Sidart : Restaurant Review : Part II

2 & 1/2 stars out of 5 (above average)

Auckland, New Zealand

Visited in July 2013

With its evocations of a Cesar Ramirez tour de force or a David Chang hipster fiesta, the Chef's Table multi-course dinner at Sidart arrested my interest. In other fine-dining restaurants in Auckland, it is relatively easy to get a reservation, particularly if you call a week in advance, but Chef Siddarth Sahrawat's restaurant has bucked that trend by becoming the most popular fine-dining restaurant in NZ, if their perennially packed house and gold medals in NZ-wide consumer choice awards are anything to go by. Early this year, it had wowed me with a coolly delicious 5 course lunch that had served as an excellent introduction to the restaurant. And now came this special 10 course $180 per person offer which would commence with complimentary champagne - I had visions of a thrilling ring-side view of a world-class modern restaurant kitchen's sophisticated processes being laid bare in front of me as we'd be a coddled set of guests at the receiving end of peak hospitality. The reality unfortunately was less gratifying ,as I discovered after availing of this Chef's Table offer in the company of close friends who'd come in from out of town. They were very gracious in saying that the meal was memorable, but I sorely felt that they deserved actual pyrotechnics, rather than the sporadic sparks that came our way.

 For starters (we'll come to the appetizers later), while we were indeed given a table next to the kitchen - and it was indubitably the one that provided the most convenient access for service staff and chefs to grace and pamper our table, the square-shaped booth meant that the person with the back to the kitchen wouldn't be able to see any of that action. This did not mean that patrons with a onward view of the kitchen got to see a graphic "inside peek". Positioning and height of the counters and shelves ,both at the kitchen entrance and inside the cooking area, meant that what we saw was the inverse of a puppet show - we could see hands briskly and assiduously 'pulling the strings' for 3 hours, but saw next to nothing of the actual plating or dish synthesis. Further disappointments in this regard have been elaborated in the later paragraph about Service.

 Sidart knows how to promote itself. There's a virtuoso video modeled on its delights, featured on Youtube and crafted by Gather&Hunt - you'd think that this would be a sexy restaurant to take your partner to, with the added assurance of exciting food. Concerns of ecstatic cuisine aside, the sound levels ratcheted up so much during the course of our evening there that I wished we had some perversion in which we got turned on by noise (I'm not referring to moans here)

 Sonic disturbance need not always be a harbinger to great take-offs. Sometimes your airbus taxies so much that you eventually realize you are not going to be transported to empyrean realms this time.

 Market Research Experts say that the customer remembers the start and the finish of an experience the best and gives them a lot of weightage in final opinion. Not illogical but the body of the experience counts equally for me. I'd say that this stage of our meal commenced with three dishes which were all from the sea - Kingfish, Yellowfin tuna and overcooked Snapper -the last of these was wrongly listed as Hapuka on the menu. All three of us at the table that night are seasoned fish-eaters since childhood, but none of these dishes evoked the marine magnificence or piscine pizzazz that we hoped to drown in. I specifically tried to detect the stunning natural depth of high-end sashimi in case this was the effect that the chef was trying to convey, but my impressions continued to be nonchalantly surfacial. Vegetable ash, foam, butternut sauce, creme fraiche, celeriac puree and half a dozen other frills failed to impart any extra-terrestrial fillip to these fish.

 

 

 

 

Earlier to that, we had set glamorous sail with a complimentary glass of champagne and a generously offered trio of amuse bouches of which the most refreshing, least innocuous pick was green apple sorbet.The fact that none of the 3 successive amuse bouches had made us sigh with high pleasure, still did not our cripple our resilient optimism.

 

 

Service on the whole fits the bill but I'm looking at pushing the envelope here. Table-side rituals of classic French-dining do more than just create ceremony- they also develop the interaction between server and patron, besides giving an opportunity to the staff to display their skills - rustling up a crepe suzette with silken touches, carving meat with such flourish as to arouse envy, infusing grace into the mere act of placing food on your plate. Sidart even with its nouveau cusine trappings gave us no theatre at all. Noma-like touches (I've experienced enough of Sidart to know that it looks up to this Nordic demi-god) or Alinea conceits ,exemplified by many thrillingly designed dishes which come together only after assistance by the server, or by a little participation from the patron himself, were conspicuous by their absence. My liquid nitrogen dessert in Caperberry was "cooked" table-side with billowing cold fumes, but a similar new-age dessert in Sidart was rather lamely brought to the table already prepared. I want Sahrawath to see (he might very well have, already) the gloriously imaginative stunts of Grant Achatz and then ask himself whether he's willing to do different but similarly ambitious theatrics so as to liven up the rather staid fine-dining humour of Auckland. As for young perky Amanda whom I had praised in my previous review, she seemed rather wary of me this time. You can count on NZ femmes to flummox you.

