Review: The Tasting Shed, Kumeu
Ph: (09) 412 6454
Cuisine: Shared plates
From the menu: Profiteroles $14, Shitake $15, Stingray $21, Lamb neck $21, Beef cheek $21, Garden beans $14, Lemon meringue cone $9, Ricotta doughnuts $13
Drinks: Marvellous wine list, fully licensed
Some swear by visiting The Tasting Shed, out past Kumeu, during the day so they can lounge about on the lavender-fringed lawn or hang out on the deck in the sunshine but for me, nothing beats escaping the city and heading there for dinner. Coming up the driveway of this rural restaurant and catching the first glimpse of the soft, yellow lights peeping over the brow of the grassy hill through the gently spiking cabbage trees is an instant salve for whatever day you've had. The setting is so exquisitely New Zealand, with its plywood sheds, rough-sawn timber decking and easy transitions from indoors to out, and all of it gracefully and artfully put together. It feels like you're at a friend's designer bach for the weekend.
And then there's the food.
I first fell for chef Steve Smith's brilliant cooking in 2012 when he headed up the kitchen of Ponsonby's Tin Soldier when it opened. Now he's settled out west and a first look at his seasonal menu, scrawled on the huge blackboards of the rustic Tasting Shed dining room, proves he's continuing to create exciting and original dishes that won't break the budget - not one is over the $25 mark.
Menu descriptors follow the trend for not giving much away (for example, beef cheek - wasabi, nori, sesame, pumpkin) which has the effect of increasing our anticipation and also forcing us to trust the chef to an extent. Within minutes of ordering, the line-up of delightful surprises begin to arrive. Profiteroles, with their buttery liver parfait filling, are dramatically painted with a pickled pear puree, which does far more than merely add to the visual effect - the sweet-tart flavour offsets the richness of the parfait beautifully. A bowl of assam laksa is so deeply satisfying that I ask where the recipe came from (it's an adaption of a recipe by an aunt of the owner Ganesh Raj). It comes with a twist, of course - the fish used is braised stingray and it is perfect for the dish. In there, too, is a soft whip of coconut cream, puffed rice crackers and succulent prawns, and the multiple layers of flavour create an intense and complex dish, which is nothing short of a triumph. The beef cheek turns out to be pieces of dark, tender meat, and the wasabi mousse so impossibly light that to get the intensity of flavour from "air" seems beyond incredible.
One of the strongest aspects to the menu is the way in which the chef treats the vegetable dishes, and I say this as an avid meat-eater. A dish of juicy plump shitake is a bowl of perfect harmony with the contrasting textures and flavour of radish and carrots, while the plate of green beans shows no restraint with chunks of biscuit-like toasted macadamia nuts and crumbled sharp goat's feta. The catch-cry of "eat your vegetables" doesn't get better than this experience.
I venture to suggest that Smith likes puree a little too much, with most dishes underpinned with these - agria potato is pureed, pumpkin gets a look-in with the beef, eggplant is reduced to a glossy black dollop with the lamb, carrot with the shitake. Perhaps had we not ordered so many dishes we may not have noticed the repetition quite as much.
We adore Smith's savoury dishes, but can he also impress and charm us in the sweeter spectrum of things? Absolutely.
Sweet ricotta doughnuts are so light, how they are held together at all remains a mystery. Serving them with autumnal fruit - quince caramel and poached pear segments - and a goat's milk curd has us swooning. But it's the lemon meringue cone that has us squealing with delight and I'm not going to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say it is sweet, sticky, sharp, cold, silky, crunchy and all of it falls into startling alignment.
As I drive away under a sky of dazzling stars I can't help replaying in my mind the eating highlights - the depth of the laksa, the standout richness of the beef cheek, the unctuous liver parfait - and because there are so many, before I know it the stars have turned into city lights and the best I can do is dream of when I will return to the enchanting restaurant that is The Tasting Shed.