PARIS BUTTER : RESTAURANT REVIEW
RATING : 3 STARS out of 5 (GOOD)
CHEF & CO-OWNER : ZENNON WIJLENS
VISITED AUGUST 2023, AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND
The decline of fine-dining in Auckland over the past decade means that the remaining handful of haute cuisine luxury restaurants are the treasured few. The glorious coddled amalgam of excellent service, luxe ambience and rarefied cuisine is rare to find anywhere in the world despite what may be surficially labelled a "top restaurant". In fact it may be easier to staff and sustain a topless restaurant than a top one so when a fellow patron mentioned 'Paris Butter' in the latter category, I decided to check it out.
Paris Butter now presides over the haute rooms which were once Vinnie's - a fine-dining establishment which I visited in its last years, whose lushly plated dishes of middling taste were superceded by the ambience of expertly and exactly illuminated white-linen-topped tables seemingly floating in the dark as glowing white oases, and remarkably dedicated service which ascended to levels of care and attention rarely encountered in New Zealand.
Paris Butter, to its credit, maintains good levels of service and ambience (albeit with key alterations) while definitely escalating the caliber of cuisine - sophisticated victuals and the mark of a thinking chef grace the meal from start to finish.
The restaurant does degustation only - your heart doesn't have to bother your brain whether you'll have the liver or the thymus off the a la carte. There's a 3 course set menu at $ 150 and a 6 course degustation at $ 195, the latter opted for by yours truly. The major caveat here is that the three supplements you will be offered will drive up the tariff by an additional $ 96 if you go for them.
'Would you like to start with some champagne?' was the the starting offer. 'Yes!', I gladly said, then getting to sip on truly nippy Billecart Salmon champagne. It was later billed at $ 36. I do not expect free champagne, but the reason other restaurants skip this offer is to avoid upselling, and to avoid creating expectations of complimentary offerings. The caviar, if you want it, is an extra $30 and the cheese course, not included in the degustation, is an additional $30, and these two supplemetal charges are specified beforehand. I don't mind a $ 300 prix fixe degustation, nor do I think this will pose much problems to the most monied area of New Zealand that Paris Butter is located in, especially when you consider the highly priced well-stocked wine list which will also help the restaurant's bottomline. But, including the luxuries in the degustation even if that means a higher set price of $300, is in my opinion, a better proposition, than extra cost supplements which affect the perception of good value rather than the intended affect of giving patrons the flexibility of choice.
Snacks kicked off with an impressive quartet. Trevally tartare on a dashi and vinegar meringue enticed with its contrast of textures if not its taste. Oyster with red curry oil and strawberry vinegar was ultra-fresh and superbly tender, simply zipping past the palate in pleasurable moments of evanescence, as good as any oyster I’ve had in NZ. Duck Parfait Tart with tamarillo jelly and duck heart katsuobushi was a prime example of exquisite Euro-umami and delicate pastry work - an early herald and definitive synecdoche of how Chef Zennon Wijlens presents a lot of his best work in miniature. Potato Veloute and sour cream foam was a creamy smooth hoot with wonderfully smoky aromas.
After that strong start, what came next was a downer - a cloud hiding the entire underlying dish - a presentation style the likes of which would be periodically seen throughout the meal ; with a burlesque, at least, the joy escalates, whereas here the unpeeling reveals the smothered remains of the day. Ferran Adria would be happy that the foam (of yuzu and pumpkin juice) was tastier than the rest of the dish - one could hardly get the muted taste of Hokkaido scallop even when tasted by itself, paired as it was with pickled butternut and XO shards.
For the third course of Hapuka, I accepted their offer of caviar ('Caviarmafia Kalure Krystal' - classed as 'upper middle shelf' caviar from China) at a $ 30 supplement - the theatre of its presentation in grand vessels, gleaming obsidian sea of pearls in a pond, and scooping of a tiny amount on to my plate - was much better than the actual taste which was was so subtle and whispered just like Xi Jinping's version of democracy. The sauce of pork hock consomme and fermented herb paste, jousted well with the hearthy transports of smoked potato foam which formed the lower part of a disc - the upper part was sculpted hapuka - all very engineered but one struggled to get any pure hit of top quality fish, which after all should have been the very point of the dish.