The 10 courses had formally commenced with a richly coloured beauty laid out along one border of the plate. A sorbet of beetroot and raspberry combined the red, fused the flavour and toned down the acidity of these two in a cool smooth quenelle. Beet ribbons ,creamy purees and crunch of crackers strove to further elaborate the balance. If only the palatal character of this syncytium had matched its looks...

 

 

Ambience - On a quiet night, an affair in Sidart can have the quintessential qualities of a satisfying culinary rendezvou , but on an evening such as the one we had on this occasion, if you'd been attempting sweet whispers, your companion would have to coyly smile and cunningly play along after a good deal of lip reading. The compact room acquires cozily muted shades by night,  and past the soft lights of the restaurant, through the windows you can see the glowing form of the SkyTower. Our booth was between the kitchen and the main dining area, and we couldn't adequately feel the pulse of either -but the latter domain got so noisy due to inconsiderate patrons that some silence would have come across as terrific seasoning. From my partially enviable vantage point, I could see dishes being relentlessly put together at the core of the kitchen, tidied up and prettified by the "enhancers" at the mouth of the area before being sashayed out. There wasn't much sauteeing or frying I could see , or sizzle and hiss I could hear, but there were umpteen times when products were taken out of trays, and a lot of intricate arranging movement by hands. Chef Sid's fleecy significant forearm was seen to be at constant work.

 

 

Sweets kicked off with the stunt of a red wine ribbon and pear partnered with Roquefort cheesecake -in a meal full of dishes that could be absent-mindedly polished off , this was the only presentation that had discordant notes. The latter component was too funky for anything on the plate to make it behave. But exquisite manners, sophistication and high education revealed itself in White Chocolate Mandarin Coffee - the best dish of the evening. It was a dazzling cool play of taste and texture -the sweetness blooming in petals of myriad taste, all of which harmonized elegantly with the citrus fragrance of those orange slices.

Would the final dessert- the last dish of the evening - go still higher and become that ultimate offering from Sid-dartha that would deposit us under the Banyan tree of supreme placation? Walnut-honey-banana Ice-cream was enhanced with liquid nitrogen that was used to cook some of those flavours -we took bite after bite and found cloy instead of joy. Perhaps the ultimate message here is one of stoicism.

 

 

 

 

Had the dishes which come before that adequately heightened our expectations? Yes, if you're the sort who feels dizzy on a plateau. Free range pork got accessorized with lychee and olive- a dish the flavours of which gambolled within the confines of a rather limiting boundary. In this country, I have not come across, nor do I wish to, a suckling pig with an apple in its mouth, and I am also yet to taste a high-end pork main in which this meat is not paired with a fruity element. Duck breast and a small cube of confit leg fried in panko then sought to entice us - but again, the technique in the dish outweighed its taste - we'd have been happier if it were the other way around. I gave the breast a lot of quality time in my mouth, but delicious meat of sheer luxury I did not experience.

 

 

 

I remember a particular juncture towards the latter stages of our meal, when my companions and I looked at each other, not verbalizing our thoughts and yet acknowledging the common sentiment, having consumed several intricate renditions of food and two bottles of excellent Sauvignon Blanc, and disappointed that the bib-soaring happiness expected from this extravaganza, was absconding.

It was a technically evolved repast no doubt, alas profound flavours and meal-stopping sighs ditched us- not a single sauce over the course of this preciously polite 10 course affair was shamelessly saucy. Most dishes were cohesive concepts, yes, but euphoria they yielded not. Changing the menu every week, which Sidart audaciously and energetically does, is something most restaurants would blanch at the prospect of - but this cast-iron need to rotate dishes regularly means that sometimes, the changing menu comes at the cost of long-incubating carefully calibrated dishes. In this meal particularly, I at one point longed for the deliciously definite pleasure of time-tested bistro classics - when you get that type of thought in a fine-dining restaurant, you realize that perhaps its most basic and also its highest calling - super taste - is being forgotten at the altar of highfalutin technique. What's the great point in marrying a princess if she cannot be a proper wife?

