Restaurant Review: Harbour Society, SO/ Hotel Auckland
Jesse Mulligan reviews SO/ Hotel’s 15th floor restaurant Harbour Society
Phone: (09) 379 1860
Address: 67 Customs St East
Drinks: Fully licensed
From the menu: Mushroom ravioli $21, Octopus $23, Lamb rack $45, Artichoke $34, Codfish $44
Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss. 13-15 Good, give it a go. 16-18 Great, plan a visit. 19-20 Outstanding, don’t delay.
I was excited to check out the flagship restaurant of the flash new downtown hotel called SO/ Auckland by Sofitel, though not everyone shared my enthusiasm. “Ugh, a hotel restaurant?” said one of the dads to me on the school run.
“You might find that So is a bit so-so”.
“That’s very clever, can I use it in my review?” I asked.
“Only if you credit me,” replied Manukau District Court Judge Sanjay Patel.
But the SO/ restaurant — technically called Harbour Society — was not so-so at all. It was so good. It’s a high-rise dining room with a view unlike anything in Auckland except, obviously, The Sugar Club, though you could argue that you get more out of looking at the harbour and cityscape when you’re on the 15th floor than when you’re eating Peter Gordon’s food at the altitude of a low flying plane.
The food is very fine and fancy, cooked by a chef with Michelin heritage who is possibly yet to feel entirely at home with the New Zealand pantry. The biggest complaint you can make about hotel dining is that you could be anywhere in the world and that is definitely the case here, where there isn’t much on the menu to make you feel like you’ve landed in Auckland.
Sure the chef’s specialty vodka-cured salmon probably uses our award-winning farmed stuff from down south but I don’t remember it being mentioned.
(As I go to check on this I am reminded of the other great drawback of hotel restaurants: hotel websites. Harbour Society doesn’t get its own site, so misses out on the easily navigable architecture: contact, menu, about, etc. This wouldn’t be so bad if, like Sky City, they made sure everything you needed was on the restaurant’s sub-page but I’ve been looking for ages and I don’t think Accor even offers a menu online for this massive downtown investment. God help us all as I try to remember the dozen or so ingredients in each of the things we ate.)
The service staff are very keen to do a good job, popping up every 30 seconds when you arrive to offer you this and that. When my pregnant wife’s non-alcoholic cocktail took too long to arrive from the ground floor bar they apologised by bringing us each a complimentary glass of bubbly. It perhaps wasn’t the best gift for someone clearly in her second trimester but the thought was there.
They are full of personality those waiters, and handsome too. One of them came up for a chat and bantered so enthusiastically about what we might call the baby that for a few moments I wondered if he might be the father.
I wouldn’t change anything about their approach — in order to compete with Auckland’s high-end dining scene (The Grove was just named in Tripadvisor’s world-wide top 10) they’ll need to keep providing more than just great food.
As I looked at the menu I said to Victoria, “I think I’m going to be hungry at the end of all of this” and, despite ordering three mains between us, I could still have used the bowl of chips (with truffle paste, tomato and pineapple) I’d been greedily eyeing up since I sat down. Let’s be honest, however. I am a monstrous glutton. I don’t think the rest of you will necessarily need to do what I did and make a peanut butter sandwich when you get home.
Though the dishes are designed to be as beautiful as they are delicious my favourite was the most rustic: globe artichoke, cut into bite-sized chunks and cooked so simply and beautifully that you could have been in southern France.
At the other end of the intricacy scale was the octopus, the pieces carefully arranged with capsicum and other bright ingredients to form an artist’s palette on the oblong plate. There can’t have been more than a few mouthfuls in the whole thing but it cost $23 and was presented as an entree, leaving you hungrily anticipating the larger courses to come.
The other entree was a fantastic ravioli filled with cepes, technically a mushroom but with such regional French flavour that if you find it in a recipe, no other fungi will do. The best main featured perfectly cooked lamb cutlets with hummus and a raspberry harissa which sounds like a casual north African thing but the harissa was a precise geometrical block and the hummus a tiny condiment rather than the porridgy heap you’d get at a bistro.
The chef and manager dropped by each table during the night to say hello, answer questions and wish the guests well. As I say, they are working hard to make this an essential Auckland restaurant and given the first-class food and that city view, you should find a seat by the window and check it out for yourself.