ON A HIGH TIDE

Ju­dith Elen heads for New Zealand’s Welling­ton and finds a chef at the top of his craft

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TABLES -

THE wa­ter­front arcs this small New Zealand city with all the low-key charm of a back­wa­ter, yet there are pock­ets of high so­phis­ti­ca­tion. The gleam­ing Te Papa mu­seum of Maori his­tory is the har­bour­side’s only truly im­pos­ing struc­ture; my taxi sweeps past it, headed for the far end of the bay and a rather rus­tic-look­ing yacht club. The up­per level of this mod­est brown build­ing is where chef Martin Bosley has set up shop.

Steps lead from the street to a small lobby of var­nished wood with a firmly closed door on one side. I in­stantly think I’ve come on the wrong night, de­spite the sand­wich-board out on the foot­path but, as with many things here in NZ, a mo­ment’s pa­tience pays off.

The door yields to a gen­tle push and I’m inside a long nar­row space, rather like a stylish an­te­room to some­where else ex­cept that there are ta­bles, a bar along one wall and, be­yond that, I later learn, the en­closed kitchen.

Be­hind the bar, a mir­ror re­flects the fac­ing win­dows and the night-time har­bour be­yond. There are shad­owy boat masts out there and lights span­gling the dark­ness.

Bosley’s fame is well es­tab­lished in food cir­cles, and I am here be­cause of it, but his restau­rant is a prom­ise yet to be ex­plored.

The wel­come, on ar­rival, is warm. Front of house is qui­etly boy­ish John­Paul. My Welling­ton friend, Mercedes (Mercy), who knows some­thing about food and even more about NZ wines, is al­ready prop­ping up the bar, a glass of lo­cal bub­bles in hand. I perch on a stool at her side and join her in a glass of Pelorus Cu­vee NV ($NZ16, $13) as we as­sess the softly lit room.

A half-dozen ta­bles flank the win­dows; there are nine all up, each, to a Syd­neysider, with lux­u­ri­ous floor space be­tween. When we cross to our ta­ble, warm bread ar­rives with fleur de sel and olive oil ($NZ7). Our waiter, Amy, brings us a com­pli­men­tary shot glass of ap­ple brandy, ginger ale and lemon. She is de­lighted we like this zingy mouth­ful be­cause it’s her cre­ation, she tells us, the staff tak­ing it in turns to in­vent a pre-din­ner cock­tail taster.

The menu — seven en­trees, four shell­fish dishes and seven mains — is full of de­lights. Fish of the day (there are four) can be or­dered grilled with veg­eta­bles if you don’t feel fancy, but most dishes of­fer a sym­phony of tex­tures and flavours.

Mercy fi­nally de­cides on the trio of tar­tars ($NZ30), of which more later; and for her main, fish a la plan­cha, a Span­ish term, she tells me, for ‘‘ done on the hot­plate’’ ($NZ45).

I’ve heard Bosley is a leader in serv­ing lo­cal fish, by all ac­counts a bat­tle in Welling­ton, where the best fresh pro­duce, in­clud­ing seafood, gen­er­ally wings its way else­where. Fruits of the sea dom­i­nate the menu, of­ten with car­niv­o­rous touches such as poached bone mar­row or crispy pork belly.

There are a few dishes for car­ni­vores but only one listed for veg­e­tar­i­ans, an en­tree: an in­trigu­ing melange of tomato (gaz­pa­cho, tomato sponge, shaved pear and tomato seed salad, sour­dough crou­tons, veg­etable caviar, $NZ26). The en­tree list­ing al­lows veg­e­tar­i­ans to start their meal with the ta­ble, while their spe­cially ne­go­ti­ated main is pre­pared (per­haps pasta, bar­ley risotto, cous­cous; with hot jel­lies, frozen foams, veg­etable broths).

I pounce on the sin­gle meat en­tree: ril­lette of lamb’s tongue (the tongue not my nor­mal first choice, though I love ril­lette) with prawn, pont neuf pota­toes, spinach, ‘‘ melt­ing foie gras mousse’’ (the de­cid­ing fac­tor) and salsa verde ($NZ30). To com­plete my meaty meal, I choose co­coa-roasted Can­ter­bury duck breast with a suite of lus­cious sides ($NZ47). Set for some se­ri­ous eat­ing, we or­der a bot­tle. I’ve con­fessed my ad­dic­tion to sauvi­gnon blanc so Mercy sug­gests the Te Awa 2006 ($NZ55) from Hawkes Bay, which prom­ises to be a lovely, min­er­ally ac­com­pa­ni­ment to fish and fowl.

