The critic and the rookie: dining out at one of Auckland’s most expensive restaurants

We sent Simon Wilson, who’s been writing about Auckland’s best restaurants for years, and Madeleine Chapman, who regularly wears a KFC tracksuit to work, to dinner at fine-dining restaurant The Grove. Here are their reviews.

Read part two of The Critic and the Rookie (KFC) here

Simon Wilson

The quail was divine. Three little rounds of breast, with a leg as well, served with asparagus and leeks variously done as a puree, strips and whatnot, and some kumara that had been prepped confit style in cocoa butter. It looked gorgeous on the plate, a big circular swirl of the rich dark-green puree and those sliced ballotines of meat just sitting there begging to be forked. Flavoursome, almost meltingly soft.

As for the drumstick, you picked it up, little finger aloft, and sucked all the meat off the end of the tiny bone in one: a marvel of crisp-skinned, red-meat moreishness. You’re allowed to laugh, it’s part of the fun.

My Spinoff colleague Madeleine Chapman and I were eating at the fine-dining restaurant The Grove. I love a good restaurant and she loves KFC and somebody had said, why don’t you both go to both, and review them? So we said, oh all right, and now here’s me on The Grove, with Mad below; and next up we really are doing KFC. We ate together but we didn’t discuss what we’d say and we’ve both written our reviews without knowing how the other really felt.

I chose The Grove because I don’t think anyone in Auckland is better at sophisticated cheffing than their star, Ben Bayly. The tastes and textures of his dishes fit together seamlessly, almost always, which you know means he’s gone to enormous effort to get it right. That skill was on show with the quail, and in a gorgeous slice of sheep’s milk terrine flavoured with capsicum, with fish and peas, with beef and radicchio; in his ability to combine delicate texture and robust flavour – an oyster, a little “hot dog” of pulled pork, those fish and meat dishes – and in the complements and contrasts of the sauces and shavings and blobs and foams that accompanied everything.

“Terrine of sheeps’ fromage blanc, fennel assiette, cold-pressed spring tomato water.” Delicious, although the strips of red capsicum, unmentioned in the menu listing, provided the predominant flavour. (All photos Joel Thomas)

And there was tuna tartare with little slices of octopus tentacles, served with tempura wheatgrass and horseradish sorbet. The tempura batter barely there, a sensation on the tongue of fine feathery crispyness; the deep sharp aftertaste of the sorbet adding complexity to every other thing on the plate.

We ate the seven-course degustation with matching wines, and there was also a bunch of single-mouthful starters, one of them served on a bed of pohutukawa flowers. Nice touch.

Near the end they brought out a small mound of rice and raspberry ice cream for each of us and made them into bombes Alaska. Piping on the meringue in a rising spiral around the mound, torching it, pouring over some grenadine and torching that. Old styles are back. Then they brought a souffle to sit alongside, a texture that seemed like it might still be liquid but was puffed up light as light, honestly, it defied description. And over the minute or two before they disappeared onto our spoons and into our mouths, they did not collapse: Ben Bayly knows the physics of cooking so well he knows how to defy it, or seem to, which is the same thing in the culinary arts. That dessert dish was delicious and I was so impressed.

Few chefs keep the flavour when they lose the toughness in meat, even fewer really know how to let you taste the constituent parts in a dish and also appreciate the whole. Easy on the eye, easy in the mouth. I mean this as praise but also as criticism.

The food lacked surprise. It was all so smoothly coordinated, the aim seemed less to astonish than to not offend. Food with the edges knocked off.

The service was attentive although not fully so. Nobody appeared to take my jacket when I took it off, which would mean nothing at all in most restaurants but is supposed to be a defining mark of service when it’s fine-dining. They’re meant to be watching every table all the time. Nobody came to replace my napkin when I dropped it, either.

We told them early on that it was Mad’s first fine-dining experience and, because they knew I was a food writer, we also told them we would both be writing about it. I did think they would take that as a cue to make sure her night was special. I mean, wouldn’t you? But all the servers who brought food or wine – maybe four of them during the evening – turned to talk to me, then remembered themselves about 20 seconds in and talked to Mad, but then couldn’t help themselves and angled back to me.

Simon with one of the three very similar straw-coloured wines.

I was struck by the unevenness of the wine selection, which has always been a specialty of the restaurateur, Michael Dearth. The first three pairings were all straw coloured. They were all unusual enough – a couple from Sicily and a chardonnay/pinot noir blend (yes, true) from Trinity Hill in Hawke’s Bay. But honestly, they were so similar I found myself wondering, if he’d lined them up for a tasting, whether I’d be able to tell them apart. Dearth told us the Trinity Hill “divides people”. He buys a bulk order and good on him – taking risks and following your heart is as good a thing to do with wine as it is with most things. All I can say, with apologies, is that I was on the other side of the divide.

