to leave their building to do so. The property boasts a private cinema, a library room and Onslow - a restaurant with a menu designed by a man who spent a decade working for multi-Michelin-starred boss Gordon Ramsay.
None of this matters if you don't like the food. I loved the food.
You won't be able to resist the "treats". The crayfish eclair was just a little longer than my littlest finger and set me back $16. There was a tremendous fishy-salty burnish on the choux pastry but I wanted more crayfish flavour in the filling. It looked right, it smelled right but that really rich and briny assault was missing. Maybe you only get that if you've cracked the claws and scooped the head mustard with your own bare and greedy hands?
Auckland's most expensive nugget of fried chicken ($18) was sensational. Juicy brined thigh, super-crispy skin-on exterior, delicate little rounds of pickled courgette - the addition of caviar may not have been entirely necessary from a taste perspective but was utterly essential to the aesthetic. Oscietra is the real deal. Second-only in cost to beluga caviar, my conscience needled as I read that wild sturgeons are critically endangered, however, a quick phone call and Emett confirms this stuff is farmed.
Skip the treats (why would you?), stick to the lower end of the (more interesting than usual) by-the-glass wine menu and you won't need a third mortgage. Consider the salmon trolley as performance art and $24 is a steal. The side of Big Glory Bay fish is carved to order in front of you. Four thick slices, cured in fennel and coriander seeds. It has a terrific mouthful, like biting through butter spread on silk and an accompanying bowl of salmony-sour creamy goodness studded with lascivious pops of oily roe is the grown-up dip of this summer.
Onslow's food is pitched so perfectly. Playful in the way that rich people like to slum it (fried chicken AND caviar) and playful in the way that makes it fun for regular people looking for a top-quality (but not overly intimidating) restaurant experience. It feels high-end and homely and all of this is further facilitated by really good waitstaff - I couldn't fault a single aspect of the service.
Lamb tongue (the meat, not the lettuce) aside, the entrees were all seafood. We shared a confit yellowfin tuna salad ($24). Endive leaves had been stained cabernet sauvignon vinaigrette pink and beetroot crisps added crunch. This would have been a lovely lunch for one, with its chunks of chickeny-fish, but we were in for the long haul.
The mains start vegan ($34) and finish meat-on-meat ($42). Erica had the latter. Probably the largest scotch fillet I've seen in a restaurant was smothered in braised beef short-rib and served with a parsnip puree we estimated was 95 per cent cream and guaranteed to turn the most ardent parsnip hater (read: me).
My steamed soy aubergine with oyster mushroom was elegance personified. A study in the sliding scale of "soft" from melting eggplant to squidgier mushroom; restraint made tasty.
Instagram is awash with photos of the Onslow chocolate souffle but I had to get back to a meeting. A wiser diner might have simply taken said meeting at the table. As I left, I noticed discreetly situated power points under the banquette seat. Bring a laptop. Bring your clients. If you're in the business of spending money to make money, then this is the place to do it - satisfaction guaranteed.
Onslow, 9 Princes St, Auckland. Ph (09) 930 9123. We spent: $200 for two.