If bling is your thing, the foyer of SO/ Auckland, a recently opened hotel in central Auckland, will provide plenty of eye candy to whet the appetite.
It is unashamedly artsy with touches of the baroque, hints of the burlesque and oodles of ostentation. Once you’ve adjusted to the sparkle of a spectacular – if vertically challenging – chandelier, a much less flashy elevator will deliver you to Harbour Society, the hotel’s flagship restaurant on the 15th floor. It’s a considerably more sedate space but with one of the better city views of any Auckland restaurant.
Its austere décor, reflective of the chrome and hard-edged style currently favoured by many restaurant designers, won’t sit entirely comfortably with those looking for plushness and intimacy, but there is a commendable consistency in the look and feel of the place. It’s the view over the cityscape through floor-to-ceiling glass that mostly draws the eye, especially for those fortunate to score a spot close
to the edge. Our table was in the centre of the room, which meant that for us a more mesmerising perspective was the low-slung kitchen full of chefs going about their business. Everything was calm, controlled and seemingly effortless which is all the more remarkable given the meal we enjoyed was complex, considered, artfully constructed and clearly the result of significant planning and effort.
The service did not get off to a great start, it has to be said. The restaurant web booking system is not user friendly and our reservation had us arriving at 7am.
That was sorted easily enough but our first waiter was initially too abrupt, too eager to have us order and seemingly disinterested in dealing with questions. Once he realised that he had his French-ness in common with my dining mate, his more engaging side came to the fore and the haughtiness dissolved. Other staff were less starchy although all could do with greater familiarity with the menu as well as the non-French wines on the substantial, nicely curated drinks list.
Regardless of these hiccups – perhaps not unexpected in somewhere as new as this – there can be no doubt that chef Marc de Passorio is in full control of a menu that speaks to his French pedigree and his passion for precision. Having owned a Michelin-starred restaurant, L’Esprit de la Violette, Passorio clearly understands what it takes to impress. His is highly technical food, with balance and composure critical to its success. Some may find the presentation a little dated – lots of spots of colour, turned vegetables and stylised positioning of food, that might be construed as more about palette finesse than palate flair. We felt otherwise, finding every dish built on very solid, classic foundations of taste and texture, satisfying with the expert way each ingredient was given equal billing throughout the eating.
Worthy of particular mention from our choices were the beef fillet in miso broth. I’ve eaten this combination before but never enjoyed Passorio’s level of refinement. The mānuka smoke influence was subtle enough to allow the taste of the beef to dominate, the miso nicely savoury and the skilfully executed brunoise garnish exquisitely firm. The chef’s delicate hand revealed itself again in the crayfish with chantilly of lemon and pepper. The timeless sauce was light and beautifully seasoned and portioned ideally to showcase the freshness and richness of the perfectly poached crayfish.
The star of the night however has to be the duck breast poached in milk. So often overwrought, this rendition of poultry finished with mānuka honey and raviole of cep mushrooms was sublime, faultless.
In the context of such triumphs the desserts seemed a little passé.
We selected the Bailey’s parfait and the hazelnut and chocolate cremeux. Visually they had all the hallmarks of Passorio’s eye for detail and design. They tasted good, too, but by this stage of our meal we were still salivating over the previous courses. The desserts did not, maybe could not, compete with the satisfaction level of the savoury dishes.
Portions at Harbour Society are moderate and prices, particularly for some of single glasses of wine, are up there with other high-end Auckland restaurants. But we are fortunate to have a chef with Passorio’s expertise delivering a menu with this level of competency. And I, for one, am happy to pay a premium for that elegance and excellence.