MR. MORRIS : RESTAURANT REVIEW
3.5 STARS OUT OF 5 (BETWEEN GOOD & EXCELLENT)
CHEF : MICHAEL MEREDITH
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND
VISITED JUNE 2021
Michael Meredith’s farewell to Dominion Road a few years ago marked the ending of an era for Auckland’s suburban fine-dining. News that he was opening a new place in Auckland CBD, with the ambience pared but the cuisine as ripely ambitious as ever, was great news for the city’s gourmands. What’s more, Mr.Morris impresses in more ways than one, with periodic charity dinners raising funds for Starship hospital, Fred Hollows Eye Foundation and Women’s Refuge.
The restaurant is tucked away in the heart of Auckland CBD, in a unique building painted honeydew green, with twenty-five large and ornate earthenware pots sketched on the building’s façade. The “Excelsior”, still standing from 1897, now strikes a striking superstructure indeed on its profile view, as Mediterranean as it is Maori with its totems. As for Mr. Morris on the ground floor of this building, its door to the side is so inconspicuous that it could well be the peripheral offices of the C.I.A (Covert Institute of Aotearoa).
The space inside is a hipster-chic affair of blonde wood, compact in size, with the ambitious addition of counter-side seating where the chefs are right in front of you plating a procession of dishes. The far side has a lovely corner table with pastel shades, with beautiful light filtering in from the floor to ceiling windows stippled by Venetian shades. We dined on weekends, when the marquee man was off duty, so if you want to see him in action, weekdays are a better bet.
Ever since getting blown away by spectacular Paua beignets in Ohope Beach’s Quay restaurant in 2011, I have kept a corner eye out for these special specimens to wow me but it has never since happened. Chef Meredith blankets a Paua ( large edible sea snail ) for his “Snacks” section in a ginger-seaweed brunoise that would do any Indo-Chinese dish proud but alas you can hardly taste the Paua which, forget getting accentuated, got totally dominated. The Quail appetizer comes with its clawed feet intact. It freaked me out as it did other diners but true to Meredith’s intention, it made me face the fact that I’m eating a fowl plucked from throbbing life, not some fabulously trimmed manna from heaven. I also under-estimated the disinhibiton created by wine, which made me look at the dish much more peaceably when it arrived. One diner asked for the clawed feet to be removed, and one could see the splintered hack job, which made the claws seem that much more elegant.
The quail was fabulous – chicken can only dream of being this tender and delicate. ‘Twas flavoured with expert restraint using pepper, curry leaf and other South Asian spice blends – in fact curry leaves as a garnish covered most of the quail – so keen was Meredith’s intention to proclaim the Indian influence. Alas the mandarin sauce, pleasant and yet as bright as sweet mango, obliterated the taste of the quail – a puzzling saucing mistake from a Top Chef. As I’ve abjured red meat, I could not taste my companion’s pork main, but the pineapple sauce it came with, was again a simple compote you could cull from Countdown.
Service, like the erstwhile Meredith’s, is good but has no memorable personality or bonuses like a sense of humour. We chose counter-side seating both times – you trade the comfort of table seats for a ring-side view of the kitchen. We sit there sipping wine, shooting the breeze and eating fine food while the nearby chefs slog away, roasting meat over leaping fire, minding bubbling pots, dicing hillocks of vegetables, while the lead chefs out front continuously assemble the incoming food on fresh plates. One can see from the outgoing plates that meat rules, quail flies while fish sinks. In front of my companion, swathes of pinkish-red meat were being cut, so a suggested change of seating position to a vista of less carnage, which was then granted, was most welcome.
A Kaffir lime, Kabosu and Yuzu Lemonade number enticed with its novel combination. For a $ 22 cocktail, you expect something which looks more fetching than just a plain glass of lemonade. The taste was different admittedly – it recalls temple camphor in unholy water, if that’s your thing. Ostler Audrey’s Pinot Gris 2019 was a far better poison, superb in its crystalline, slim spell.
