Long the preserve of those in need of lazy, summer, destination dining, The Tasting Shed has been a favourite of large groups for family celebrations, hen’s nights, the odd corporate function and weddings.
This is due in part to the charming outdoor garden and dining areas nestled beside Coopers Creek winery. The covered cabana is just peachy and on a recent visit a vast open marquee stretched between it and the indoor restaurant, so kudos too for being both sun safe and offering much needed rain protection (always a necessity in West Auckland).
A recent arrival in the kitchen here is Alok Vasanth. Formerly the head chef at Cassia and with a fine cooking pedigree, Vasanth has created a light and summery menu that fits neatly into The Tasting Shed realm of comfort food that is recognisable but leaves room to incorporate a few nifty and welcome tricks.
Plates are designed for sharing, varying in size and with a strong vegetable component.
A stellar start to our meal was the fried cauliflower with a crunchy, lightly spiced coating and a soy and sesame mayonnaise. The 11-year-old was hoovering them up so fast I barely got one past my lips. Charred zucchini and patty pan squash were pleasingly caramelised and juicy while the light gremolata dressing and toasted almonds provided a welcome roundedness to the dish. Roasted potatoes with feta and cumin was always going to be a winner, but the highlights were the larger dishes.
Asam laksa with its clean but tangy, sour and fishy broth with crisp shallots was a delightfully light take of this fish-and-tamarind-based soup. The fish was terakihi and cooked just so, the herb garnish delicate and appropriate. I would seriously consider changing the name though as a laksa, by any book, needs noodles and this was sadly omitted here.
Lamb with nettles, curd and walnuts featured some flawlessly cooked lamb, perfectly pink and well rested. The hay ash coating gave a rich, savoury crust while the nettles cooked and puréed with spinach helped to mellow the rich, house-made fresh curd. The rancid walnuts marred what would have otherwise been an excellent dish.
A tight dessert menu has house-made ice creams with flavours such as the moreish blackberry and sage providing interest, while chocolate fiends won’t be disappointed. A delectable dish features layers of chocolate; gooey brownie, ice cream, PX sherry, crisp shards and nuts create a rich dish of indulgence that should definitely be shared.
A pannacotta failed to provide the same spark. It’s a pointer dish for me – a simple yet classic technique that showcases the safety or daring of the chef. A precarious wobble to the set cream is what I’m after, something that will nearly collapse as soon as I put a spoon to it, and a shimmering silky slice that shows the lightness of texture.
On paper this is classic combination of rose geranium and strawberries, a quintessential early summer dish and, given all the surrounding local strawberry growers, one I was pleased to see. I’m not sure that the use of the dried petals in the pannacotta helped its texture, neither did the hardness of the set, which was firm and unforgiving. The flavour however, was delicate and light, especially paired with the excellent strawberries and light strawberry gel. The dried rose petals scattered among the fresh ones as a garnish made for a dusty finish.
Two recent visits, first with a large family group and then as a trio, highlighted the excellence of the service: fast, efficient and pleasingly casual. A special mention to our waiter Sammy, who not only remembered us from the earlier visit, but kept us topped with water and drinks and could answer any questions about the menu with great confidence.
The wine list here is concise and crowd pleasing and it works well with the food, and the house-made sodas are also excellent. I wish they would improve the beer list which is basic and, apart from the Sawmill seasonal choice, is a rather dull affair. That’s probably rather churlish of me given that this casual eatery manages to seamlessly knock out food for anything from three to 30, consistently delivers on service, cooks good-to-sometimes-great food and does so with an easy flair yet is comfortingly familiar.