But the points of difference kept popping up - you got not just good Paris Butter but the faintly piquant notes of caramelized onion butter with your serviceable sourdough miso bread and not just any honey but a gentle blend of tomato honey!
Service throughout was assiduous, and Yuri, my main host, along with another staff member, kept me well looked after. The staff that evening was all male, which is fine by me but those who feel that a staff of both women and men (the Vinnies' evening had two ladies and one gentleman) has better variety and representation, will not find that ethos here. The targeted illumination of spotlit tables is gone too, along with the tablecloth which has vamoosed with the wind, and so has the carpet, but fear not my connoisseurs - the table napkins, the towels in the restroom and the toilet paper are still all there. There are some chandeliers too, the overall scheme seguing from beige to black to banquette blue.
Odd choice for a placemat.
'Chilpancingo' - a good mix of tequila, cherry, ginger.
Negroni - never again ! - not a fan of the anise flavour (I'm very late to classic cocktails)
Carrying on from its predecessor's tradition, the restaurant has head chef Zennon Wijlens himself delivering some dishes to your table - a commendable practice which some head chefs in other places are either not comfortable with or would not dare to. He saw my head was being done in by the multitude of verbalized ingredients and generously offered to clarify the menu to me later.
You're surrounded by the ocean in NZ but you rarely get crab in NZ restaurants and good crab is even rarer. Afraid that the exposed king crab meat here may crawl away, nice chunks of it are swathed inside a cushiony cloud of broccoli cream cut by preserved lemon - I was reminded of how Mark Best in Marque, Sydney opened a 2014 degustation with similar crab strands snowed over by almond gazpacho. At the bottom was the crunch and third umami of pine nut and sunflower seeds. The crab meat didn't actually sweetly sing, but the dish archiecture inveigled with contrapuntal ring.
Duck in top NZ restaurants - French Cafe (2012), Grove (2020) - can be a knock-out beaut and it is a pity Paris Butter has not joined their club - the duck main here got lost in pointless stunts - the aged protein still losing vital notches of smoothness and intensity, and crowned by distractions of puffed grains that muddled the taste and texture of the marquee ingredient. But you're in famous company though - Peter Gilmore of Quay, Sydney in 2014 similarly smothered his duck and pork jowl with toppings of roasted koji rice and barley which interfered with their overall taste.
The cheese course at an additional $ 30 was elaborately presented. Comte was a gently flavoursome version of softer Parmesan, St Agur was a good blue cheese, and Robuchon sported funky notes of conch. Cumin pumpkin seed crackers was the closest the evening came to flavours and textures of Indian flavours. The previous chef had personal access to a local honeycomb and probably that access has carried over to the new owners which explains the chunk of honeycomb, presented along with nashi pear chutney.
The first dessert coolly washed away much of the disappointment from the savouries. Half of an orange was scooped clean and filled with refreshingly gentle orange granita on top, there was soft cheesecake foam underneath, richness of honeycomb below that and the tart tug of a marmalade pinching the bottom into yet another sweet spot. Creative, technical and pleasurable all in one cross-sectional scoop of spoon !
Where these flavours were allowed to shine, the next dessert again got too smart by excessively hedging its bets. A toasted coconut ice-cream was decent but not a patch on the tendresse of tender coconut ice cream, paired with a dab of chocolate cheesecake which lacked depth of flavour, again reined in by a nutrigrain miso butterscotch whose salty whispers had no real partners to joust with. Mignardises included another thinking touch - a rather bold savoury spin via a pulled pork roll avec blackbean sauce (moreish but forgetful of my request to eschew red meat) and another flavourful miniature from the chef - a banana cheesecake tart.
The maitre d' pulled the door out for me as I exited and he uttered a polite farewell - a hospitable and gracious touch missing from many other fine dining establishments. I don't think I should suggest that the chef change his dish presentation style from the huddled-at-the centre circular-symmetry contraction that is mostly the gesture here - he can keep this style (a la Turkish miniaturists) while generating more of the expected raw pleasure from the flavours. Paris Butter does many things right and it is a promising fine-dining restaurant, which perhaps one ought to be thankful for in Auckland's current depleted luxury milieu.
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