Susan Kurosawa visits an Auckland restaurant with funky flavours and a space-age atmosphere
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.
bordello: Clooney’s space-age retro look is moody, with a buzz