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How good is a $300 per head dinner in Auckland?

A chef from “the best restaurant in the world” has taken charge at Clooney in Freeman’s Bay. Good news? Some of the local critics have raved, but, surprisingly, not all of them. So how good is this Jacob Kear really? And how good has he made the restaurant, and how much would you pay anyway?

I took A.A. Gill to Clooney once. Worst night of my restaurant life, more or less. I rang ahead to warn them he was an alcoholic, and they thanked me profusely but kept offering him food with alcohol in it. Gill was polite but did not touch it. In fact, he hardly ate anything, and although they fawned and fussed they didn’t ever ask him if anything was wrong or could they fix him something more to his taste? The head chef was on his night off and decided not to come in. Only the most famous restaurant critic IN THE WORLD. And the most famously hard to please. I blushed for them. I chose Clooney because I thought it would be good.

Yes, I wrote about it. I don’t think he ever did, and now he’s died he never will. Clooney bounced back, winning awards, but it’s never been truly popular. It has a wonderfully sophisticated dining room, designed by Fearon Hay; and the experience, as you settle into the rich brown banquettes, peer through the large open pass into the kitchen and watch the waitstaff gliding behind black-beaded screen curtains, always promises to be special.

But it never quite is. The reality, by evening’s end, has always been less than the promise.

The dining room at Clooney. Photo Anna Kidman

In recent times, though, things have changed at Clooney. The boss, Tony Stewart, bought out his co-owners and is now fully in charge. Then, anxiously for all, he was hospitalised with a serious illness. He’s good now, but he might not have been.

They lost their executive chef, Des Harris, who moved on to other things, and now they have a new one – Jacob Kear, a Japanese American who had been one of the famous Rene Redzepi’s most important side men. Redzepi, the irascible owner-chef of Copenhagen’s Noma, four-time winner of “best restaurant in the world”. Redzepi, a man so driven he was embittered by every occasion on which Noma came only second.

The Copenhagen Noma is closed for now, but Redzepi and the brand endure. Kear worked with Redzepi in Copenhagen, has worked in LA and helped him set up Noma Tokyo. He still does special gigs with him. Then he came to New Zealand on holiday, loved it and wrote to all the top restaurants offering his services. Tony Stewart wrote back. So now here he is, a certifiable world-class star chef, doing the thing people in his industry do all over the world to the endless pleasure of us all: contributing his talents as an immigrant.

Is he really that good? Has he helped Stewart fix Clooney’s problems? Peter Calder in the Herald on Sunday was delighted enough to give the new Clooney 4.5 out of 5. Jesse Mulligan in Viva went even further and laid down a perfect 10/10.

Metro magazine, so the rumours go, is less impressed. I hear Clooney will not be winning the supreme award in the Metro restaurant awards, to be announced tonight. Nor will it win the best fine-dining category nor even the award for best chef. That’s, um… well, if it’s true it looks a bit like somebody, on one side or the other, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But who? [Update: As expected, Clooney did not win any prizes in the Metro Restaurant Awards announced on May 1.]  

Jacob Kear, Clooney’s new head chef. Photo Anna Kidman

I ate at Clooney last week. And straight up I’ll say this: yes. Jacob Kear is cooking some of the best food I have eaten anywhere. It’s a gift, a treasure, a night of fantastical flavours. Dish for dish it was the best meal of its kind I’ve eaten in Auckland.

But despite that, Clooney still doesn’t quite work as a restaurant and I think I know why.

Clooney is now focused on degustation dining. That is, it serves a set tasting menu. I had 15 courses, several of them merely a mouthful. As well as the main dego there’s a “pescatarian” option and a vegetarian one too, although the main dego has only one meat dish and a couple of fish so there’s not much they change out.

There are wine matches and sake matches, for seven of the courses, or you can order your drinks separately. They have an excellent list. I asked for and took their advice, which was to start with champagne or a cocktail, to accompany the four “snacks” you get before the first matched dish, and then to have two sake accompaniments before switching to wine for the rest. It was a very good call.

