Dinky New Regent St shops tend to do the Dr Who Tardis thing, seeming much larger than they should be once you get inside.
The Grey Robin goes the other way. The tiny dining area upstairs is even smaller than you expect, with the darkish, plush decor drawing everything in close.
Even the classic arched upstairs New Regent windows that let you peek fairy-tale-like down to the paved street and clanking trams have been taken out of the picture, with white curtains shrouding the view, keeping the dining area feeling even more like a nest.
Owner Glenda Clark once told me she chose the restaurant’s name because of its understatement and the way it didn’t pigeonhole (my bad pun) the restaurant’s food into particular styles or expectations.
The Grey Robin launched with a high-end seven-course degustationonly menu. But now you can get a nine- or five-course tasting option, and from the same nine dishes can be drawn entrees, mains and desserts for à la carte ordering.
This night Clark was there on the ground floor with chef Seiji Kaneko (ex Riverstone Kitchen) when we arrived. He cooks downstairs and the food is marched upstairs. She served us and of course no-one knows the dishes and wines better.
The wine list is as sparse as you can get. Only seven are offered by the glass and these are the wine-matching options. You get another 11 bottle-only choices that are pretty niche (organic Supernatural’s Spook Light orange does the pinot gris duty), but no cat’s pee anywhere to be found, to my sauvignon blanc-loving dining companion’s horror. A handful of craft beers and cider fill out the drinks options. It seems food is king here and the drinks only support and complement that.
These are contemporary Eurostyle dishes with quality ingredients, many sourced locally. Proven flavour combinations are mixed with a few little twists, a safe rather than bold approach. Take the lamb dish in our five-course tasting menu. It took on the role of a filling main by having a bowl of excellent duck fat-roasted potatoes added as a surprise guest. The lamb was a rump from the new superstar Te Mana range, bred to be healthily fattier, and while the flavour’s too mild for a true sheep lover, its ability to stay tender no matter what meant a gorgeous crust was possible.
White anchovies turned out to be anchovy crumb, which added a tiny crunchy nothingness, with no flavour I could find. I also missed the point of the bland house ricotta, which kept a trend of cheese of some sort appearing in nearly every dish. A little rātā honey, peas, beans, radish slices and a really good lamb jus added up to a satisfying lamb experience. But pretty safe stuff.
Livelier was the little bowl of tomato and basil granita amuse bouche we’d started with. Apparently it was a rescued failed sorbet, but this icy tomato and basil kick with a lick of olive oil was an exciting start.
A favourite from a previous visit was an asparagus soup, earthy and creamy with a touch of mint. Swimming around were melted strands of cheese. It was perfectly seasoned and full of intense asparagus flavour.
Tanginess, too much really, dominated a vege dish of yellow and red cooked beetroots that also had orange confit, a bland orange jelly, very mild soft goat’s cheese, walnuts and walnut oil along for the ride to create interesting combinations.
Two high points were a mint sorbet that came after the lamb, which was a full-on force-10 mint hit, and fun with the still-vivid lamb memories.
The other was the dessert dish, which had a perfect marshmallow and tangy lemon curd garnished with half a gooseberry, a cherry (with a health and safety warning that it was avec stone), two blueberries, a dab of berry sauce and a fingernail-sized twirl of meringue.
These tasting dishes – tiny, fullflavoured, thoughtful – feel like they belong in this tiny dining room. There’s poise and good technique but it will be interesting to see how this robin takes flight in 2018.