Jesse Mulligan Restaurant Review: One Tree Grill Is An Auckland Institution For A Reason

By Jesse Mulligan
One Tree Grill's beef sirloin with garlic butter, and the truffle risotto. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: Fine Dining

Address: 9 Pah Rd, Epsom

Phone: (09) 909 7215

Reservations: Accepted

Drinks: Fully licensed

From the menu: Courgette and three cheese ballotine $27; truffle risotto $34; sirloin steak $58; beetroot salad $15

Rating: 17/20

Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss.

Okay look. I will be honest and tell you that I didn’t plan to eat here this week, or indeed this decade. A famous Auckland restaurant — an institution, even — One Tree Grill has long been forgotten by awards nights and best-of lists yet it ploughs on, seemingly unaware that it is out of fashion. It always has been here and, (having got this far, one assumes), always will be here. I’ve never reviewed it because, to me, it would have felt like I was reviewing the sun.

But I landed here out of desperation when I was turned away from a restaurant down the road (they knew who I was but they simply couldn’t find one seat — the owner messaged me the next day to apologise but I was actually stoked for him. Enjoy your success!). There were no other viable restaurants within five kilometres and I was eating to a deadline so I took a punt, and ended up glad that I did.

The dining room is dressed with pristine white tablecloths. Photo / Babiche Martens
The dining room is dressed with pristine white tablecloths. Photo / Babiche Martens

This is a fine dining restaurant by the simple definition my former editor and mentor Simon Wilson used to use: it has white tablecloths and free bread. There was a “no white tablecloths” activism movement a decade or so ago, as restaurants around the western world rebelled against formality and tradition, but I think there are plenty of diners out there who still enjoy both. Sharing food, sharing bench seats, sharing blankets, these have all been nice innovations but I don’t think there’s any reason to demand we abandon the old ways altogether. A special occasion still needs to feel special.

Another benefit of fine dining is that the wait staff are usually very invested in their jobs. They have most of the answers to your questions and know how to find out the rest. They’re also great at making chat in a way that doesn’t feel rehearsed.

“Do you make these yourself at home?” one of them guessed, about my negroni. “Do you go for the standard a third/a third/a third, or mix it up a little?”

Well, thank you for asking, young man. I felt like I’d been waiting my whole life for someone to show an interest in my painstakingly perfected recipe. People should hire him to wander around the room at parties and make guests feel that they’re interesting.

The bar features a glance of the wine cellar down below. Photo / Babiche Martens
The bar features a glance of the wine cellar down below. Photo / Babiche Martens

The staff are all great. Each time I thought I’d met the most senior person in the business another older, wiser gentleman would step in and take charge. This is a big room and I never saw a customer waiting; never saw a staff member look anything other than relaxed and in control. Though perhaps they could have given a little more away about their chef, who I’ve subsequently found out is ex French Cafe. All my waiter was willing to offer was that he is “German”.

Food service begins with them handing you a digital tablet — “there’s very little capital outlay and after that you can use it for years, syncing it up easily with your computer every time there’s a menu change”, said the young man who told me he’d abandoned university for hospitality, though he might want to look at a career in sales. It’s an unusual and unexpected way to choose your food but it works fine, with each menu item expanding at your touch to display a photo of what the dish looks like, plus a recommended wine match.

Please order the truffle risotto while it’s available. At $34 it’s an affordable way to experience a delicacy most of the world can only read about, and the truff is really doing the business here, infusing the whole dish with a fragrant, hormonal intensity that no other ingredient can offer. These truffles come from Motueka and, if they weren’t enough, the risotto is studded with prawn meat, with mascarpone folded through for added richness.

The black truffle risotto. Photo / Babiche Martens
The black truffle risotto. Photo / Babiche Martens

A courgette ballotine was delicious, the sort of dish you don’t see anywhere anymore — inventive but old-fashioned fancy (okay, possibly a little too much of both), it features three cheeses whipped together and moulded, then wrapped in strips of raw zucchini and plated next to lightly pickled spring veges and a tamarillo sorbet, itself sitting on a black olive crumb. It tasted lovely, even if the sum ended up a touch less than the added parts.

When we first started going out my wife, Victoria, would complain (or at least observe) that the entrees were much more appetising than the mains. “That’s why they call them appetisers,” I would reply, eliciting nary a chuckle. With the demise of places like Vinnie’s, Bowmans and Tribeca, One Tree Grill may be one of the last restaurants where this is still the case — where maximum creative effort goes into the starters, while the mains are listed as “Sirloin, 300g”, which ends up being, if anything, an overly descriptive preview of the dish.

It was a slab of meat on a plate, no question. But it was one of the loveliest steaks I’ve had in Auckland — combining the flavour of Scotch with the yielding tenderness of eye fillet. The jus was tasty and plentiful, and a black garlic butter spread over the steak further increased the umami.

The courgette and three cheese ballotine with tamarillo sorbet. Photo / Babiche Martens
The courgette and three cheese ballotine with tamarillo sorbet. Photo / Babiche Martens

I was surrounded by happy people who, like the restaurant, didn’t seem to have much awareness that the past 20 years had ever happened. Good for them. There is still a place for this sort of dining, and as other businesses struggle with the economic conditions, One Tree Grill may just find that an old formula is the one that works.

From dining out editor Jesse Mulligan.

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