I did ask the occupational-risk question: would it all end up as too much to drink? I added that I wasn’t driving home. My waitstaffer told me I’d be fine with a Panadol before bed. Yes, I know, it’s a tough job.

Two things about her answer. One, it’s not quite an answer. Two, it immediately telegraphed what would turn out, for the most part, to be one of the new truths of Clooney: the waitstaff are not scared to be themselves. Clooney has learned the trick of service in a good fine-dining restaurant, which is that the staff should be just as warm and friendly as in a bistro. Talking about snacks instead of amuses bouches, that’s another sign of the same thing.

“Tomato of the season” at Clooney. Photo Anna Kidman

And so it began. I ordered the hara-kiri, a sake cocktail they told me would go well with the snacks.

“Why hara-kiri?” I said. “It doesn’t sound promising.”

Turns out it’s not because it will make you will feel like you’ve ritually disembowelled yourself with a large sword, although the sommelier did make the gesture. It’s because it’s red. Their little joke.

It was a great drink, with complex rhubarby flavours that didn’t disguise the alcohol, easy to drink and served in an elegant Marie Antoinette coupé. A perfect cocktail, pretty much, and popular in the room, I was pleased to see.

The first snack was a single slice of nashi pear, served on a quite large bowl of crushed ice, flavoured with white sangria and garnished with three teeny tiny mint leaves. Get the idea? The mint was intense and the sangria gave depth to the fruit, but nashi has a tight, limited flavour and it wasn’t entirely redeemed. Very good, not amazing. Not everything from Japan is amazing.

But the sparkling sake was: a richer, drier and far more complex bubbly than any actual champagne could ever be. And so were the three little dishes that followed, each beautifully served, all to be eaten with the fingers. Why don’t more restaurants encourage us to eat with our hands? When you ask yourself, how will I pick that up, you’re already thinking carefully about the food, which is a Good Thing.

The second mouthful was a small round hairy red ball, served on a bed of moss with a piece of pounamu for decoration. The shock of eating it was immense, because it was deep fried, with the taste and mouthfeel of chippies. I nearly laughed out loud.

Half a walnut tart, and by half I mean they’d made a tiny round tart and then cut it in half through its diameter. Just because, I suppose.  Then two pieces of raw kingfish, seasoned with yuzu and other Japaneseness, each with a thin slice of soy-brined “watermelon radish” wrapped around. Everyone else in the world is doing sashimi the same as everyone else, but not here. This was so different. It had dabs of crème fraiche and wasabi and it was an invitation to rapture.

Which continued into the first dish proper: a chawanmushi or custard, with delicate slivers of tuatua and tiny crunchy balls of puffed rice. Genius, another round of laugh-out-loud delightful.  We were an hour into the meal and I sat there thinking, Jesse Mulligan and your 10 out of 10, you’re such a doofus. This is 12 out of 10, easy.

On it went, dish after sublime dish. Every wine match a winner too, even including an otherwise ridiculous orange wine from Black Barn (because pink is so passé, right?). The bread, a rice flour sourdough, was fabulous and the compote of tomatoes even fabulouser. Such intensity of flavour, and such a delight to look at too. A warm slice of crown pumpkin had me in another rapture; the wood-smoked eel with its airy avocado mousse, such a contrast, I could have eaten forever; a cauliflower concoction was held together with a thickly runny duck’s egg yolk and the eating of it was like filling yourself up with rich, gooey happiness.

“Cauliflower, egg and parsley” at Clooney. Photo Anna Kidman

I had arrived hungry, which was a test, because if you eat little things over time, you just get hungrier. But I forgot about that very quickly. The service was fast and efficient, the food kept coming and kept astounding me, they played an insistent yet unobtrusive jazz, the room was comfortably warm and the lighting soft and focused, and for at least two hours, with my book completely neglected at my side, I ate and drank and watched the spectacle of a restaurant making people happy. I was in heaven.

I wish there wasn’t a but. I really do. But there is. It’s this: two hours was only halfway through.

It wasn’t just that I started thinking, there’s going to be a dud dish, omg, is it this one, is it this one? I conquered that fear, banished it to oblivion, although the dud dish, when it did come, was a real disappointment. It was the whole experience.

