90 Federal St Auckland
Ph: (09) 363 7030
I asked last week whether you had to be Italian to cook great Italian food. The answer is no. A Yorkshireman, Sean Connolly, is behind the newest restaurant in town, which captures the essence of Italian.
Connolly, the man behind The Grill steakhouse, has colonised the space vacated by Peter Gordon's dine. It's an odd fit. Gusto's website promises "rustic Italian ... simple food, classic flavours and fresh seasonal ingredients". But there's nothing rustic, simple or classic about the room. They've loosened it up by opening it up to the lobby and turning the previous gentlemen's club frontage into a bar and losing those terrible leather chairs, but Tom Skyring's overblown design, including the UFO-style chandeliers, remains.
Perhaps inspired by the surroundings' former occupants, the staff lay on the formality a bit thick. The Professor remarked that by the time we sat down and before we had even received a glass of water, five separate people, including the woman who seated us, had welcomed us and wished us a very good evening. By number three I was chuckling; by number five I was struggling to breathe. When we left (and I don't think I had been recognised; I can usually tell) we virtually walked along a guard of honour and I felt tempted to high-five the entire line.
Throughout the evening our waiter checked in with tiresome frequency, too, although his French accent and turn of phrase ("Is everything perfect for you?") made him irresistible. He was certainly more couth than the maitre d', whose inquiry about why we weren't drinking was very faintly aggressive.
It would be charitable to ascribe such solicitousness to the anxiety that attends on newness - the place had been open less than a fortnight - and it would possibly do for everybody to loosen up a bit. They could take a lead from the kitchen, where they are turning out food that is both classy and effortless.
The menu moves through bites, pasta and sides to more substantial fare (with some impressive cheeses on the dessert menu) but the transitions are pretty seamless. It's not really an entree/main/dessert set-up so much as a place where you jump around and get a little or a lot of whatever takes your fancy, from olives and parmesan to a kingfish tail, wrapped in prosciutto and baked.
We were taken with the idea of home-made ricotta (with honey and pine nuts) which the waiter urged us to accompany with a tiny pizza topped with slices of smoky roasted garlic and fresh young rosemary leaves. It was a marriage made in heaven and we slathered the crusty, slightly charred pizza with the creamy new cheese.
From the pasta selection we chose what were described as Sardinian ravioli, which, I learned, differed from mainland recipes in being shaped more like tiny pasties than flat envelopes, and filled with potato, lightly flavoured with mint and pecorino. I learned this from Connolly himself, who had just arrived after going to see his good mate Jimmy Barnes at the Springsteen concert and was walking the floor in pinstripe apron making sure everyone was happy. Nice touch, even if he was the sixth.
Three large pork and veal meatballs came drizzled with a tomato passata that was too delicate to be called rustic, though any Italian peasant or city slicker would like the recipe. A salad of radicchio, orange and shaved fennel salad was a tart, tangy delight and made an excellent foil to the evening's stand-out dish.
This was the aforementioned kingfish tail, big as a ballerina's thigh, and baked with a mess of capers. A waiter prepared it at the table, not in the delicate, silver-service sole meuniere style, but running a carving knife down the backbone and folding the skin back to reveal the succulent, meaty flesh. Equal parts fine dining and driftwood barbecue on a beach, it was one of the best dishes I've ever eaten.
The Professor would not forgive me for failing to mention the rum baba, which was dealt to tableside by Connolly. Its full name is Rum Baba 1835, which refers to the date that it was reportedly invented in Paris. A cylinder of rich and yeasty sponge, like a brioche on steroids, is soaked with Jamaican rum and topped with vanilla mascarpone. Do not miss it. It will change your life.
Verdict: Bravo, maestro