Following the announcement that Auckland restaurant The Grove has rated ninth best in the world and best in New Zealand by Trip Advisor, here's what food critic Kim Knight thought when she reviewed a seven course degustation there in May this year.
There was no apple tree in the Garden of Eden.
This startling news comes courtesy of a BBC Radio 4 podcast interview with Pete Brown, author of The Apple Orchard. Last week, on the bus to work, everything I thought I knew about the Old Testament (spoiler: not much) was turned on its head. According to Brown, the only fruit mentioned by name in the Book of Genesis, is the fig.
In the beginning, there were figs. Soft, ripe, sexy, luscious, forbidden figs.
Fast-forward a few millennia. Six courses into the seven course degustation at The Grove and I, too, was going to hell in a lustful handbasket.
Yes, there was another pudding. Yes, it featured flaming hard liquor on a bombe alaska with meringue that was piped at the table. But for me, dinner had been defined by a fig leaf brulee with buttermilk icecream. The simple sepia-toned study belied the extravagant depth and warmth of this dish. The ultra-rich dairy components, a gravelly, caramelly crumb and the fearless placement of a wedge of unadorned raw fruit was a bravo moment from the pastry department.
New head chef Scott Denning (who took over from Ben Bayly in February) has inherited a great team. So what's he bringing to the table?
In his first interview with the Herald, he talked about his plans for a butternut ravioli. And if that sounded like less bang for your fixed-price-buck than you'd like, then eating is believing.
There were actually three layers of filling inside the silky pasta wrapper, including a piece of scampi that must have required some insanely precise timing to ensure it was just cooked and not overcooked. There was smooth pumpkin and tiny cubes of pickled pumpkin, and (I am sure I heard the waitperson say this, though I can find no mention of it on the menu, fish mousseline). The bisque, poured tableside, was light but so intensely flavoured that it reminded me more of an XO sauce (minus the chilli) than a creamy French classic.
James wanted to drink from his plate and it's possible nobody would have minded. At the table next to us, a man was scraping amuse-bouche off the pristine white tablecloth. I felt his pain. When the tempura soft-shell crab served on an oyster shell of seafoody-custard arrived, what I wanted most was a side plate. (After I'd eaten it, what I wanted most was a second helping.)
I understand pre-dinner snacks are meant to be a single bite affair, but anything that reduces the possibility of food on a posh frock gets my vote. The Grove is one of the best restaurants in the city, but these tiny moments of disquiet negated a perfect score.
In the bathroom, for example, minding my own business, there was a loud bang on the door and then a man came in to take away the dirty towels — maybe send a woman to the Womens? Later, before that final, flaming dessert, a clear plastic piping bag tied off at one end was plonked on the table and left for several long and inelegant minutes. If you're planning to perform magic, don't ruin the punchline.
Picky? When the bill for two is $530 (including wine pairings) I think you can afford to be.
That wine match was, by the way, stunning. Highlights included an unfiltered sparkling sauvignon blanc from The Hermit Ram in the Waipara Valley that was the fizzy oceanic soundtrack to kingfish, apple and miso with a hint of oyster. Gewurztraminer from the country's only gewurtz-only winery, Vinoptima, was luscious and ripe against the raviolo and a Milton "Clos Samuel" viognier created the perfect closed loop with the figgy pudding.
Our two meat dishes (Northland pork belly and cheek and Te Mana lamb saddle) were good but not glorious. My pork belly could definitely have been crackled harder (James' was audibly exemplary), and while the lamb was technically perfect, its leanness meant you had to really search for the flavour — when my palate hit a creamy sweetbread, the contrast was almost too shocking.
The Grove is an Auckland stalwart and that is not about to change. On a rainy Saturday night, it was jam-packed with the well-dressed, well-fed and, presumably, well-paid. A four-course degustation is $99 a head and the seven-course is $145 (before wine). It is appropriate perhaps, that the final course before we took our credit card back out into the dark and stormy night, was a bite-sized buttery cake called a financier.