Things finally looked up with an animal that has given so much to the world. It was a text-book example of fine-dining - beef cooked to sous vide-like finery, beautifully sandwiched between jerusalem artichoke puree and the verdant freshness of leeks. Both by its dance of flavours and prance of textures, it deserved to be eaten in carefully enjoyed mouthfuls.

 

 

On this visit, Chef Siddharth Sahrawath again resumed the practice of personally parking some of his creations at our table,and walked up to our table to present at least three of the offerings from the menu. He was genial and patient later when requested to pose with my friend while I took serial attempts to play the peerless photographer. Hopefully I'll get a richer chance in the future to ladle praise on him. Anything ,things, as they say, happen for a reason. I'll take a break from fine-dining now and channel more time into exploring kitchens that fixate more on vibrant flavours and less on compositional prettiness.

 

UPN

 

======================================================

 

I have chosen to append Part III - my third experience in Sidart - to this space because I saw little point in creating a separate review page for a dinner that flattered to deceive, a la Part II.

 

Sidart Restaurant Review Part III

Rating: Same as above (2 & 1/2 stars - above average)

Visited in Dec. 2013

 

 

'Once bitten twice shy' doesn't apply to punters like me. I read, in teenage, a Reader's Digest real-life story that excellently evoked the epic struggle and life-defining endurance that commercial crab-fishing in the freezing remote ocean entails. That story carried a line that is stuck in my head - "What is beyond exhaustion is not more exhaustion...It is a hallucinatory land of euphoria". On a related yet different note, for farers like me on the sea of life, what is beyond disappointment is not more disappointment- it a hallucinatory land that is beyond masochism.... My Chef's Table experience in Sidart had effectively exorcized the restaurant's ghost from pleasantly haunting my dreams, but its 8 course Tuesday Test Kitchen ($80 for 8 courses) - which I had not sampled - tugged at the back of my mind. Could it engineer an outstanding multi-course experience that has almost always eluded me till now? Yes, I concede that after my June experience, I had decided to stay away from this restaurant for a significant while, but some desires die hard...So when I settled one pleasant December evening in a Ponsonby dining room which I surveyed with familiar eyes, I warned my distinguished dining companion Mr.Dev Nadkarni about the dangers of expecting too much from this restaurant. But the gentleman was assured that he could expect oodles of creativity and technique. My chief concern was whether there would be a surfeit of taste -to that end, I drew an invisible arcing line on the white linen and voiced my hope that this meal should chart a different trajectory from the Chef's Table meal. Unfortunately the young turks in the kitchen were in no mood to toe that line.

In a restaurant meal that consistently fails to impress, a "ceiling point" sets in at a certain stage of the meal- at that juncture, you dully realize that the kitchen is not going to blow you away that evening. We reached that stage after 5 dishes, and Sidart confirmed our suspicions by doing nothing to generate a crescendo thereafter.

 

 

One of the few sparks was created by the first dish - a marginally better one compared to its multifarious cousins dished out in other NZ fine-dining restaurants as the overture - a gently flavoured, creamy, beautiful-looking starter meant to seduce and awaken the palate. This post-modern Escoffier was a play on avocado and cucumber, with sorbets, freeze dried elements, herbs and ribbons all vying for stylish cool variety. The succeeding dish also inveigled my taste buds - John Dory was neatly encased in a thin translucent fold of daikon and rested on a deliciously balanced sauce of apple and white soy. Only a limp squid ring failed to entice on that plate .It was a blend of downhill and status-quo after that.

 

 

A newcomer to nouvelle-cuisine might have been impressed by the presentation of our second fish course but my principal concern was whether it would live up to its militantly modernist looks. In an arc, three mounds were arranged - the central one of the three horseradish foams was parked near Kingfish cooked in leek ash. The black roasted coat on the sides of the fish feebly evoked the flavour of spice-rubbed fried fillets but I could barely taste any marine redolence in the Kingfish, moreover the foams were forgettably weak in flavour. Mushroom puree on the same plate eventually got onto the fork and expressed its umami twang - like an associate player who shrugs and gets on with his act after realizing that the protagonist is dozing in the ashes.  I was paradoxically reminded of the iconic Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert who said "The fish is the star of the dish" (not the accoutrements).

