Luxuriating in beautiful neo-classical detail yet recently threatened with demolition, Wellington’s 1928 T & G Building has now been fully restored as a bijou boutique hotel, the Doubletree by Hilton. The vintage marble panelling of the lobby and staircase might well have been installed by the Hilton chain themselves; they clearly liked this polished marble so much, they’ve used it for the table tops in the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, Spring Kitchen.
At one end of the room is the bar which, in the months following the Doubletree’s opening in July last year, unexpectedly shot into favour as an upscale after-work watering hole for the CBD, inspiring management to replace some of the dining tables with a massive banquette.
Behind the bar is a restfully abstract Pointillist mural in nature’s shades of sage, moss, grey and blue, which aptly sets the colour palette for Spring’s decor. Being on the first floor, the dining room windows look out over the treetops of a little dell below. Come nighttime, an exterior row of Italianate balustrades has been romantically floodlit.
Attentive, immaculately groomed waiting staff, an above-average wine list and Vera Wang Wedgwood dinnerware are all to be expected from such a high-end hotel restaurant. However, the surprise here is the menu, which loosens fine dining from its Eurocentric past and allows newly appointed head chef Vaibhav Vishen free expression.
Until recently Vishen was head chef at the cheap and enormously popular Mr Go’s Asian fusion restaurant in Taranaki Street, but here he is set on refining and modernising the cuisine of his native Kashmir. It’s a mellowed-down version, borrowing elements from all over the East, as in the tahini and smoked eggplant purée he pairs with his braised yakhni wagyu beef cheek. The yakhni sauce is acidic from aged yoghurt, but while it contains its authentic Kashmiri spice masala (fennel, dried ginger, fenugreek leaves and asafoetida) Vishen purposely omits the chilli powder, enabling him to recommend Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc as a suitably acidic match for the yoghurt and the richly gelatinous beef cheek.
From Vishen’s grandmother comes the smoked, fresh tomato sauce he serves with his exquisite tomato charcoal chicken. The sauce is spiced with veri masala: fennel, ginger, asafoetida, cloves and garlic, kneaded with oil into discs and dried in the oven. Concealing a dollop of Western celeriac puree is a crisp, cumin-scented wafer, itself a modernist reinterpretation of Kashmiri flatbread.
Venison loin is served perfectly medium-rare with buckwheat risotto, its Nilhari jus the essence of a Pakistani workers’ dish where lamb shanks are braised for hours to extract the bone marrow. Vishen again leaves out the chilli from the curry sauce, enabling a match with the astoundingly aromatic Elderton shiraz.
Dessert returns to fine dining’s French roots, with spiced poached pear, served with a little of its own syrup, some mousse and a meringue crisp. However, just to round out the theme of the evening, the mousse is made from Afghani-Kashmiri carrot halva and the meringue is based on Indian reduced-milk confectionary, spiked with pistachio, almond and rose petal.
Spring Kitchen seems well supported by house guests, but as far as the Wellington public is concerned, it to its the first-floor location in the CBD (which it has to be said doesn’t exactly rock after dark). Furthermore it suffers the stigma of being a hotel restaurant, which might mean New Zealanders are likely to typecast the food as competent but essentially safe and rather dull.
However, for those adventurous Kiwis who are willing to give Spring Kitchen a try, it will surely shake up that stereotype very pleasantly indeed.