Su­san Kuro­sawa vis­its an Auck­land restau­rant with funky flavours and a space-age at­mos­phere

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

FEEL as if I am on the bridge of the Starship En­ter­prise. My bur­nished brown leather seat spins at the ta­ble like an in­ter­ga­lac­tic com­man­der’s chair. At any tick I could change course to planet Vul­can and re­align the uni­verse as we know it. For­give me the StarTrek fan­tasies but at Clooney in the Auck­land sub­urb of Free­mans Bay the mood is so spaceagey retro that I want to zip back to the 1960s, wear a sil­ver tu­nic and sit on William Shat­ner’s knee.

In a con­verted ware­house with mas­sive con­crete sur­faces, retro saucer chairs, sput­nik-style lighting and dark decor, Clooney is in­dus­trial edgy, with a touch of Bar­barella bordello.

Ours is a nar­row ban­quette ta­ble but larger groups are seated at booths or in al­most se­cre­tive cir­cles rimmed with black mesh cur­tains, bul­bous low-hang­ing lighting giv­ing the ef­fect of hov­er­ing party bal­loons (but make that a goth party). The dim feel is moody, the buzz is pal­pa­ble. Ap­par­ently there’s a pri­vate room, too, seat­ing 14 at a long shiny ta­ble. And there’s a buzzy base­ment open­ing to a court­yard; per­haps Ge­orge (Clooney) is down there, idly sip­ping a mar­tini.

The kitchen can be viewed through a slit-like servery be­hind our ta­ble and busi­ness is brisk this Thurs­day night. Clooney opened in Novem­ber 2006 and af­ter ini­tial hic­cups and sug­ges­tions of style over (food) sub­stance, it has a new chef and was a fi­nal­ist in NZ Cui­sine mag­a­zine’s Restau­rant of the Year 2008. It ap­pears to have a loyal clien­tele and there is also a bar with a very good small-plates menu, in­clud­ing char­cu­terie, an­tipasti and al­mond-crusted cala­mari with lemon­flavoured salt and wasabi may­on­naise.

Our chirpy waiter Guy wel­comes us to Auck­land and asks how things are go­ing across the ditch. His am­bi­tion is to work in Syd­ney, he says; ours, dur­ing a long week­end in New Zealand, is to sam­ple as much pro­duce as is de­cently pos­si­ble. New Zealan­ders, in gen­eral, do a fine job of pro­mot­ing their food and wine and all the wait­ers we en­counter over the next few days are well­versed in the prove­nance of in­gre­di­ents.

Clooney head chef Des­mond Har­ris’s sea­sonal menu re­lies on the best of home-grown fare, from paua sea snails and scal­lops from the boun­ti­ful Coro­man­del to best lamb from the Hawkes Bay and Napier re­gion of the North Is­land; the a la carte se­lec­tion is small­ish but fea­tures com­pli­cated com­bi­na­tions.

He’s a fan of jelly, but not as we lovers of tri­fle and cus­tard know it. Har­ris’s jel­lies are var­i­ously in­fused with dark and nutty Oloroso sherry, spiced mer­lot, or barely-there flavours such as el­der­flower. Ex­e­cu­tions such as frozen foam, wine and vine­gar sor­bet, white truf­fle oil cus­tard, green car­damom ice cream and a cu­ri­ous part­ner­ship of chocolate soil and licorice smack of brave goings-on in his culi­nary lab­o­ra­tory.

I opt for a starter of cray­fish con­somme ($NZ27, $21), which is in­tensely flavoured but wafer-thin in vol­ume; the broth is poured from a jug over poached shell­fish ar­ranged in the well of a fly­ing-saucer of a dish that looks un­for­tu­nately like Fido’s din­ner bowl. There are lovely hints of tar­ragon and cit­rus tart­ness but the seafood is a smidgin over­cooked.

My part­ner’s choice of crisp free-range pork belly ($NZ25) is more gen­er­ous in size and comes with sauteed baby paua, oys­ter mush­rooms and lemon vin­cotto. He fol­lows with a main of crisp con­fit of duck leg ($NZ39) and in­stantly de­clares it as fall-apart fab­u­lous’’; it’s ac­com­pa­nied by wit­lof salad with juli­enned ap­ple, a dol­lop of creamed parsnip and ap­peal­ingly as­trin­gent ap­ple and el­der­flower jelly.

My main of roasted Hawkes Bay nat­u­ral lamb ($NZ38) is any­thing but a sim­ple Sun­day roast. Ten­der chunks of the meat are served with beau­ti­fully sweet peas, po­lenta and a re­duced gravy of winey rich­ness. Serv­ings are small­ish and de­mand side dishes, which in­clude per­fectly steamed as­para­gus with lemon and tar­ragon but­ter ($NZ8) or shoe­string fries en­livened with truf­fle oil and specks of parme­san ($NZ7).

Our choice of Te Tera Pinot Noir ($NZ15.50 a glass) from the Marl­bor­ough re­gion, with its suc­cu­lent hints of cherry, works well but seems dis­cour­ag­ingly pricey. There’s a fine se­lec­tion of NZ drops on the wine list, most from the up­per price end.

To fin­ish, we clash spoons over a but­ter­milk pan­na­cotta ($NZ16) of ex­traor­di­nary silk­i­ness, served with rasp­berry feul­len­tine and fra­grant with laven­der. The lighting is so low that I can man­age a few ex­tra lunges while my part­ner peers gamely in its di­rec­tion.

There’s also a won­der­ful cheese menu, mostly French, but in­clud­ing a lo­cal of­fer­ing of goat’s milk cheese from Tararua, de­scribed as a creamy, ir­re­sistibly soft tex­ture with a nutty, mush­room flavour’’. Por­tions are about 40g, priced as one cheese ($NZ14), two ($NZ26) or three ($NZ36). It has been a groovy night out and our (thank­fully well-sprung) rental car awaits to trans­port us be­yond Auck­land on fur­ther culi­nary ad­ven­tures. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for.


Clooney 33 Sale St, Free­mans Bay, Auck­land, New Zealand. +64 9 358 1702; www.clooney.co.nz. Open: Lunch, Tues­day to Fri­day; din­ner, Mon­day to Satur­day. Cost: About $NZ160 for two. Rea­son to re­turn: To sam­ple more of Des­mond Har­ris’s to-boldly-go cre­ations.

Pic­ture: Ken Downie

bordello: Clooney’s space-age retro look is moody, with a buzz

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