ON A HIGH TIDE
Judith Elen heads for New Zealand’s Wellington and finds a chef at the top of his craft
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.
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