Sunday, June 2, 2013

The greatest meal in Auckland

I ate what I think was the best meal of my life on Wednesday, at an Auckland restaurant which has always been great, and has recently been incredible, and last week transcended incredible – became a jaw dropping, palate smashing, knee trembling trip through ten of the greatest dishes I’ve ever eaten.

There are only five seats available each night. Five! Six if you want to squeeze, which really you might want to try because who goes out in a party of five? Two couples and their recently widowed friend? The Breakers grand final starting line up? Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, Charlotte and Fonzie?

 We were just a two. A three if you count the baby who was due on Saturday, but she wouldn’t have eaten much but a couple of beetroot ribbons; she’d have been too busy packing for the move. So two of us it was, with plenty of room to move quickly if the girlfriend’s internal sous vide sprung a leak part way through.

You get ten courses, but it’s really thirteen, what with the three amuse bouche that come before anything else. Yeah, I just pluralised a French phrase without adding an ‘s’ to it. I didn’t even look that up, it just seems like that’s what you should do. I’ve never had to talk about more than one amuse bouche before. You see the sort of paradigm-breaking shit we’re talking about here?

Have you skipped ahead to find out where I’m talking about yet? Don’t feel bad, I totally would have too. Because I’d have no patience for this sort of upside down review. I wouldn’t trust me. I’d say “yeah, I know what you’re trying to do but I’ll enjoy things much more if I just know where you’re talking about, then I can relax and read.”

So of course, to clarify, there are more than five seats in this restaurant but I’m talking specifically about the chef’s table, which opened a week ago and has no equivalent anywhere in the city. Euro has a very good chef’s table I reviewed a couple of years ago but by comparison it now feels more geared to out of town gawkers than local gourmands in search of perfection.

At this new chef’s table you get a front row view of the kitchen without actually having to make small talk with the chefs. They don’t talk you through recipes step-by-step or anything, but they do bring each dish out to you personally and tell you what it’s all about. I was chatting to Pop Dining’s Ben Barton recently about an emerging style of restaurant in the states where chefs wheel around the tapas they’ve created in yum cha trolleys and ‘sell’ them to diners. They get to talk about the food they’ve made and why, with no room for a middle man to screw it up. It’s the (near) future and you get some of those benefits at this chef’s table set-up too, not that you’d need to worry about these wait staff dropping anything in the translation – they’re the sort of perfectionists who would have to quietly gas themselves at home later if you asked them a question they couldn’t immediately answer.

Let’s take one dish:

There it is. A hunk of tuna, red like a blood orange, with fresh picked crab, a Jerusalem artichoke puree and choke chips … surf and earth, with richness and cleanness and silk in your mouth. That’s one of thirteen, and it’s probably the least complicated. No foams or powders or puffed anything. Speaking of foams, if you’re mentally rehearsing a little speech where you tell me that you just want REAL FOOD and that you’re not really into this ‘art on a plate’ thing then you need to review your party line. Foams and things are only stupid if the chef’s showing off with them, but if the foam is doing something useful like keeping a piece of meat moist (I know) or providing flavour without an unwanted texture then you need to accept that it’s doing a good job. Saying you don’t like foams in cooking is like saying you don’t like keyboards in rock music. If Van Halen can get over it then so can you.

There’s a lot more to say about the food, but I hope you’ll get to say it yourself. The chef’s table at Sidart is now open for business, Tuesday to Saturday. The ten course meal takes three or four hours, and I’d be dumbstruck if you could fault a single minute of it.

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