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American Couple Showcase Best Of New Zealand Cuisine

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Columbia Hillen

It’s not often I’ve had the opportunity to sit down and relish a marathon 15-course dinner. 

In fact, I can’t think of any occasion except over the recent festive season when international restaurateurs Michael and Annette Dearth invited my companion and I to ‘The Grove’ in Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island.

Born in Connecticut, Michael, of Italian-Irish background and father of two teenage children with his Michigan-born wife, earned his experience in the hospitality sector in many places, but particularly San Francisco where he was also a sommelier before emigrating more than 20 years ago to the land known in te reo Maori (the Maori language) as Aotearoa.

Michael Dearth, owner of The Grove. Photo by Columbia Hillen

A gregarious personality who makes it a point of speaking to all his guests table-by-table, Michael has managed not only to create a most enjoyable menu but also a young friendly, multi-national team who make guests feel relaxed and comfortable. All the servers were smartly dressed in sandy-colored checked waistcoats and black pants and shirts and included Kei from Japan and Andrea from Italy but also a mini-United Nations staff from Colombia, India, China, France, England, the US, and of course, New Zealand.

Columbia Hillen

Located opposite St. Patrick’s Church  (coincidentally Michael’s second name is Patrick), The Grove occupies a central position in downtown Auckland and is one of two restaurants the Dearths own, the other, not so far away, being Baduzzi serving Italian food. 

Michael chose the word ‘grove’ for his fine-dining restaurant to indicate tranquility and a strong sense of Nature, with a huge magnolia tree once growing just outside the rear window. That The Grove is a popular venue was evident insofar as either side of us during the evening sat a varied clientele  – one being a group of Kiwis and Asian people and the other a couple from Washington state in the US.

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The Grove comprises an elongated room, lit by hanging ceiling lights resembling, as my companion described it so poetically, ‘melting bubbles.’ Crisp white tablecloths, a polished broad-beam wood floor, soft brown cushions that absorb sound and whitewashed brick enhance the overall ambience. Nature is everywhere, in the wooden slats hinting at a grove of trees and slender saplings of ficus in giant pots that resemble amphora, as well as bamboo plants. There are also nautical boards in the main dining room. Nature is even present in the bathrooms with a decorative butterfly theme adorning the wall.

Columbia Hillen

Our evening commenced with a couple of exotic cocktails. My companion chose Cherry Pop featuring cherry-flavored gin by the Waiheke Distilling Company, maraschino cherries and sparkling wine. Not only was my vodka martini chilled to perfection but was served with a choice of three (3) types of olives on a skewer and lemon peel plus two different concentrations of olive brine in mini Aladdin-like vessels on a small wooden tray. Another intriguing cocktail was the peanut butter cup comprising peanut butter, bourbon and Bailey’s and Boysenberry Tang consisting of Lyre’s Rosso, boysenberries and verjus, the pressed juice of unripened grapes. Non-alcoholic cocktails included ‘Like a Margarita’ comprising Seedlip Grove 42, Blue Agave nectar and lime. There was also a selection of beers including a tasty hoppy ale on tap called Baduzzi, a collaboration with a local brewery. And reflecting Michael’s vast experience in the wine sector, there was a very extensive collection, including organic and biodynamic, from countries as diverse as Argentina, France, Hungary, Spain, Australia, Italy, Germany, South Africa and New Zealand. 

Columbia Hillen

Sadly, we could not try all the wines but did imbibe on a Portuguese 2022 Morgado do Perdigao featuring albariño and loureiro grape varieties from Quinta de Pacos and a New Zealand 2018 Estate Puriri Hills from Clevedon, south of Auckland, featuring merlot, carmenere, malbec and cabernet franc grapes. Indicating the sheer breadth of spirits on offer, I counted 12 different gins and 15 whiskies and bourbons on the menu.

Columbia Hillen

One thought that occurred to us during our feast was that the food was designed in such a way that using our fingers rather than cutlery would not have been out of place, a feeling that enhanced for us the restaurant’s connection to Nature. Presentation on diverse crockery was impressive, including slate, polished wood, salt block, hot stone, even colorful Paua shell and a box filled with corn kernels, allowing the produce to shine in all its glory. Much attention in presentation focuses on form and structure in a minimalist manner with flavors being delicately subtle rather than overpowering to one’s taste buds. 

Columbia Hillen

We were served five different amuse bouche surprises before we’d even begun dinner – salt and vinegar crisps with a sweetbread mousse; smoked eel enveloped in a slim layer of white chocolate with caviar sweetly trapped within; thin carpaccio of venison with a dill emulsion stripped table-side from a large salt block where it had been cured; sweet shrimp wrapped in a nasturtium leaf; and kingfish with celeriac. 

Columbia Hillen

Our starters and mains were a balanced blend of vegetables, meat, fish and seafood dishes including white asparagus; crayfish; trevally, or striped jack, a tropical fish; duck; lamb; and aged beef, all interspersed with a palette cleanser of fresh flowers and chamomile, mint and lemon sorbet flash-frozen table-side with a spray of mist. 

Columbia Hillen

Kudos to the executive chef for combining exotic herbs with local dishes trevally, eel and lamb, as well as fresh wasabi leaf with crayfish and kawakawa leaf with 55-day aged beef from Churchtown. 

As for desserts, suffice it to say, you will not be short of choice, and may indeed be tempted to indulge in several.



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