Mercy’s tar­tar trio ar­rives in com­pressed cubes of suc­cu­lent fish bits: red tuna with roast cap­sicum, ca­pers, bal­samic re­duc­tion and a sweep of ton­nato sauce (tuna-based may­on­naise); groper sharply blended with smoked eel potato salad, a rec­tan­gle of smoked eel as­pic (sub­tle in the mouth, with a po­tent af­ter­taste) and a creamy scoop of horse­rad­ish chan­tilly; and crab paired with a sur­pris­ing av­o­cadopineap­ple gua­camole, and even more sur­pris­ing co­conut rice crispies.

The un­ex­pected turns out to be a key­note here: fleet­ingly sharp or sweet notes fo­cus rich­ness; cubes of crunchy pork con­cen­trate del­i­cate fish; a sud­den crunch of salt flakes ex­plodes in a dessert or sauce. My ril­lette is an­other com­pressed rec­tan­gle with a crisp top layer, bed­ded on potato slices. There’s a sin­gle lightly glazed prawn and all is off­set by the dark-green flavours of spinach and salsa verde; a gen­er­ous quenelle of foie gras mousse sits on top.

The com­bi­na­tions ex­cite the taste buds and are just the right size; we won­der whether mains will be semi­tast­ing serves, but Mercy’s fish ar­rives, a thick white fil­let of line-caught snap­per with golden sides and gleam­ing skin; trails of grilled cala­mari on top are veiled in sweet red onion vi­nai­grette. A ban­ner of bean salad flecked with toasted al­monds abuts a line of roasted pear and pork belly cubes. The fish is moist and sweet and the ac­com­pa­ni­ments in­spired.

Duck is on just about ev­ery menu at the mo­ment and I love it, but it can be dry or just plain dreary. My main is light years away from ei­ther.

A half-breast, the crisp skin sub­tly en­hanced with dutch co­coa pow­der, sits be­side a com­pact pas­try-wrapped par­cel (Moroc­can b’stilla) of leg meat atop a round of egg­plant puree. Mous­se­line potato and spinach off­set the meat and a comet streak of cin­na­mon glu­cose and fat dark drops of sauce — a red wine re­duc­tion fin­ished with Val­rhona’s spicy Xo­copili choco- late — are a sweet, dark un­der­score.

Mercy would have liked more in­formed ex­pla­na­tion of dishes from the young staff, but there has not been a sin­gle false note in our meal.

In a restau­rant such as this, it would be a sin to by­pass dessert. We choose five tex­tures of Val­rhona choco­late ($NZ19) and two spoons. It ar­rives look­ing like an Ed­war­dian hat headed for As­cot: an el­lip­ti­cal tof­fee-tu­ile topped with a black cube of ganache, quenelles of mocca ice cream and ma­hogany-dark mousse. A sweep of pow­dered salty pra­line and tall feath­ers of choco­late com­plete the pic­ture (a head­ress on the wall, three white feath­ers drift­ing down a win­dow pane are other feath­ery notes). Eat­ing your hat has never tasted so good. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for.

Check­list

Martin Bosley’s 103 Ori­en­tal Pde, Cen­tral City, Welling­ton, NZ. +64 4 920 8302; www.martin-bosley.com. Open: Lunch, Mon­day-Fri­day; din­ner, Tues­day-Satur­day. Cost: About $NZ186 for three cour­ses for two with­out wines. Drink: Wide NZ and French mix, a range by the glass; 12 cham­pagnes led by Bollinger Vielle Vignes Fran­caises 1997 ($NZ1040). Rea­son to re­turn: Com­mit­ment to de­tail verges on the ob­ses­sive and at the ta­ble it’s noth­ing but easy plea­sure.

Hat’s off: Martin Bosley’s restau­rant, over­look­ing Welling­ton Har­bour

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