Rating: * * * *
Address: 417 Manukau Rd, Epsom
Phone: (09) 631 5650
A chap I know who works very near Saison and knew I had eaten there asked whether it was any good. My response was to suggest that if I were he, I would go there after work, on my own - conversation can interfere with appreciation of good food, I find - and order the shellfish tortellini and a glass of the Alsatian pinot gris. I would do this every evening for the rest of my life, because I could set down my fork and my glass after this small treat knowing that life really was worth living.
If the truth be told, I dreamed about those tortellini for a day or two. They came in a sweetly Asian crayfish broth, topped with a small spume that was redolent of leek and, perhaps, pumpkin. It was strikingly presented without being so pretty you felt scared to eat it, and the mince of clams and pipis within the delicate pasta was dense yet soft enough to crush with the tongue.
I've passed this place often but always found the impenetrable facade slightly intimidating; a restaurant you can't see into is a bad look, I reckon. Until Saison started in January, it was called Sopranos and what I could glimpse suggested the kind of characterless upscale suburban joint where Tony would take someone for a bowl of rigatoni con peperoni before whacking them in the car park.
The interior confirmed my suspicions. The low lighting is nice but the ambience is business hotel and it needs a spruce-up: you could see that the frosted glass partition next to our table was badly chipped and stained because it was helpfully lit from below.
If the place is a little shabby, the maitre d' does much to redeem things: Jean-Jacques Bourvis, a Frenchman who'd been aptly described to me as "tres affable", has been in charge at both Otto's and TriBeCa. As befits a man of his experience (and nationality), he exudes a perfect balance of bonhomie and proficiency as he serves wine by the glass from the bottle at the table side. He calls you "monsieur" and "madame" and asks "Is everything to your satisfaction?" in a tone of voice that suggests that, if it were not, he would remedy it tout de suite, no matter what it took.
Not that chef Scott Denning leaves him with a lot to remedy. An alumnus of Michelin-starred London restaurants Le Gavroche and Pied a Terre, he knows how to treat diners, serving an amuse-bouche (mackerel with chilli and lime) and a watermelon sorbet before dessert. And his cooking shows real assurance.
The Professor was deeply impressed with a house-smoked salmon, thick-cut, warm and as smoky as a bishop's study, which came with caramelised chard. My rack of lamb was sublimely paired with little lamb sweetbreads and a delicate ratatouille, and the desserts - Denning has done his time as a pastry chef - were worth every cent of their high prices.
The sole vegetarian offering, rotolo - a large tubular pasta like cannelloni - stuffed with a slightly bland paste of courgette, kumara and haloumi, then baked, was the least successful dish; it seemed like an accompaniment to something that never arrived and the fact that it is the only option for vegetarians is regrettable. But these are early days for a restaurant that deserves to become busy as the nights close in.
Ambience: Upscale, but slightly down-at-heel
Vegetarians: One option, in entree or main size
Watch out for: The French wine list; it's on its way
Bottom line: Old-world charm and fine food