The duck Wellington at the Matterhorn. Picture / Supplied.

Dinner Party at The Matterhorn

The Matterhorn is gearing up for Restaurant Month, when the good times won’t be just about the food

Sean Marshall will always remember the night a restaurant reviewer visited the Matterhorn, the Wellington restaurant and bar where he’d recently become head chef. It was 2007, and Kiwi musician LA Mitchell was mid-recording session, surrounded by sound gear.

"It was so loud, and there were so many people, it was nuts," he says. "I wasn't feeling too confident."

He needn’t have worried. After acing the review, the Matterhorn was named Restaurant of the Year in 2008, yet another accolade for the windy city institution renowned for its colourful atmosphere.

In March this year, Sean and Mark Keddell opened a sister restaurant in the brick character building on the corner of Drake and Union Sts in Auckland’s central city. Now the hotspot is preparing for Restaurant Month, with a special event designed to give diners a great night out, Wellington-style.

On arrival, guests will be presented with the Matterhorn’s signature cocktail, before a progressive meal from five of the Matterhorn’s head chefs past and present. Finally, they’ll get to work off the calories dancing to the boogaloo, funk and 60s soul of the eatery’s resident band, The Eggs.

“Dinner at the Matterhorn is not just about three or four courses and wine matches,” says executive chef Sean, who was head chef in the Wellington restaurant for five years. “It’s about a full experience: music, cocktails, good vibes, great service and wine.”

The event will be a reunion of sorts for former Cuba St bar crew Rikki Carter, Clair Harlick and Callum Chadwick, who’ll be serving the bar’s famous Falling Water cocktail. The 42 Below feijoa vodka with Ch’i and cucumber number was concocted by former Matterhorn bartender Jacob Briars, now the New York-based global ambassador for Bacardi.

Once diners have settled into the restaurant’s dimly lit booths, they’ll get a taste of the Matterhorn through the years. Sean’s successor, Dave Verheul (now at The Town Mouse in Melbourne), has created a first course of raw smoked snapper with turnip and sourdough miso. One of Sean’s old favourites will follow: rabbit with cardamom, carrot, barley, shiitake and Spanish sherry.

The Auckland venue’s head chef, Ben Tuhakaraina, will prepare his signature Duck Wellington, rolled in brioche and served with pickled beetroot, beet puree and duck fat mash.

James Pask, who took over from Dave in Wellington, will present a modern cheese course of roquefort, white chocolate, parsnip and Calvados (apple brandy). And Wellington Matterhorn’s current head chef, Rob Maybach, has a twist on Turkish delight for dessert, with rosewater marshmallow and rhubarb jelly coated in chocolate, served with rhubarb and milk sorbet.

If there’s a defining quality to the food it’s a sense of honesty, craftsmanship and modern flair. You won’t find any molecular gastronomy here. Sean says he prefers humble ingredients found locally in abundance; nothing in his rabbit dish is “too flashy”.

The Matterhorn typically offers quite a masculine menu that reflects his South Island upbringing, he adds, with lots of wild protein and seafood.

There’s one more course to come in the form of supergroup The Eggs, featuring members of Fat Freddy’s Drop, The Phoenix Foundation and Twinset, plus vocalists Imon Starr and Lisa Tomlins. The gig will be the first time trombonist Joe Lindsay, (also of Fat Freddy’s) has played Drake St, after 13 years of the band being in residence at the Wellington venue. It’s a wonder he can share his favourite memory of the place.

When Fat Freddy’s spent two nights there recording their popular 2001 album Live at the Matterhorn (re-released this month on vinyl) they racked up a bar tab 2m long.

“It was always a pretty exciting place,” he says. “It always had the best DJs, every Friday or Saturday. It was the place to hang out — if you could get in. A lot of bands got started there and a lot of good music got played there.”

Aucklanders have embraced the iconic eatery, which Sean insists will never be a carbon copy. It’s more about the things that represent Matterhorn, tailored to a different city.

“You’ll never recreate 52 years of evolution and you can’t take that intangible Wellingtonness and stick it in Auckland. But I think we’ve got the feel right here. We’ve always got good tunes live or DJs or the Matterhorn playlist, which has 5-6000 songs. We’ve made it as Matterhornish as we think we can.”

— A Taste of Matterhorn is part of Restaurant Month in the Heart of the City’s Chef Dining Series. Wednesday August 5, 6.30pm-late, Matterhorn, 37 Drake St, Auckland

Tickets available from iTicket – $220 including  five courses, cocktails on arrival, matching wines and live performance by The Eggs.

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