An old friend once told me that, when hitchhiking, it is your job to be interesting. You must earn your place in that car. Wear deodorant. Make glittery conversation. I’ve never hitched (psychopaths, etc) but I apply a similar philosophy to my dinner companions.
Sidart’s $165 five-course degustation with matched wines is, naturally, yum. But this column requires me to file 700-plus words weekly. My dates must bring more than one syllable to the table.
Here, for example, is an actual transcript from my recent Sidart experience. I think we were eating the beef short-rib with what I can only describe as a pakora club sandwich, when Sarah said: “This is amazing, it’s so subtle, it’s spicy, but there is no ego, it’s not like some Ernest Hemingway can you f***ing handle it, it’s — oh my God — HOW DO THEY RESIST THE EGO SPICE?”
Ladies and gentlemen, Sarah will be getting a second date.
Probably I will take her to the French Cafe, because who doesn’t want to know what chef Sid Sahrawat is doing with that place? But aren’t you also curious about his promise of “progressive Indian cuisine” at the restaurant where he first became famous?
Back in July, Sahrawat announced Sidart would continue to showcase New Zealand produce “but in a contemporary Indian format that is a more formal and precise execution of the cuisine currently offered at popular sister restaurant, Cassia”.
I was dubious. But if Cassia was the pinnacle of modern Indian cuisine in Auckland, the new Sidart relegates it to Base Camp (or at least somewhere on the Hillary Step).
One of our five courses combined slabs of raw kingfish with warm scampi cooked in a light pakora batter, served on a glug of cultured cream with a disc of pickled ginger sorbet under a nasturtium leaf that had been compressed in dill oil.
It took me longer to type that sentence than it did to eat the dish, but I will remember how it tasted for the rest of my life. You might recall your first shrimp cocktail? Creamy-spicy-distinctly-and-deliciously- shellfishy. Now imagine that shrimp cocktail grew up and cured the common cold and solved world poverty and reversed climate change. Yep. It was that good.
Earlier this year I gave the original Sidart a perfect score. I can’t quite go there this time, but it has nothing to do with the food. As Francis Bacon once philosophised, “There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.”
Last time, I had a stunning, unimpeded view of the Sky Tower and a waitperson who sparkled more than the wine. That was always going to be a very hard act to follow.
By the time you read this, the menu will have changed but I expect your night will start like ours, with a series of snacks that clearly signal the new flavour direction. Ours included a very sour smack of tamarind on a black rice crisp; silken trevally tartare inside a (genius alert) panipuri and an eggplant “cigar” so extraordinary I’m reluctant to ruin the surprise. (Okay — kasundi.)
To eat is to be educated. Chettinad sauce? From a strand of Indian cuisine highly influenced by trade with Southeast Asia — some chilli, but more black pepper. Ours was delivered as a chunky powder (though I’m sure we detected the soft grit of coconut) with a puree of celeriac and chunky white fish. One complaint — it was served in a relatively deep bowl. Beautiful, but not conducive to a knife and fork dissection.
I truly loved a duck breast dish. The protein cut like butter and the chilli hit with a punch. Each course is small but there has been no attempt to dial back flavour. When I woke up at 3am, my mouth still tasted like I’d eaten Indian — that blurred addictive warmth that stays well past dinner.
There was, of course, a cool down period. Pudding proper was a snowy pile of sweetness described as “carrot, cardamom, coffee and white chocolate”. It was lovely, but I could have stopped at the honey and yuzu “pre-dessert”, in which hokey pokey-studded icecream meets a swirl of citrus sorbet. The lassi New Zealand didn’t know it was missing? Bring on a summer of Indian proportions. Kim Knight