Bar stools are in – and our search is on for the perfect perch, some serious snacks and something stirred or shaken. The team at The Sugar Club create some great plant-based combinations that surpass even our sky-high expectations.
Fifty-three floors up the Sky Tower with an unobstructed view over sprawling Tāmaki Makaurau, The Sugar Club is undoubtedly elevated in the physical sense, but equally so in the level of thought and execution that goes into the offerings from both kitchen and bar. The restaurant has built a solid reputation over the years and, for many discerning diners, is one of a select few offerings around town that ticks all the boxes when planning a special occasion. What’s perhaps less widely known is that you don’t need a dinner booking to walk through those doors and enjoy the elegant interior (which remains one of the city’s most stylish), a considered food and beverage experience, and that view. The bar menu features a dedicated snacks offering and recently, under the eye of executive chef Abhijit Dey, it’s crafted through a plant-based lens.
Young and quietly, studiously ambitious, Dey – a S.Pellegrino Young Chef award-winner previously profiled in Cuisine (see issue 195) – credits disparate influences. There’s his upbringing in Kolkata, India; his years completing stages in top restaurants – particularly of a Japanese and Nordic ilk; and his obsessive research into the minds behind the World’s Top 50 restaurants – he laughs as he tells me about the 90 or so big, glossy tomes stacked at his bedside.
But he is at pains to point out that imitation is not his game; he works hard to ensure his dishes are truly original.
In describing the two vegan dishes he has created to share with Cuisine readers, Dey notes they both exhibit a balance of sweet, salty and sour – balancing flavours is perhaps one of his greatest challenges as without the big flavour punch that animal proteins bring to a dish, it often takes a fair bit of experimentation to bring forth umami, for example. Fire being a no-go in this literally towering kitchen adds to that challenge; Dey works hard to get a char on ingredients such as leeks and onions in the oven, to bring out that essential caramelised flavour. “Salty, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter are central to Indian cooking and I guess this has stayed with me. In Kolkata, dishes are relatively simple compared to those from northern India – maybe just a couple of key spices in each dish, and more vegetables and fish than meat dishes – and I work to that simple-is-best ethos with my cooking.”
Alongside the omnivorous tasting menu for dinner is a plant-based one, and the success of this has buoyed Dey to bring a plant-based focus to the bar snacks menu, a domain that’s often dominated by meat- and cheese-heavy dishes. “Every bar offers fried chicken,” says Dey. “We want to be known for doing something different.”
Crafting cocktails to pair with Dey’s snacks is bar manager Johan Cabrera, whose impressive CV includes a stint at cult Hong Kong bar, The Pawn. He’s as much a proponent of the classics done right – the menu highlights a rotating hit list of four classic cocktails each week – as he is of cutting-edge, intensely researched creations. The latter are demonstrated in the ‘Native Stories’ section of the list, developed with input from celebrated mixologist Mikey Ball to celebrate ingredients from around Aotearoa. Divided into four categories – Coastal (from which the Pacifista recipe here comes), Pasture, Plateau and Roots – there’s a total of 10 creations in the section, which Cabrera shakes up each month by changing out one or two. As well as from conversations with growers and producers around the country, Cabrera’s inspiration for these drinks comes from his fellow staff, many of whom have moved to New Zealand from afar: they’re all asked to write down a vignette relating to their experience in Aotearoa, and those memoirs are used as a drink-making storybook of sorts.
It pays to book for a weekend visit to the bar, but some nights you can just walk right in, from 4pm till late. Even better, there’s an extensive daily happy hour – two, in fact: 5-7pm and again from 9-11pm. The Sugar Club is not an exclusive, special occasion-only affair. Much like any other bar/ restaurant, it’s somewhere folks should feel welcome to drop in any time. Still, you might like to dress to impress, because the offering here does just that in return. ANNA KING SHAHAB