Reach­ing new heights in Auck­land, ho­tel din­ing with a dif­fer­ence in Welling­ton and imag­i­na­tion reigns in Christchurch.

Cuisine - - HIDDEN GEM -

AUCK­LAND Pas­ture 17/20 235 Par­nell Rd, Par­nell 09 300 5077, pas­tureakl.com Din­ner Wed-Sun Six-course set menu $135

SOME­TIMES YOU COME ACROSS a restau­rant that is do­ing some­thing so clev­erly en­tic­ing, with a clear sense of pas­sion, that it is hard not to get caught up in the ex­cite­ment. For me, Pas­ture is one of those places.

It’s a tiny 20-seater, with pol­ished con­crete and wooden ac­cents and many jars of fer­ments, pick­les and koji on dis­play be­hind the bar. Nes­tled in the corner is a wood-fired oven where most of the cook­ing is done. It’s a happy mar­riage of new Nordic and a Ja­panese aes­thetic; a re­flec­tion of the work­ing and trav­el­ling lives of own­ers Ed and Laura Verner. Ed is the chef while Laura man­ages the front of house, yet her back­ground in or­ganic hor­ti­cul­ture is put to good use while for­ag­ing for the many in­gre­di­ents that find their way onto the menu.

Food is a six-course sea­sonal set menu. It’s eth­i­cally sourced, a mostly plant-based menu with min­i­mum waste – mean­ing only as much as is needed for a ser­vice is pre­pared. Wines are nat­u­ral and the list is sur­pris­ing. If you let the staff guide you, or choose ei­ther the paired drinks or juices op­tion, you may be served wine, a Queen­stown sake or a Moutere cider, while the non-al­co­holic juices could be an in­fu­sion or a fer­ment – ex­cit­ing and com­plex, some­times chal­leng­ing and not nec­es­sar­ily easy drink­ing.

Dur­ing our late De­cem­ber visit, the fleet­ingly short sea­son of white as­para­gus was utilised to the fullest. Blanched and thinly sliced into scales, it was pre­sented in a beau­ti­ful fan shape, in­ter­spersed with sliv­ers of fresh al­monds and pick­led pink cherry blos­soms – a del­i­cately flavoured dish brought to­gether with an oys­ter cream. The joy of a sliver of bit­ter al­mond pro­vided a sharp shock, and the juice match of Granny Smith, cherry blos­som and fer­mented fei­joa was equally in­spired.

“Egg­plant-like steak” was just that. Whole egg­plants hung over the wood oven, sus­pended on string-like pieces of char­cu­terie, gen­tly smok­ing over a

num­ber of hours. Cut down for each ta­ble, they were grilled, then sliced thickly into steaks and served with a sharp basil bear­naise. This im­parted a chewy tex­ture in the egg­plant akin to rump; the deeply savoury tomato juice that ac­com­pa­nied it was a chal­leng­ing match.

The dish that is be­com­ing a sig­na­ture for Pas­ture is cray­fish smoked over manuka, served with a spoon­ful of bisque so rich and per­fectly ex­e­cuted that I wished I had man­aged to save some of the ex­quis­ite house-made wheat and rye sour­dough to mop up ev­ery morsel from the plate. Just as well, then, that the seg­ments of turnip nukazuke (Ja­panese pickle) wrapped in nas­tur­tium leaves with house­made ume­boshi were a per­fect foil for the rich­ness of the dish.

It’s hard to not talk about each dish in de­tail – the her­itage black pork with black gar­lic, with its crisp crust and ever-so-tender meat, was a tri­umph. Its unc­tu­ous­ness was cut with pre­served black­cur­rants and the sharp tang of wood sor­rel, and it was served with an in­spired wine match in Tom Shob­brook’s ‘Novello’.

Desserts could be prob­lem­atic for some din­ers – they aren’t cloy­ingly sweet and they aren’t ob­vi­ous com­bi­na­tions. Hence but­ter­milk granita and fresh raw peas with lemon ver­bena won’t be for every­one, but it was fresh and light and a good tran­si­tion from savoury to sweet. The clever buck­wheat, boy­sen­berry, beer and yeast shouldn’t be an is­sue, though – rich, creamy boy­sen­berry ice cream en­cased in wafers of crisp buck­wheat and burnt caramel, it was a richly nutty treat.

If all this sounds like a for­mula for wor­thy and for­mal din­ing, it isn’t. Cer­tainly the knowl­edge is what you’d ex­pect, but it is the warmth of Pas­ture’s con­fi­dent and per­son­able staff in shar­ing this fine-din­ing food, with­out even the slight­est hint of be­ing pa­tro­n­is­ing or stuffy, that makes the ex­pe­ri­ence an en­gag­ing one.

Chefs serve the ta­bles and an­swer any ques­tions, plaid shirts are the or­der of the day and the mu­sic is a mish­mash of quirky tracks, with a good mea­sure of 80s clas­sics. It’s play­ful, fun, chal­leng­ing and de­light­ful din­ing. If I were you, I’d try to get a ta­ble for two perched at the bar, over­look­ing the wood-fired oven so you can watch the zen-like con­stant at­ten­tion given to its con­trol. Also, do your­self a favour when book­ing and ask to re­serve a sour­dough loaf to take home (they’re also avail­able to buy from 1pm, Thurs­day to Sun­day), and savour in its de­li­cious­ness for the rest of the week. GINNY GRANT

RIGHT Samir Allen of Gem­mayze St; the bar at Gem­mayze St

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