Later, we had a really brilliant cabernet-sauvignon blend from Destiny Bay on Waiheke and a lovely champagne rosé from Collet in France. I could have settled in with either of those. But there was also a Pedro Ximenez to go with the last dish of the night, which had been made with Pedro Ximenez. I thought, mmm, is that a bit obvious for a pairing?

Besides, it didn’t work because the dish needed calming down, not enflaming. A bloated concoction of chocolate, ice cream, butterscotch, beetroot and granita infused with that PX, it was the largest dish they served us and the richest, and the only one not exquisitely presented – basically, it came as a big blobby mess in a bowl.

What happened? The previous dish was that extraordinary and superbly entertaining combo of bombe Alaska with soufflé. It was as if Chef Bayly had gone home, leaving the dishwasher in charge, and he was having a laugh.

There was one other big shock on the menu, courtesy of the cocktails list. For $22.50 you can buy something called The Gremolata: vodka, two sorts of gin and sake, with parsley and lemon and, because hey why not, garlic and chilli.

Maybe in some supercool universe whose portals are forever hidden from me, that’s a thing. But all I could think was, it’s a trap! Order that and you’re basically inviting the restaurant to treat you like a moron. In fact, order that and they’ll finish your meal with a big bowl of mega-rich sherry food. They did seem rather of a kind.

The Grove used to have super cocktails and I’ve rated it several times among Auckland’s best drinks and best places for a drink. But now, I don’t know. That chuck-in-a-bit-of-everything experiment wasn’t the only problem. The chilli-infused tequila cocktail Mad ordered was enormous, all its flavours overwhelmed by the chilli, so that it sat on the table for most of the evening, unloved, mocking us.

Mad with her lonely and unloved chilli cocktail.

Mine was much better: a clever joke of parsley-infused gin, sage oil, rosemary and thyme, kind of a super-dirty martini served in a coupe. It tasted great, the savouriness of the herbs offset by the thyme-flecked sugar stuck to the rim. But it did look preposterous, with a long frond of rosemary stuck all round the inside of the glass.

The bread was nice enough, which is to say forgettable little sourdough rolls. The menu descriptors were not always true to life (see the photo of the terrine, above). Mad’s tea at the end came in a large and very elegant teapot: a splendid touch. The water was warm, and then, with one of the refills, it was suddenly chilled. All the staff said hello and welcome. Even after Mad and I went outside to get our photo taken, and then walked back into the restaurant, and a couple of them greeted us all over with big smiles and welcomes, not recognising us from just five minutes earlier.

We had a lovely evening. We really did. It’s a gracefully proportioned and decorated room, the white tablecloths do their thing, we ate a lot of lovely food and we stayed on afterwards, talking. We were there for nearly five hours: you don’t do that if the restaurant hasn’t looked after you. Did it cost a lot? With cocktails, wine matches, coffee and tea, yes it did: the bill came to $582.50. So was it special?

I thought that little quail leg was certainly going to be the best drumstick I would eat this week (yes, I did know I was going to KFC). Hell, best this year.

But no, it wasn’t special. Here’s the measure: do I feel like I need to have that experience again? I don’t. I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t transported. I was impressed, but for all the proficiency that went into those dishes, I wasn’t seduced. Too much comfort, not enough courage.

For Madeleine Chapman’s review, read on.

Simon Wilson and Madeleine Chapman outside The Grove.

Madeleine Chapman

I didn’t know The Grove existed until Simon Wilson sent me the menu as an option for my first ever fine-dining experience. I studied the menu closely and didn’t recognise a single word, so I knew it was the place for me.

Before we walked in on Tuesday night, Simon pointed out that my denim jacket collar was folded in. I nearly walked home right then in a cone of shame. I couldn’t even underdress properly.

Simon took off his coat and within 15 seconds had informed me that someone should’ve already taken it from him. I tssk’d sympathetically. Looking at the cocktail menu I once again questioned my grasp on the English language. I spotted a $22.50 cocktail that appeared to include four different spirits in it. Surely I was mistaken. Mixing spirits is what you do when you’re at a party and there’s nothing left to drink so you get the last dribbles of every bottle on the kitchen bench. The waiter soon confirmed that there were in fact multiple spirits mixed together and that the cocktail was nice but only “if you like that sort of thing”. I’m still not sure if he was referring to alcoholics or young losers. Either way, I baulked and ordered a drink with chilli-infused tequila that, spoiler alert, really tasted a lot like chillis.