Snapper in NZ restaurants is as safe a choice as not one but two condoms. Its ample flesh is often characterless – here its cooking was perfect but the flavour unsurprisingly was muted, accessorized with a decent eggplant mash and a nice shiitake mushroom. Chef Meredith has served superb swordfish in Meredith’s in the past, FISH at Hilton offers bewitching Antarctic Toothfish, and Masu proffers sinfully rich Black Cod – so why really is Mr.Morris just skimming the surface ? Lemon ice cream was unashamedly intense – just serve this alone, and after a glass of chilled water I’m out of here, sated. However, it was decked out with basil pearls, buckwheat crisp and even the creativity of candied fennel, the taste of which was all uniformly smothered by the Lemon Ice Creamo, like a Sicilian Mafioso.
We were coddled with freebies on the second visit – oyster mushrooms which alas were over-salted, and coconut-caramel macaroons which were heavily sweet, thus unwittingly continuing my long line of awful luck with complimentary offerings, that dates back almost a decade to a gratis Paula Ravioli brought out and presented to the table by the smiling Chef Shaun Clouston of Wellington's storied Logan Brown.
Tagliatelle was presented in voluptuous sheets, lushly creamy to the bite, the indulgence cut by lemon which should have been more of a whisper than the breeze it was. Mixed grains with crème fraiche was perfectly fine, as long you fed it to your supermodel slim girlfriend who’d be more happy with the calorie restriction than the taste (now here’s a Top Chef segment idea – Make Mixed Grains Delicious ! Mr Morris wins 4th prize for this).
The restaurant was a lot busier on a second afternoon and one could see clear as daylight that the place is going to merrily swing it monetarily, attracting a broad swathe of clientele from sexy twenty somethings to sexagenarians. Aucklanders have the good habit and admirable culture of rewarding good restaurants of every type, and though Meredith may have dialed down the décor and frippery from his previous fine-dining place to the current Spartan space, his penchant for delicious modernist food delivered by a full-bore kitchen crew continues to make him an Auckland favourite.
Neither Potato Bread or Cheddar “Pao” registered their Carb Karma memorably, but a chicken parfait was beautifully rich and adroitly contrasted with chicken skin and cherry. Octopus was visually dominated by resplendent ribbons of unnecessary carrot, while the actual meat was reasonably tender but restricted in flavour, the chipotle sauce not doing much to enhance the core ingredient, again revealing how difficult it is to make a flavourful octopus dish. The Superhero to salvage all disappointments was the Chicken main, with breathtaking depth of natural umami and yet hauntingly delicate in feel and taste, a triumph of grilling over leaping flames just a little distance away from us. It was the best chicken I had in years, accentuated by cracklings of chicken skin and a cool mirin-based beurre blanc.
A chocolate-orange blend in dessert, when done right, is a sure-fire arrow and that was the case here with a calamansi (Philippine lime) sorbet that nuzzled an intense chocolate pudding. This was the crucial element that ended my two meals here on a high note. Prices are reasonable for an ambitious kitchen, with appetizers in the high twenties and mains averaging forty dollars. This is Mr.Morris’s first year and it is only to be expected that it should be ironing out its kinks in these early stages. The minimalist décor was never meant to win any awards, but the service, though good, could easily do with more charm and hospitality to match the potential of the kitchen. A recent article in Stuff about staff poaching in Auckland’s restaurants underscores the difficulty that a country like NZ faces in these domains, but where there is a will there is not only a sway but also the promise to be blown away. And as long as Mr Morris’s cuisine scores more clean hits in the appetizers, avoids basic mistakes like selecting the most boring fish in the universe and optimizes its component pairings across the dessert board instead of just in one or two, this kitchen can only go higher. Welcome back Michael Meredith - we missed you and Auckland will always need you.
UPNWORLD welcomes your comments.