Mr Morris' beef short rib. Photo / Striped Trees Productions

Jesse Mulligan's Fine Dining Odyssey: A Tour Of Top-Tier Takeout

In praise of marmalade pudding and a plant-based truck traversing the suburbs

Level 3 is a bit of a cruel trick for restaurateurs. They can technically open again — but only under strict conditions — so fine dining kitchens suddenly become takeaway joints, chefs with decades of experience using their incredible creative brain power to shovel shepherd’s pie into foil containers, then selling it to masked customers either at a loss or at a price so inflated it’s basically a charity auction.

It’s not their fault. Things are very bad out there. One restaurateur tells me his inbox is full with emails from others offering to sell or, often, just hand over the keys. Even with the wage subsidy level 4 cost the bigger companies “hundreds of thousands of dollars a week” in rent and wage top-ups.

Imagine sitting at home watching your cash burn while your friends on Facebook share videos of some chiropractor in America telling people they shouldn’t get a free, safe vaccination that could put an end to lockdowns.

I began my level 3 odyssey at Mr Morris: the best restaurant in the city according to our Auckland Top 50 announced earlier in the year. It was a little bit exciting to step into that beautiful space for the first time in months and see the busy team packing food into brown paper bags.

The Grove's "life-changing" sticky toffee pudding. Photo / Supplied

They’ve taped green crosses to the floor to tell you where to stand, assigned one door as the entry and another for exit, and staggered pick-ups at 15-minute intervals to manage the flow of hungry rich people.

You’re better not to think of this as an at-home version of the restaurant because the food, while delicious, is nothing like what you’d receive if you were sitting there with a glass of wine. Short rib, pork belly, lamb shoulder … it’s solid bistro tucker robust enough to survive a trip home and potentially, a couple of hours on the bench before dinner time.

Prices start at $85 but I’d advise you to chuck in a couple of sides so you don’t go hungry — like the straightforward but delicious root vegetable salad with preserved lemon and tiny green olives, or the radicchio salad that has so many different ingredients — bitter, sweet, creamy, salty — you can’t possibly fit them all into one mouthful.

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I loved their bread and butter pudding. Mum never made that dish so I wasn’t expecting the nostalgia hit but, incredibly, I was transported back to Hamilton in the 1980s by the flavours and textures.

Chef Michael Meredith does a citrus version of the classic recipe and it contained all my best sense memories of an Edmonds lemon sponge, which Mum did used to make (having learnt it off her mum). Soft, light, wet and lemony, Meredith’s version uses ricotta and marmalade, the exposed edges of the brioche darkening until crunchy under the grill.

I’d encourage you to support a fine dining restaurant with your takeaways — they’re the ones you’ll miss if they don’t survive this. Instagram is a good place to browse what your (occasionally problematic) faves are doing — Sidart, Pasture, Azabu and Lillius all have strong offerings, while The Grove has a really fun-looking wine night this Friday, in which you can share a 45-minute meal with a Sicilian winemaker by Zoom.

That’ll be a great chance to virtually travel to one of my favourite places on Earth, while eating chef Ryan Moore’s life-changing sticky toffee pudding.

The Sustainable Food Co delivery. Photo / Striped Trees Productions

Level 3 seems a strange time to launch a food business, but I have to tell you about Amy Klitscher, who is following her dream with a food truck (of sorts) touring Auckland’s central suburbs.

It’s a low carbon, zero-waste business where she pulls up at your gate, you bring your crockery out and she plates up beautiful plant-based food for you and your household to enjoy.

She covers a different suburb each night and had a successful contactless pilot last week — only underestimating the amount of time customers wanted to chat to her before she could spark up the electric motor and zip to her next booking. (I guess you could do her a favour, convene the neighbourhood WhatsApp group and get her cooking for half a dozen houses from one spot.) Look up Sustainable Food Co for when she’s next in your area.

If you saved money during lockdown, high-end food businesses are a great place to spend it. I compared it to charity work earlier but really, it’s in our own interests. Who wants to live in a city without cool places to eat?

If we can show them a bit of financial love during the hard times, they might just squeak through and be there with doors open when the going gets good.

For more tasty morsels, discover our comprehensive list of level 3 takeaways.

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