What’s good about eating a degustation is the precision and care that chefs and servers and diners take with each dish and each mouthful of each dish; the way chefs are inspired to creative heights they might not otherwise reach; the way a single complex forkful forces you into a far deeper sensory appreciation of food and eating than anyone in their normal right mind would care to entertain.

What’s bad about it is that it goes on far too long. Even at Noma Copenhagen, they advised diners the “dinner experience” would take a mere 2.5 hours.

I watched a couple in their forties dining with his parents, perhaps in their sixties, and it was clear the two couples would never have dreamed of spending so much passive time just sitting with each other. There were several couples on their own, each of whom began the evening with an excited light in their eyes, sitting close, enthralled by the specialness of it all. Couple by couple, I watched the light in their eyes go out.

Free tip: unless you’re at the stage where you love talking to each other all night, do not subject your relationship to a four-hour degustation. And even then. Far better to go as a foursome who have a lot of catching up to do. Or go alone, as I did, because there’s no social stress, they’ll look after you brilliantly, and if you get bored between courses you can read a book or learn Japanese on your phone or something.

Why is this? It’s not just that most people, one to one, eventually run out of things to say. It’s that dego insists on respect. The room is quiet, the staff might be super friendly but they’re also quiet, and you’re meant to revere the food. It’s like church.

And you wouldn’t spend four hours on end in church. By the time I left, I really hoped all of those couples were going to go find a nightclub and dance their tits off. Except at the end of a four-hour dego, they probably felt more like just going home, crawling under the covers, filing the evening under “never speak of it again” and saying, more than a little sadly, goodnight love.

The semi-private long table at Clooney, with chef Jacob Kear (rear left) and manager/owner Tony Stewart (rear right). Photo Anna Kidman

Now the good news. From Tuesday through Thursday they do also offer normal a la carte dining, and on Sundays and Mondays a la carte is all they do. Mostly it’s dishes from the dego menus, only at larger sizes.

A regular three-course meal in that lovely dining room from the kitchen of Jacob Kear? Oh yes, I’d eat that. Put it this way: did I want another mouthful of that eel, that pumpkin, that tomato dish? Oh hell yes. I’d love to go back and eat those things again. And more. Yes, I’m aware that after this I’ll probably have to sneak in wearing a mask.

To be fair to Jesse, he went on a Sunday so that’s why he decided 10/10.

Still, there were a couple of other problems. The sommelier and the sake sommelier are both grade A enthusiasts and their food matching skills are remarkable. Take their advice, I urge you. But the thing that seems to have passed them by is that, guys, we don’t need the lecture. Both of them deliver a meandering account of the origins of each drink, including but not limited to the winery or brewery, the region, the type of grape or rice and a lot of “interesting facts I discovered”. Boring? Even their mothers would be tested.

I’m so grateful the regular waitstaff didn’t introduce the food like that. We’d have been there till midnight. I would have broken into the kitchen to steal a chef’s knife and I would have done some damage with it.

The other thing, the only other thing really, was the beef. It was supposed to be wild venison, but supply is apparently erratic. Wild animals, who knew. So, with no venison the night I went they used “Australian wagyu”, which has a marbled fattiness you won’t find in deer meat, especially if it’s been running from hunters in the hills. Yet the dish – all berries and beetroot and suchlike – was so obviously the venison dish with the meat swapped out, I thought, what?

In a restaurant dedicated to the delights that follow the precise creative matching of ingredients – a restaurant that charges a premium because, you know, we’re paying for that skill – you just chucked a different piece of meat into the recipe, like suddenly none of that matters? What?

Because they do charge. It’s not silly money like you’d pay overseas for this food. But it is $170 per head plus the drinks and stuff. With that cocktail and a coffee, it cost me, me on my own, $293.

Clooney isn’t Noma. Nobody’s expecting you to fetishise pine needles or eat live ants. Yes, they did that. Kear’s food is exquisite but it’s not radical: his dishes would fit the dego lineups of Auckland, especially at Merediths, Pasture and Kazuya.

