The ravioli from the four course tasting menu at The Grove. Picture / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Restaurant Review: The Grove, City

Fresh look, new chef . . . Jesse Mulligan checks out the changes at The Grove

Cuisine: Fine dining
Phone: (09) 368 4129
Address: St Patrick’s Square, Wyndham St, City
Drinks: Fully licensed
From the menu: Four-course tasting menu $99
Reservations: Accepted
Rating: 19/20

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The last time I had dinner at The Grove, my wife was nine months pregnant, and we ate out on her due date. The staff were sweet and wonderful, the food was immaculate and the whole experience was so perfectly accommodating that if she’d gone into labour I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the chef emerge from the kitchen with a pair of forceps and his sleeves rolled up.

The secret of great fine-dining restaurants is that they are at their best with customers who aren’t the usual. A birthdaying student should be able to go in for an entree with a nice glass of wine and leave feeling just as appreciated as the Japanese ambassador one table over.

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So did they mind a heavily pregnant woman coming in for one last indulgent night before her life changed forever? Nah, they were stoked.

It’s been an incredibly consistent few years for the restaurant, with Ben Bayly continuing to run a world-class kitchen despite a burgeoning TV career, the launch of Baduzzi and The Grounds, and a busy family life. Now he has finally stepped down and is replaced at The Grove by Scott Denning, who arrives back in New Zealand with an arm-long list of credits from some of the most famous restaurants in the world.

Interior of The Grove. Picture / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Scott’s food is very, very good. You can see the classical training in the show-off chocolate souffle, the tiny immaculate pumpkin dice and the single, perfectly constructed raviolo, but he borrows techniques from modern cooking too — I doubt Escoffier ever quick-pickled his buttercup, or coated his fish in “leek ash”.

More noticeable than the technique, however, is the joyful use of local ingredients — this seems like the happy menu of a man who has spent a couple of decades away from his kaimoana and is making up for lost time.

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Back to the food soon, but I should mention that the Grove interior was updated over Easter and has never looked better. Some new furniture and carpet have warmed up the place and, although we were dining the night of Auckland’s storm-of-the-century, the only clue that it was happening was the occasional recycling bin flying past the french doors.

We would have started with a glass of bubbles but the menu had Pelorus at $22 a flute. Yes reader, one glass of New Zealand sparkling wine for $22. I had a scout around and other restaurants offer it at anywhere between $11 and $18, so what is The Grove getting for that extra few bucks? A little extra margin but, I would have thought, so much ill-will that it can hardly be worth it.

A dish from the four course tasting menu at The Grove. Picture / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

For value, you’re better to head to the European wine list, which owner Michael Dearth has cultivated with some pride. His transcontinental relationship-building means many of his staff are the brightest sparks from Europe’s training institutes, enjoying a working holiday in New Zealand and doing their best to spruik old-world favourites while they’re here.

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If you don’t get at least a couple of tastings before choosing your glass then you’re not making the most of the extraordinary talent on the floor.

Meanwhile, the waiters will start delivering food to you with some frequency. You can choose between four courses and seven but even if you go for the short option as we did, you’ll get something like nine different dishes to enjoy over the course of two hours. An oyster, a mouthful of salmon, then a rich meaty lamb tongue compressed, crumbed and fried.

After that: the best thing you’ll eat all night — a geometrically precise oblong of kingfish, pure and fresh but layered with a salty, marine mix of flavours including roe of John Dory. Where has he found someone who can supply that?

A dish from the four course tasting menu at The Grove. Pictures / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

On top of the fillet is an apple and miso sorbet — cold and sweet. It’s the sort of thing that should, in theory, never go with a piece of fish straight out of the oven but believe me when I tell you the whole thing came together in my mouth like all these contrary flavours were born to be together. On the side was a freshly made mayonnaise, blackened with squid ink to contrast against the plate.

There is some drama in the presentation — early courses adorned with riverstones and foliage, and the final Bombe Alaska providing a spectacular denouement involving spinning plates and open flame.

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Poor chefs. I could write 800 words on any one of these dishes and they’d still feel I hadn’t fully done them justice. My best hope is to give you a hint of what you’ll find here and encourage you to enjoy it first hand.

The Grove has never been better — it’s perfect for diplomatic staff and heavily pregnant women, though they’ll need to look at the price of that bubbly before I can recommend it to students.

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