In the domains of controlled madness that is Parisian fine-dining, it is not uncommon (L'Ambrosie, Pierre Gagnaire) to find one appetizer priced at 80 euros and a main course at 120 euros with more expensive options easily available - your three course meal garnished further at delivery by tax, can effortlessly hit 250 euros per person (US$285). You have to be either obssessed or rich or both to dine here regularly. But as the century turned, "bistronomy" took wings in France - the coddled service and five-star frills of fine-dining were chucked out through the ungilded window and ambitious economy-price restarants helmed by equally hard-working or even harder-working top-chefs broke surface. Many of these offered 8 courses for as little as 80 euros with cuisine intended to be just as visionary. Across the oceans in New Zealand, folks will laugh you out of town if you charge the astronomical prices mentioned earlier, though a certain section will still try to get in and see what the fuss is. Fine-dining blooms the brightest in Auckland, of all places in NZ, but pared-down joints which cut the faff while amping up the wow factor on the plate have remained the half-hidden ones which you rarely if ever find. Antoine's or French Cafe may charge you anywhere between NZ$45 (the latter) to NZ$55 (the former) for a main course but nowadays, you will find $35 mains like those presented in the the CBD's newest hipster-mafia entry : Matterhorn. Out goes the white tablecloth and and also the attendant stresses of formally suited top-tier service but the overall rigour of a serious restaurant is still maintained while the food continues to look very much like its European luxury cousins.
Replacing and gracefully compartmentalizing the high-ceiling place once occupied by the vast interiors of Libertine, Matterhorn's air is still reasonably casual, what with its exposed brick walls and a ton of wood all separated by ample ether. There is a thirty feet high broadly arching ceiling of thin ribbed wood , ten feet below which a solidly business-like aluminium air duct carves the air as it curves around that height. I suppose this is what they call Scandinavian chic. This is, quite admirably, not a place which cranks up its music literally. And you realize the serious intent behind this operation when the food arrives - plating esthetics is certifiably of the post 2000 era, and more importantly the execution is mostly excellent.
John Dory was beautifully soft , and boneless chicken wings were exquisitely tenderized - these agreeable clouds of protein in a beautiful appetizer skirted a russet sea of well-suited sauce. Beef Wellington was given a different spin here with the core ingredient exchanged : soft chunks of duck lined with a feather of greens and jacketed in gentle pastry were a satisfying success, further enhanced by a cherry-sauce's touch of acidity.
"Momma's fried chicken", on the snacks menu available only in the bar area, was recommended by multiple patrons. Alas, these fried chunks here depend too heavily on an excellent capsicum-spiked mayonnaise. Neither the chicken's tendresse nor the coating's chutzpah measured up to a dozen different chicken karaage-style hot-eats you can discover in Auckland.
I was about to ditch the rest of the bar offerings and repair to the main batting pitch when my attention was arrested by what sat near the bottom of the bar snacks menu - a mention of the state from which my ancestors fleed like cowards five hundred years ago from the marauding Portuguese. Unfortunately NZ's Matterhorn, in a noble bid to give back to Goa what other Europeans took away, seemed to have conflated culinary cocoons while confounding me with what I eventually ate. "Goan Fish Dumplings" , presented as two plump spheroids, as a softly dry variety akin to yeast-n'-flour-based Char Siu Bao buns, received the intrigued attention of my teeth and tongue. The more I bit into this, the more I realized that there was no filling to be found!, but before the joke turned plainly crazy, I encountered ensconced in a corner of those pillows an orphan pocket containing some spiced coconut-leavened gobbets of fish that recalled a Tulu semi-dry renditon of Chicken Kundapur. It turns out that Matterhorn ultimately did doff its knowing anthropologic hat to me ,wittingly or unwittingly, as Kundapur belongs to the state of Karnataka where my folks now live.
This Kiwi-bred German joint did another cultural pirouette when it featured "Persian Egg" among its other delights. The seductive oozy umami of a soft boiled egg is set to nestle amongst the deep richness of pomegranate molasses, the perfumed crunch of pistachios and a few creamy annointments. I woundn't be surprised if the wafers and little compacted bricks of toasty bread in this dish were actually a solid avatar of the "beurre noisette" listed amongst the dish ingredients. Only in retrospect did I realize that this might actually be a modern exotic spin on Eggs Hollandaise ,which then made me remember a certain select brand of expressly intellectual films that you don't enjoy that much on the first watching, but later as you chew the ruminative cud, you progressively realize a torrent of revelations enough to glamourize your PhD thesis.