There aren’t any “airs”, either: those light-as-light foams that taste like roast meat or whatever. No sauces served in a pipette, no tomatoes masquerading as chicken or vice versa: none of that sciencey silliness made fashionable by Ferran Adria at el Bulli. And thank god for that.

Head chef Jacob Kear and his kitchen staff at work at Clooney. Photo: Anna Kidman

Mostly, Kear’s techniques conform to the traditional and once-again prevailing orthodoxy: choice of quality ingredients, flavour enhancement by reduction and semi-drying, very precise control of time and temperature. There is some evidence of “food technology” in some of the emulsions and flavour intensities, but it’s all in the service of making ingredients the best versions of themselves, not transforming them into something else.

So is it Noma in a deeper sense? Noma is a made-up word, from the Danish nordisk, meaning Nordic, and mad, meaning food. Redzepi’s quest was always to explore the possibilities of the local ingredients and, on the back of that, to reinterpret and reinvent a local cuisine. Noma celebrates Nordic food in a place that didn’t previously much believe that it could be celebrated.

Kear is clearly applying those principles at Clooney. His menu belongs to the ubiquitous Pacific Rim cuisine: light, fresh, oriented to vegetables, seafood and good meat, spiced up with the flavours of Asia. In his case, as a Japanese American, those flavours are very strongly Japanese and he’s also busily exploring the local (tuatua, the eel, a manuka infusion, horopito seasoning and so on). It’s not the all-out commitment to Pacific localism of Michael Meredith at Merediths but it’s far from the bland internationalism of all those restaurants that really want to be in San Francisco.

It’s not unique to Auckland, either. Kazuya Yamauchi at the eponymous Kazuya on Symonds St applies his own exquisite culinary skills to a fusion of Japanese ingredients and French techniques, and he’s more than capable of leaving diners gasping in admiration.

“Eel and avocado” at Clooney. Photo Anna Kidman

But still, what is Clooney? And why do dego at all? Because chefs love it? They get to show off: it’s easier to be creative putting intricately prepped little things on a series of plates than serving a main course dinner. They get to control costs: everybody books and you know what they will eat, so there’s not much wastage.

And they get to control the kitchen. Most of the work in a dego is in the prep, and then each little dish gets assembled. The stoves are not much used during service. So once you’ve trained your staff well you can, in theory, almost leave them to it. The night I went, Kear was far away, doing a Noma pop-up with Redzepi in Mexico. (Is that why beef in a venison dish, instead of serving a completely different dish? That might explain it, but it doesn’t seem like a great excuse.)

None of those things is a customer-focused reason to do dego. Why do they do it? There is no good answer to this question.

So what is Clooney, and how good is it? It’s not a 10/10 restaurant. Sorry Jesse.

It’s got a 10/10 dining room, 10/10 drinks list and many 10/10 dishes. In that room, with that chef, it could be the coolest place in town and all it needs is for them to install a live jazz band – with a small dance floor, even – stop the sommelier lectures and pull their fingers out of their arses about making people sit in respectful quietness for four hours over dinner.

Is Jacob Kear the best chef in town? I haven’t been round judging all the contenders in the last few months, so I don’t know what I don’t know. But I reckon we have about 20 top chefs in Auckland – chefs who are so creative and skilled I would really love to eat their food far more often – and Kear is definitely among the best of them.

But who do I think is the straight-up, hallelujah-inspiring, trance-inducing, deeply, deeply satisfying saviour of the stoves? Makoto Tokuyama at Cocoro is in the mix, and so are Ed Verner at Pasture and Tom Hishon at Orphans Kitchen, and so is Jacob Kear. But my actual favourite right now? That’s Lek Trirattanavatin, the brilliant Thai chef at Saan on Ponsonby Rd. Honestly, do not deny yourself. And relish this: a night at Saan, even with all the Ponsonby chic, won’t cost you $300 a head.

This story has been revised since original publication, to note the result of the Metro awards, to correct the score given by Peter Calder (4.5/5, not 9.5/10) and to correct the information about a la carte dining. As now stated above, while the focus remains on degustation, a full menu is also available Tuesday through Thursday. As originally stated, it is the only approach offered on Sundays and Mondays.


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