Chris Reed marks a special occasion with a weekend of tasteful luxury
You could, the waiter said, order from the a la carte menu. He paused. But the executive chef might prefer you to plump for the signature menu.
And who would want to upset an executive chef, especially one keen to delight a visiting journalist?
So, five courses later (the sixth, cheese, was a plate too far) we reflected on a decision as well made as the meal.
Just as well, because we had an appointment with said chef, Barry Frith, the following day. And that's when things started getting really decadent.
We arrived at Kauri Cliffs near Kerikeri late one warm Friday afternoon in mid-Autumn. There had been less bickering than normal on the four-hour drive from Auckland. It was our 10th wedding anniversary. Five years of happy marriage.
The approach belies the glories that await. You turn from state highway onto farm road which gives way to metalled track. The track undulates down a long straight, the promise of the Pacific at eye level across the fields.
Then the big white lodge appears. Lodge in the sense of massive colonial-style mansion rather than backpacking bolthole. It's welcoming, the design, fixtures and fittings conveying tradition and understated refinement. Staff traverse the tightrope between being there when needed and overbearance.
Within an hour we'd wowed at the views, chosen herbal tea over alcohol for our welcome drink, checked out our deluxe suite, changed into bathrobes and wandered through totara forest to the spa for a massage.
It was there I spotted a piece of art I liked. I recognised the signature. Miro. As in Joan, the Barcalonan painter and sculptor. Is that the original I asked, unaccustomed to such sights at the YMCA. Yes, came the response, politely, albeit, perhaps, with a sense of surprise at the question. Post-prandial Googling indicated it sold in 2006 for almost 200,000 pounds.
American billionaire Julian Robertson, the owner of Kauri Cliffs, and two other New Zealand lodges, Cape Kidnappers in Hawke's Bay and Matakauri in Queenstown, is no stranger to art. He and late wife Josie donated 15 works worth a then estimated $115 million to Auckland Art Gallery in 2009. Robertson is committed to local philanthropy too, much of it unpublicised.
Recently diagnosed with a lower back spasm, I asked for a grunty massage. Deep like the Kermadec, it beat a backstreet Indian extravaganza with two blokes who looked like Borat into second place on my all-time list. I snoozed for a moment. I may have woken myself up with a monster snore.
The suite was a showcase of sybaritism. Super-kingsize bed, lounge chairs, complimentary refreshments and maximum satellite TV. All with a balcony and nestled in bush.
It was almost a wrench to leave for dinner, preceded by canapes and aperitifs in the lounge at the heart of the lodge, an open door to the verandah overlooking the world-famous golf course.
I'd been offered a round but didn't have the nerve, or the back, to hack my way down fairways which have hosted presidents and prime ministers. So after breakfast on Saturday morning, we took a golf cart and went exploring.
I've visited other coastal courses of renown, including Pebble Beach in California and St Andrews in Scotland. They can't boast anything better than the view from the seventh tee at Kauri Cliffs.
Facing inland you look over a bush-clad gully up to the lodge. South-east you see Tapuaetahi Beach on the Te Tii peninsula, beyond which lies the Bay of Islands. Swivel north and there are the Cavalli Islands, as the coastline turns left on the way to Taupo Bay. Phenomenal.
We drove to the northern edge of the course and parked the cart before walking down a steep track to Waiaua Bay, one of three private beaches on the 6000-acre property.
The kitchen had prepared a green salad for a picnic lunch. They'll do much more, but we were feeling guilty after dinner and breakfast. I had my last swim before winter in breakers bursting 20 metres from the tideline. We were the only people there.
Later, as the light eased, guest relations manager John Lewis took us to Pink Beach, site of summer barbecues under the stars. That afternoon it was wind holding off rain, elaborate shells and exquisite beauty.
It's easy to see why the Robertsons chose this old sheep farm as the site for their first lodge, and why the family keeps coming back.
You can stay in the owner's cottage, overlooking the golf course, where Julian Robertson usually spends a decent chunk of summer. A chip shot away, three executive homes being built will be perfect, one would think, for his three sons.
Like the lodge, the cottage's name conveys nothing of the luxury involved. With a spa, infinity pool and sheltered tropical garden, it also offers a peek at a billionaire's bookshelf. Alongside a John Grisham and volumes about US presidents sit several books on New Zealand, including Michael King's Penguin History of … and a field guide to native trees.
Back at the lodge, we met executive chef Frith during a Saturday afternoon lull in prep.
He connected with cooking during boyhood baking in the far north-east of England. A very fancy riff on his early scones sometimes appears as canapes.
Inspired by those titans of the English kitchen, Gordon Ramsey and Marco Pierre-White, before their celebrity eclipsed their cooking, Frith favours punchy flavours.
A six-week honeymoon in south-east Asia provided a "great understanding of simplicity, colours and aromas". His food is deceptively complex and elegantly presented, although far from dominated by the chili thwack of Thailand, Vietnam and the like.
Among the highlights were the fresh riot of chargrilled marinated eggplant with courgette, basil and tomato coulis; the subtle power of tempura soft shell crab with Asian slaw, cashew and lime mayonnaise; and the earthy wallop of Northland lamb loin with herb gnocchi, chorizo, broccoli and peppercorn jus.
I mentioned decadence. In passing, we'd told Frith it was our wedding anniversary.
So, when we did private dining that night, in a flame-fire-heated room off the verandah, the pineapple carpaccio was gone from the printed signature menu, replaced by a bespoke chocolate dessert.
Rich and glossy, dark and sticky, it was kissed with tempered curls, the finest chocolate pud I can remember, matched perfectly with a 2017 sweet-but-far-from-cloyingly-so Riesling from the Robertsons' own Dry River winery in Marlborough.
As noted before in these pages, I'm far from a wine expert, but throughout the weekend I found sommelier Valeria Weihmuller's choices very good indeed, delivering expertly on the limited thoughts I was able to provide.
It did mean Sunday morning was muted, talk of tennis and the gym left in yesterday. But the swimming pool and adjacent jacuzzi proved a cobweb-buster before the drive back.
It would be foolish to suggest Kauri Cliffs is anything other than a luxury experience with a commensurate cost.
The menu's use of American terms for certain ingredients – scallion for spring onions and zucchini for courgette, for example – reflects where the bulk of business comes from.
But there are domestic deals during winter (and this is the Winterless North lest we forget) and it's perfect for an occasion. You might even get a special chocolate pudding.
&bull: Stay four nights, pay for three: Valid until October 31 for new reservations. Also applies to Cape Kidnappers and Matakauri.
&bull: New Zealand and Australian residents' special: Valid for bookings to May 31, for stay to September 30. $775 + GST per person per night, based on double or twin occupancy.
A Celebration of Gin, June 7-9
"Gin tragic" Michael "Mikey" Ball will host tastings and demos to mark International Gin Day. The charismatic Kiwi, who became a leading bartender in London, will showcase latest trends at cocktail hours on Friday and Saturday nights. On Saturday afternoon he'll lead a two-hour masterclass and that night each dish in a five-course tasting menu will celebrate a specific gin botanical. Cost: $1700 + GST per person, based on double occupancy.
The Origins of Wine, August 9-11
Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter asks what's truly important: site or winemaker. Friday's highlight will be welcome drinks followed by a night of camaraderie, with guests asked to "bring a bottle" from their cellar to share over a long table Burgundian-style dinner. A Saturday afternoon workshop will be followed by a tasting menu dinner matched with Felton Road wines. Cost: $1700 + GST per person, based on double occupancy.
For more information about special events – and what's included in the cost, visit: https://www.robertsonlodges.com/exclusive-offers/lodge-events