April 23, 2017 / Leave a Comment
The Grove is every bit a legend on the Auckland scene. Not only has it consistently been at the pointy end of every list in town for as many years as I can remember, but it’s also been New Zealand’s Noma or El Bulli of sorts – in that it’s been the training ground that has spawned many of New Zealand’s most renown chefs. Michael and Annette Dearth’s establishment can name Sid Sahrawat (2016 Cuisine Chef of the Year, 2016 Metro Restaurant of the Year – Cassia) and Michael Meredith (2016 Metro Best Fine Dining Restaurant, Restaurateur of the Year) amongst its alumni, and boasts Ben Bayly as it’s current Executive Chef – that’s a roster not to be sniffed at.
But it’s old news that The Grove is fantastic. What’s more impressive, is that I still see growth in a restaurant that has already achieved so much. The hunger to experiment and push the boundaries of NZ’s fine dining scene has kept The Grove from becoming stale or predictable, as a venue so lauded can easily end up. Even in a six month period, I can see Ben and Josh’s minds have been working overtime – and it shows on the plate. A slightly new degustation format now offers four or seven courses plus snacks, and nothing makes my heart (and palate) happier than seeing snacks on the menu. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a snack or amuse bouche I didn’t like – I’m very happy to see New Zealand starting to embrace my favourite part of the fine dining experience.
The Grove’s take on snacks didn’t disappoint – in fact, I was very impressed. Sturia caviar with sheep’s butter (well, I think it was sheep’s – I know Ben has a thing for championing both sheep and goat products, so it could go either way) on tapioca and red dulse seaweed crackers starts proceedings off in appropriate fashion, with my vegetarian caviar (activated charcoal) not making me feel even the slightest bit left out. Actually, I just want to pause here for a moment on that topic – whether it’s a dietary requirement or preference, The Grove adapts like no other. Menu modifications are their speciality, their website even boasts that they can cater to special dining needs with minimum notice. The kitchen is just that good. Being super special needs when it comes to allergies myself, this impresses me no end. They even offer a full vegan tasting menu! It’s my mission to try this one day, as The Grove knows a thing or two when it comes to making vegetables shine – I have no doubt that this vegan menu would be a force to be reckoned with.
My mini lamb tartare is perfection and my chawanmushi, served in an egg carton, the best I’ve tasted. Ok, I’ll admit I’ve only had a handful of chawanmushis (or should that just be chawanmushi as plural? Will we ever know?) but it was darn good. Quite possibly the perfect match for a flute of Krug – which by the way, The Grove serves by the glass. Not too many establishments can boast that. While I’m on the topic actually, I hope you don’t mind if I briefly segue into discussing The Grove’s wine list. It’s extremely well curated by sommeliers who know more than a thing or two about great wine – and offers an excellent selection of premium wines by the glass, made possible by the use of Coravin devices. I seriously need a Coravin for my house (or ten). I highly recommend you check out some of the Mount Michael and Millton options.
Terrine of goat cheese & ripe tomatoes, fennel and tarragon
Potato risotto with quail yolk & pomelo
Charcoaled cucumber, green melon, sesame
Now on to the tasting menu proper. Starting with a terrine of goat cheese and tomato (that’s the vegetarian version, there’s a version for seafood lovers too, which I believe contained honey bugs instead of the goat cheese), I’ll have to admit, I was mildly terrified. ‘Twas not the prospect of a terrine that was terrifying for me, rather, the goat’s cheese. While it’s a much-loved friend of the beetroot, I just can’t get into the funky stuff. The Grove’s chefs worked their magic with this one however, it was a gorgeous dish that wasn’t ‘goaty’ in the least. Although the terrine looks like the star of the dish, in reality, it was the fennel. Used in three ways, it really added something special to the dish – especially the superb fennel jam. Delish.
