It’s good to have The Hunting Lodge open again. Those of us living in the north west of Auckland have been feeling the need for somewhere decent to dine for some time. There is, of course, the very popular Tasting Shed and a plethora of curry joints nearby but having another local option is welcome.
It’s fair to say the Lodge has had its ups and downs over the years. Chefs, including notables such as Geof Scott, have come and gone. It’s morphed from family villa to restaurant to wine cellar to event venue and back to the restaurant, but its bucolic location and connection to the historic Matua Estate have always drawn punters out of the city in spite of the travel time. I recall visiting first in the 80s when it was a warren of small rooms each with its brown-toned Victorian heritage still very much evident. Today it’s whiter, lighter, brighter and much more open. In fact, with its hilltop possie and its views over vineyards and open fields, this historic old girl in a verdant country has a really pleasant ambiance both day and night.
Dining room service is competent, with young, well-groomed staff doing their eager best to ensure everything runs smoothly. The wine list is considered and includes house wines and others that serve to fill in varietal gaps from the home vineyards. You could argue that some of the recommendations need to be better communicated but our server knew enough to convince us there has been some attempt at developing skill in this area. The a la carte menu is curated by Des Harris, the deservedly successful former chef at Clooney. Harris is one of those chefs who has the uncommon knack of being able to combine creativity with substance and satisfaction. He has on his team Asher Abramowitz and his partner Vix Gurovich both of whom worked in the Clooney kitchen. They have put together a menu that clearly recognizes the trend towards seasonal and locally sourced produce and includes the use of items produced in the restaurant garden, all with a view to delivering, ultimately, a pasture-to-plate experience.
With all these good bones, the essential question then becomes, “Does the menu deliver?” and the answer for the night we visited is, “Yes, for the most part.”
The Hunting Lodge menu is a work in progress. A duck-liver parfait was deliciously light, smoky and piquant as promised with the spiced feijoa chutney a real highlight. But the intimidating-looking cured beef carpaccio was burdened by an overabundance of a heavy, sweet and sticky sauce that failed to reveal its primary ingredients. More, too, could have been made of the bone-marrow toast which, smothered by its thick schnitzel-like blanket, seemed unable to fully strut its stuff.
There was a lapse in finesse, too, with the lamb rump which was expertly cooked and well partnered with moreish pickled onions, but dominated by a sauce awash with paprika. While appropriate in a traditional Romesco (on this menu Romanesco), this heady, smoky spice needed more subtle application. The most disappointing aspect of this dish was that the sauce relegated a superb shiraz, chosen to match the lamb, to a non-entity. Palate redemption, however, came in the form of a succulent venison loin served up with Kaipara eggplant and a highly memorable black pudding with lashings of flavour. My companion was disappointed in its presentation, which had the individual elements spread around the plate like pieces on a chess board, but we agreed that taste wise it had all the balance and composure we were expecting.
The dessert list is short with the highlight being a mouth-wateringly good pear parfait that came with my rosemary and vanilla bavarois.
A little fine tuning of one or two of these dishes will iron out glitches. Further work on ensuring the wine list and menu harmonize and on-going development of server knowledge will see The Hunting Lodge realize its clear potential. No-one is more likely to achieve this than Harris and his team. In their corner is a superb venue, strong and growing support from the new generation of locals resulting from the urban sprawl, generous portions and excellent value for money.