The Sugar Club

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - Kim Knight

Fash­ion is fickle. One day you’re in, next day you’re on sale with free de­liv­ery from a knock-off out­let near you. Food is like frocks, but back­wards. Lamb shanks used to be $3 apiece, then you couldn’t af­ford them be­cause ev­ery sec­ond restau­rant started slop­ping them on po­lenta. Re­mem­ber po­lenta? Boiled corn­meal. Very pop­u­lar in pre-pa­leo (diet) times.

In his book The Tastemak­ers, David Sax notes food trends are spring­ing up quicker and grow­ing faster than ever be­fore: “We are liv­ing in a gol­drush ... mined with la­dles and saucepans in­stead of pick­axes and dy­na­mite.”

Here’s a lit­tle lo­cal ex­am­ple. In 2004, David Chang put pork belly bao on his menu at Mo­mo­fuku, New York. Last year, an Auck­land restau­rant took out an ad­ver­tise­ment for its pork belly bao: “Born May 2013 at The Blue Breeze Inn — shame­lessly copied ever since.” Hmm. The street ven­dors of Tai­wan might have some­thing to say about that. It’s a lit­tle-known fact that copy­right law rarely ex­tends to recipes — but it’s also good man­ners to not, you know, copy.

If New Zealand has a true food trend­set­ter, it’s Peter Gor­don. Fre­quently cited as the god­fa­ther of fu­sion, in 1987, his Welling­ton Sugar Club epit­o­mised the best of “Pa­cific Rim” cui­sine. Restau­rant his­to­rian Per­rin Row­land de­scribed Gor­don’s point of view as “star­tling and unique”. Early menus in­cluded sil­ver­beet with beef pesto. Herbs did not come from a packet.

Where bet­ter to eat for the Can­vas fash­ion is­sue then, than The Sugar Club’s Sky Tower re­boot? Out­side, the city at its blingi­est. In­side, a show­case of the coun­try’s finest pro­duce. Saf­fron from Te Anau. Salmon from Mt Cook. Perig­ord truffle from Can­ter­bury, sniffed out by a dog called Cassie.

Choose a tast­ing menu for the en­tire ta­ble ($155) or build your own three-to-five-course din­ner ($100$125).

The por­tions are small. A cray­fish lin­guine fea­tured one thumb­nail-sized piece of tail and two strag­gly bits of leg or an­ten­nae. Re­cent din­ing trends in­clude street eats, shared plates and fine-ca­sual fare. The Sugar Club is de­fy­ing fash­ion — but is this it­ty­bitty ap­proach sim­ply old-fash­ioned?

The flavours were fault­less but fleet­ing and, in the ab­sence of a fifth or sixth mouth­ful, you start pay­ing very close at­ten­tion to tex­ture. The chicken cus­tard (un­der­neath that glo­ri­ously pun­gent grated-at-yourtable truffle) was slightly eggy. The broth-soaked meat in my rare breed pork boil-up was mag­nif­i­cent against bit­ter, fresh wa­ter­cress, but two mar­ble-sized “dough­boys” were ex­tremely dense; rem­i­nis­cent of half-cooked pasta.

You’ll go home rel­a­tively full if you or­der the red meat dishes. Cam­bridge duck had soft back­ground spice notes and the burnt cream un­der­neath the per­fectly cooked veni­son was one of the most swoon­able, spoon­able swishes I’ve eaten. I had the South Is­land monk­fish in homage to a West Coast child­hood and it was ev­ery bit as sweet and flaky as I re­mem­ber.

Se­ri­ous tim­ing is­sues need some at­ten­tion. Our book­ing was for 6.30pm. The day be­fore, some­one phoned to ad­vise we would only have the ta­ble for two hours. It was 7pm be­fore we got our first drink. By 7.40, we had been served just one course. Prob­a­bly they were not go­ing to kick us out — but I tried to imag­ine how an in­fre­quent and less con­fi­dent diner might feel and I was an­noyed and anx­ious on their be­half.

This is a spe­cial oc­ca­sion place, with a spe­cial oc­ca­sion gold-and-mar­ble-ac­cented vibe. You want to be able to re­lax and en­joy this to the bit­ter choco­late end.

Honey par­fait with a mango sor­bet was crunchy (meringue shards), creamy (co­conut tapi­oca) and com­pletely de­light­ful. Across the ta­ble, one for the grown-ups. In­tensely dark choco­late was paired with sesame wafers and anise-scented Thai basil ice­cream. You could not eat it in com­po­nents but taken to­gether it was el­e­gant and adult. It was the dessert equiv­a­lent of a cig­a­rette af­ter din­ner. So wrong, so right.

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