ADDRESS: 40 Omaha Flats Rd, Matakana
DINNER: Lunch Thurs-Mon, Dinner Fri, Sat
MAINS: $32 -$37
Three gorgeous but completely unexpected golden chandeliers hang in the vestibule of Rothko’s kitchen. Diners seated on the outside deck can spy them; it’s a testament to the eccentricity of this relative newcomer in the rural countryside that nothing is quite as it seems.
Rothko is in Matakana, one of Auckland’s newest day-out destinations. On a rustic property an hour north of Auckland, lawyers Anthony and Sandra Grant have spent almost 10 years and millions of dollars to create their project, Sculptureum. It is a beautifully curated collection of glass art, paintings and sculpture set in tailored gardens and surrounded by their vineyard where they grow chardonnay and red grapes.
Set in the centre of it all is Rothko, with its open surrounding deck that has been a superb place to relax and dine in summer, but I remain unconvinced about that openness and light for the coming bleaker winter months, even though heating, retractable walls and plenty of comforts have been promised.
Head chef Jarrod McGregor, together with experienced F&B director Julie Woodyear-Smith, has assembled a skilled team to produce his menu of diverse and interesting fare. McGregor is a forager and what better place for him to seek interesting ingredients than the nearby coastline and gardens on the Omaha Flats. So you’re likely to find seaweeds, samphire, salty ice plant and native sea spinach gathered from the shore garnishing the savoury plates. And according to the season you might be treated to local corn picked that very day, fresh feijoas, grapes, limes, sweet little mandarins and other citrus fruit.
The usual entrée/main format has been eschewed in favour of listing dishes in three sections: fish, meat, vege. The well-drilled and friendly staff explain that everything is meant for sharing at the table and that the size of the dish can be detected by price: under $20 items are side dishes or entrees; the $30 range for mains; and the rather hefty tags of $49 on the pork belly and $59 for the beef tomahawk indicate that they’d be a centrepiece for four or more diners.
That pork belly is braised in beer and soy, making the flesh rather golden and broody, deliciously moist and tasty, its thin skin, mysteriously dark and surprisingly crisp. It was matched by a generous helping of freshly made piccalilli that helped to cut the pork’s richness. The tomahawk beef arrives as a generous, tender and juicy hunk of beef, complete with sour tomato and a spicy lager-beer mustard made in the kitchen. Beautiful French steak knives are provided to cut through both of those dishes.
There’s an elegant eel dish that’s beautifully presented, rolled into a cylindrical shape, sliced thinly and topped with sweet rhubarb and a surprising jolt of ponzu. Salt, fat, acid and sweet at once. The baby squid is a triumph of tenderness served with broccoli, orange and shreds of cured pork cheek, and I advise everyone to order the smoked kahawai with horseradish, blood orange, green apple and daikon for the wonderful yet simple combination of textures and surprising tastes. The vege selection includes a colourful and refreshing heirloom tomato salad with whipped feta and miso, corn which had been charred and accompanied by miso butter and nori, a vivid beet salad that combined sweet honeycomb, crunchy hazelnut and the comfort of fresh goat curd, and a pile of crunchy agria potatoes enhanced with some botanicals and preserved lemon to cut the oil. The one dish that did not thrill me sounded grand – “Bach style flounder” with yeast batter, caper and herb aioli. It was enormous, encased in a rich batter and deep fried.
On the positive side, once I had smashed my way through the heavy golden crust I found some very moreish tender flesh that almost melted in my mouth. But what to do with all that batter? I was first daunted, then defeated. Finally, Rothko’s desserts are not to be missed. Seasonal fruit- or chocolatebased and offered with a lovely complex but light approach from a kitchen that understands texture and flavour.
There’s a full bar with cocktails and a wine list that’s as quirky as the property. The wine-by-the-glass selection will encourage trying such interesting tastes as Ted, an almost fruity pinot blanc from Mt Edward, alongside bottles from some of our country’s most highly rated wines like Herzog, Pegasus Bay, Fromm and Dog Point, and some wellpicked international wines. And this is probably the only place you can try Sculptureum’s own wines as much of their wine is exported. Just ask.