That chilli-infused tequila cocktail. At right, the remains of Simon’s drink, with the rosemary still wrapped around the inside of the glass.

We were asked if we’d like to do the petite degustation (four courses) or the full degustation (seven courses). I blurted out seven before Simon could consider the alternative. If I was going to fine dine and not have to pay for it, I was gonna eat the most food possible.

They immediately started bringing out appetisers, the first of which was caviar (what I assume rich people eat for every meal and as a snack at the movies) on a potato chip (not a poor man’s potato chip but a fancy one) on a pohutukawa flower (just a regular pohutukawa flower, not for eating). It was made up entirely of things I’d never eaten before and it was delicious. Here’s an incomplete list of things I ate for the first time at The Grove:

Caviar – Not as gross as I thought fish eggs would be. (It’s fish eggs, right?)

Oyster – Never ate before because I assumed I would be allergic to them. I’d seen people do that thing where they suck/slide the oyster into their mouth. I was too scared to try that move so I kinda just put most of the shell in my mouth then tipped the whole thing over so it fell out.

Fried oyster – Hadn’t broken out in hives from the uncooked oyster so I guess I’m not allergic. Both were delicious.

Uncooked lamb – Looked like raw mince. Maybe even tasted like raw mince but I’ve never tasted raw mince so wouldn’t know. Was nice though.

Pork hot dog – Seems weird to utter the words ‘hot’ and ‘dog’ in such a fancy place but they set theirs apart by forgoing a corndog stick for an actual stick that I assume they picked from the trees in the courtyard. The stick was clean though, and the pork was one of the few dishes I could’ve eaten five more times.

Sheeps’ curd – Like a paté but very creamy and fancy and once again, delicious. It kept slipping off my fork and I was embarrassed that I couldn’t even use a knife and fork correctly but turns out the fork was crooked.

Cold-pressed spring tomato water – Was dramatically poured over the sheeps’ curds. Honestly can’t say it made any difference to the dish.

Pressed tuna – How do they slice it so thinly? If The Grove can’t make me like pressed tuna then maybe it’s just not for me.

Octopus – I don’t remember eating anything that looked like an octopus but it’s on the menu so I guess I did.

Horseradish sorbet – This was gross. Maybe I just don’t like horseradish but it had the consistency of yoghurt and the taste of strong mints and dirt. I still ate most of it though because it would’ve been rude not to.

Quail – Blessed be the gods who gifted us quail. This was one of my favourite dishes because it was the tenderest meat I’ve ever tasted. Harps played softly under my tongue as the afterthought of a scent danced alo- Jesus Christ food writing is hard. Simon told me you can get quail at any good butcher but something tells me any future tasting will be a disappointment after my glorious introduction.

Soufflé – I don’t know how it’s scientifically possible for something so fluffy and light to stay risen but it did and it melted in my mouth and was maybe even better than a Sara Lee Bavarian Swirl. The second dessert dish (a chocolate sorbet with butterscotch and BEETROOT) was most certainly not as good as a Sara Lee Bavarian Swirl.

Bombe Alaska – This was amazing in that a French man with a strong accent and a good beard did a fancy pottery-wheel trick to make the meringue shell. I heard him say the word ‘meringue’ and knew that I shouldn’t eat it because I can’t eat uncooked egg. But it was one of the last dishes and looked so fancy so I ate it anyway. My throat was very itchy after that.

Wine – Turns out rich people binge-drink way more than young people, they just have a better name for it: wine match. Simon said they’d only pour “a small amount” with each dish. Well Simon is either an alcoholic or a terrible judge of volumes because they poured a near full glass for each of the seven courses. I nodded along to all the descriptions that were uttered too quietly, and usually in Simon’s direction, not mine, by the man with the beard. Then I asked Simon to explain it in English once he’d left. What I do remember is one particular wine that was half red and half white. Again, why is mixing drinks frowned upon when young people do it but is cool and hip when fancy people do it?

We were there for five hours. If we were in a rush and had nothing to talk about, we probably could’ve been out of there in three. By the time we left, there was no one in the restaurant but the staff. And I think they would’ve stayed there until we decided to leave, even if it was 3am. Ridiculous. On the way out I used the bathroom where there were no paper towels, just actual individual hand towels. Then a waiter helped me into my denim jacket at the door. When I got home I saw I still had half a Wonka Nerds rope left over from the day before so I ate it for supper and went to bed a distinguished woman who dines at The Grove.

Read part two of The Critic and the Rookie (KFC) here

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