I don't like venison -this being very much a meat that a true carnivore (a tiger, sometimes a human) often appreciates - but my French companion admired Matterhorn's version , and went on to praise its fruit-based sauce and in particular the cinnamon-enhanced rhubarb. Hosannas however were bilaterally reserved when it came to sides on the menu which carry separate charges : hand-cut chunky chips soon became stodgy and the duck-fat mash should have been a richer attestation of its name.
On the night that I had New Zealand's most abundant protein derived from land-borne violence, I smilingly told the charmless hostess while leaving, that the restaurant should be having more customers for the quality of food it was offering (out of eighteen tables in sight, only four had been occupied that night). "That's because it's raining", she said without a smile. That lame excuse does not augur well for the spirit of Matterhorn. When I entered the restaurant that evening, it had been a rainless day, and then it did pour down but only for ten minutes during the middle of my meal and there was just a drizzle when I left. The most fickle dame in NZ is no match for the two-faced Auckland weather whose bright beauteous facade can change complexion any given day suddenly into the dark cries of torrential rain - Kiwis of course are accustomed to this eternal betrayal and the majority of them laugh in the face of rain enroute to promising chow-spots. Also, they aren't that different from their gastronomic brethren elsewhere in climes populated by European extraction -if what the young lady said were really true, cities like Seattle would have restaurants going broke nine months a year. And no, I haven't forgotten the meat main course mentioned at the start of the paragraph, although there wasn't much to make it memorable - it continued the long sorry list of lacklustre lamb I've consumed in NZ. Interestingly the lamb and the wheat grains and the shoulder meat and the red sauce and the starchy vegetable were all in the same plate sampled at Bracu last year. And no, Chef Mikey Newlands has not moved from Bracu to Matterhorn (although its possible that both might have sourced from the same recipe which I can't find online).
The much-vaunted plate of pig did not make me squeal (although the same plate's superbly soft potato fondant quietened me considerably). The very serviceable pork belly and an interestingly spiced disc of pork sausage made me eat them with more enthusiasm only when applying the sauce on the forkful , which is not a good sign for those who like the meat per se to sing.
The service is not top-tier but is definitely not your regular cafe-class either - while they may not nail the vigilance even after catching your beckoning gesture, napkins are regularly picked up, folded neatly and placed on the linen when you return to your table after a break. The staff impressing you with their sociability or pleasant polish, only occurs rarely but dish delivery almost never taxes time. Our server did not know why the place was called Matterhorn - named after the famous 5000 metre-tall formidable stony peak of the Swiss-Italian Alps - but returned later to inform us that the first owners of the original cafe in Wellington were from the region that holds this snow-kissed behemoth.
I often crib that most Auckland restaurant fish have little flavour but Matterhorn's kingfish had an intense piscine sharpness that oversaturated the fish lover in me. To the last bite it remained splendidly soft. Being smartly coated in tender tendrils of white-green zuchini swirls gave it a beautiful textural lift. I've long pondered the formidably difficult ways of making squid taste terrific - and I got a hint here - the little slices beside the marquee fish had a touch of garlic that interested me but what made it really take off , on one bite out of six others, was an additional whisper of olive oil.
The weakest spot in Matterhorn's skill set is in its use of vegetables. Brussel sprouts on that 'Plate of Pig', were more of a martyr than the animal, and on another night, both the cannellini beans and the sauce made from it, could have done with silkier zestier treatment. Matterhorn smartly realizes how snappily crisp and welcome fennel can be, but the version chosen to complement seafood was so sweet that it made no sense both in its own and when tasted with the fish.
Before the first dessert I experienced here, I had sampled more than one rendition of chocolate with orange while finding no remarkable merit in this pairing but Matterhorn's finisher of cocoa and fruit - presented as a multipartite disc - changed the game with its myriad persuasions. Guanuja Chocolate was intense and silky, leavened by a milk sorbet and beautifully contrasted with cinnamon-accented poached peaches and walnut among other delights. Only in the final stages of consuming it did my enchantment begin to wane.
Excellence of sweet farewells continued in another composition which rendered liquorice three-ways : liqourice cream being the best version, with a wafer adding textural perk and lastly a token offering of candied root. This triumvirate of taste was reflected in the overal dish which juxtaposed the former element with the uncomplicated creaminess of white chocolate, and with acidity which silently zoomed from the entry-level tartness of rhubarb to the sexy zenith of an intense mandarin sorbet. If the entire menu had the caliber of the desserts, Matterhorn would have been a comfortable contender to its more formal fine-dining brethren like Clooney, Meredith's & The French Cafe.
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