 

 

 The third and last seafood course, especially when thought of in retrospect, exasperates me with its presentation. Sidart may aspire to gun for the clouds but that still does not justify its fetish for foam - especially when it lets a visually dubious ingredient take precedence over the showcasing of a handsome specimen that cooked snapper can be. The fish per se was no great shakes (although eating it with that chilli cracker created a more memorable mix), and to top it all literally, there was a prawn of average taste, the exterior of which was again obscured by a sprinkle of crumble. What was that crumble? Moreover, what's the point talking about it when it did so little to enhance the prawn?

 

 

Amanda was in excellent form that day, engaging us throughout the evening by infusing her conversation and demeanour with charm and gusto - I daresay that the kitchen should buck up to match the keenly calibrated verve with which she introduced the dishes to us. She'd follow up that rapport later by seeking feedback about the food -my largely underwhelmed replies were received by her with a balanced attitude. "Perhaps a Nevis Bluff Pinot Gris 2010?!" she had slyly asked when we began conversation on what wine I'd like to drink this time. I chuckled drily- she'd obviously located and read my review of the lunch I had in Sidart eight months earlier.. This time, my repeat request for another type of light white wine was replied to, with a sample tasting offer of Pyramid Valley Grower's Savaging Rose 2010 - a cousin of a Gewürztraminer. It was dulcet and very smooth with a highly polished finish.

But frustratingly, there were several phases when there was no one in the dining area to respond to my beckoning gaze, and multiple occasions when there were no wait-staff in the dining area - in the latter instances they were all busy collecting the dishes from the kitchen. The deficiency was sorely felt and Sidart cannot hope to become a world-class restaurant if it continues to fall prey to this understaffing and valency in vigilance.

Fried pig cheek was a deep-fried delight -the flesh very soft and ensconced in the zesty crunch of the batter. It was far better than the joyless pork belly of passable texture and taste, that occupied the same plate. I've enjoyed significantly better lamb than the one served here - it was was not silky enough (before you put it into your mouth, the degree of difficulty while slicing gives you a strong hint) while the musky note worsened matters. All the wonderful tenderness I hoped to find in it, was instead channeled into an adjacent plump asparagus.There was nothing remarkable about the "sauce" which was duck liver mousse- it takes genuine inspiration to season and sculpt an ingredient's unctuousness into gratification, but that quality was in short supply that entire night.

Siddharth was not there in the restaurant that day - and the meal's pacing certainly got shortchanged because of his absence. The noise was ridiculous for a fine-dining restaurant, in unwitting contradistinction to the hushed flavours on the plate - the dining area's limited space amped up the cacophony of the crowd. Anyway both Desserts were good, but that adjective is not good enough for Sidart. Lychee cream and other coolly saucy persuasions were set off against a tart troika of Berries: Blue, Rasp and Straw. The next one boasted higher technique - a chocolate tube was filled with coffee ice cream and sprinkled over with honey crumble. What ensued were cool bracing flavours and good citrus pairing with orange slices but I've experienced a similar game before in French Cafe which had served Textures of Chocolate with oranges.

Sadly then, NZ's most happening restaurant has fallen into a rut - moreover,it is doing no favours to molecular gastronomy.The foams here carry little flavor and the dish architecture becomes monotonous -this is more apparent when you end up dining here multiple times. I've had two successive experiences of being obliged to sit in a compact room full of noisily talking people, while being served supposedly fancy courses of middling quality over a period of three hours - this is obviously not something you itch to get back to. Perhaps Sahrawath should consider getting back to the drawing board, cutting back the number of ingredients and draw renewed inspiration from the great foundations like French, Spanish and Indian cuisine, so as to infuse a more substantial spirit into his dishes. At the moment, even his brand new dishes are like more of the same old.

Elite Chefs do not get lulled into a sense of security by seeing patrons thronging their restaurant -instead they personally scrutinize whether they are constantly evolving ,and whether their food packs riveting taste. Even innocuous accidents attract crowds -that doesn't mean that an event of great significance is happening. I do not mean to belittle Sidart, but neither should the restaurant start getting complacent. I want to ensure a gap of at least a year before revisiting Sidart -getting back sooner would question my sensibility rather that of theirs. Hopefully by that time, this place will have less of Sidart, and more of Sideliciousness.

 

UPN

 

UPNWORLD welcomes your comments.