The potato risotto was something I’ve not encountered before and was very interesting both texturally and in flavour profile, with the surprising addition of pomelo. It’s pretty too, adorned with a lattice of potato…quite unique. The dish that followed, however, was perhaps the highlight of the evening for me.
Charcoaled cucumber, green melon, sesame – sounds unassuming, but the subtle flavours and gorgeously fresh flavour combinations were simply spectacular. The ingredients that aren’t mentioned in the description, however, were perhaps the highlight. House-cured lardo rested atop the charred cucumber, adding an insane unctuousness to the dish. I still haven’t forgotten how gorgeous the mouthfeel was. Hot, crispy Onion bhaji added the necessary contrast to the otherwise cool and smooth dish. I’d happily eat this again and again.
Ballotine of wild rabbit with coco beans and wheat beer
Wagyu hanger steak with glazed short rib, beetroot & cherries
The Ballotine of extremely tender wild rabbit provided another interesting course with its incorporation of wheat beer and smooth and creamy coco beans – but perhaps the most thought-provoking course was the one that followed.
I’ve had dishes that showcased different cuts and origins of beef before, but what was most interesting about this one was that it was really elevated by the wine pairings that accompanied it. Homegrown New Zealand beef sat alongside Australian and Japanese cuts, the Antipodean options accompanied by matched wines. Whilst intriguing (and rather delicious) to compare and contrast the taste and texture of these meats, it was the matched wine from each country that really brought the concept to life. It was fascinating to experience how the expression of the terroir was amplified with the meat was regionally paired with the with the carefully selected wines – NZ wine with NZ beef, Australian wine with Australian beef. The pairings brought out some amazing notes, amongst which were hay and leather, that were fascinating to unravel. I’d have loved to have tried a sake with the Japanese beef too. I was truly blown away at how much the wine enhanced the characteristics of the meat, and really showcased the difference in tastes between the countries of origin through the pairing. Fabulous.
Pressed strawberries, buffalo milk & lime
Waffles & custard, new season’s stone fruits poached in last year’s rose hip
The segue from savoury to sweet came via a frozè iceblock palate cleanser (that’s frozen rosè wine for those of you who haven’t yet experienced this trend), which was probably my favourite element of the dessert portion of the meal. I wish I had a constant supply of these in my freezer.
Our pressed strawberry dessert was beautifully presented, though I have to say to the guys at The Grove, those coloured plates wreak havoc with my photos (and some of my senses). Personally, I’d prefer a little less blue and green going on in the plate department. Coloured tableware is really hard to plate on with great success (though I will say, Auckland’s own Sid Sahrawat is the ultimate master of turning coloured plates into absolute works of art) so, like my tablecloths, I prefer them on the neutral side to allow the food itself to shine unabated – we all eat with our eyes first, right? Oh, and while I’m on the topic, red. Please, please, please – no red plates. (But maybe buffet restaurants should use them, you eat less when using a red plate apparently!)
Our second dessert of waffles and custard with stone fruits was probably, in concept, the dish I struggled the most with of the night, with many very sweet servings of sorbet served alongside large, chunky waffles. I like that they were experimenting with a playful concept, but for me, it needed to be much more refined in size and presentation, especially at the end of the meal when stomach space is all but occupied.
I’ve always felt The Grove’s strength lays more with its savoury dishes, and the same was true on this occasion. Chef Ben Bayly has an innate skill with sauces and stocks that has always defined the essence of The Grove under his tenure (and the same are a stand out feature at Baduzzi, another of his establishments). Hearing him explain the intricate and creative processes used to create some of the sauces honestly makes my head spin.
This most recent experience at The Grove only served to cement my belief that The Grove continues to be one of New Zealand’s best restaurants – and as a huge bonus for inbound visitors and residents alike, it’s open Sunday and Monday nights – a rarity in Auckland. The service is fantastic as is the wine list, and add that to their ability to cater for special dietary needs without sacrificing quality and you can have total confidence that you’re going to walk out sated, satisfied and spoiled.