I will admit that I was disappointed when I found out the scotch in question at Blenheim’s restaurant and wine bar of that name was not of the fat marbled beef kind. I’m not a fan of the amber tipple, but I am of the eatery – what a gem.
Fronting the road in central Blenheim you don’t have the accompanying car-cacophony you would have in a bigger city. On a dark night Scotch lights up the sidewalk as if you are in a laneway in Melbourne or a cobbled street in Rome.
You know the wine list is going to be a good one when you walk past the adjoining wine shop, where heaving shelves of quality bottles line the walls. The walk-through, temperature controlled cellar is designed to give customers (diners included) access to a wide range of wines, both local and from further afield. Next door you enter a light, open space housing the bar, with high tables and stools and plenty of room for people to stand around for a casual drink and chat. Others can perch and enjoy a more substantial offering – the bar snacks are available all day – or something from the broader menu.
Being the bar area, it’s quite buzzy and a contrast to the adjoining room dedicated to eating. Here the brickwork feels warming, a single banquette stretching the length of the long wall. Low tables and chairs of crisp light wood finish the room with a clean minimalism. So, while you can dine in the bar area, this is the place you want to be if you are going to take time over dinner and you really should as the food is seriously good.
The seasonal menu is designed to share and if you find it too hard to choose, go for the tasting menu. At $45 per person it has to be the best value eating in the country, and be prepared for some nice surprises as you go. Sourdough with cultured butter, a regular on so many menus, was in fact warm, chewy homemade bread, the butter, made of tangy sour goat’s milk and there was a bonus in the form of a wonderful vegan roast cashew butter. Chicken liver parfait came on a doorstop slab of brioche, but was light and delicate and transcendingly topped with a liberal dusting of the finest slow-cooked bay leaf powder.
My concern that the potency of dried bay would overpower was quickly put to rest, the flavour adding just the right amount of sweet bitterness. Along with a dollop of apple gel it elevated a simple dish to something much more exciting. Trying to describe this style of cooking, I fumbled out ‘clever casual bistro’. It’s food you will recognise, but the ingredients have been thought about and expertly put together. A stunning calamari dish came two ways – chargrilled tentacles atop a pile of finely sliced, noodle-like bodies that had been quickly dropped in sizzling duck fat, with the tang of orange and the sweetness of New Zealand pine nuts adding layers of flavour and texture.
There is plenty of plant-based eating to be done here with vegetables popping up in unexpected and delightful ways. Spring onion is not only charred but its root end is a revelation in deep fried form. Carrots are burned, but with not a whiff of harsh bitterness, just a deep ashy flavour complemented beautifully with yoghurt and honey. But fear not meat eaters, there’s a slow-cooked lamb shoulder, rich with seaweed umami, that will satisfy all carnivorous cravings.
All this good food and wine comes with well-paced, attentive, but not overbearing, service. Scotch is comfortable, casual and friendly, a great wine bar with food that can surprise and delight.
Word is out though, so it’s probably a good idea to book, the place was already bustling at our early 6pm seating, with every table in the restaurant full.