If you were to write a CV for Cuba St's Matterhorn bar and eatery, it would be a long and star-studded one. Tucked down a long hallway just up from the bucket fountain, the former Swiss coffee shop was the first to serve fondue in Wellington in 1963.
When it was bought out by a few barflies who turned it into a lounge bar for their friends, it became the place where the band members of Fat Freddy's Drop got together and jammed, recording their first live album there.
After being closed, revamped and modernised, it went on to be named Cuisine's restaurant of the year in 2008. That same year, it was hailed as New Zealand's top bar for the third year in a row.
In yet another stage of its evolution, the popular haunt closed last week for an overhaul, reopening at the weekend with a new-look bar and restaurant menu. Gone is its award-winning a-la-carte menu that won it five stars recently in a review by The Dominion Post's food critic, David Burton. In its place, though, is a shift to what Matterhorn calls "the age of social eating".
Chef Dave Verheul has spent two months developing a varied 28-dish range of sharing plates, designed to make food a more central part of a night out at Matterhorn.
"This new menu format really suits Matterhorn, because it's a much more casual, social way of eating. It makes the food the first topic of conversation and encourages you to try something new," he says.
The shift to 28 plates which can be eaten anywhere in the venue - at the bar, in the former restaurant space or in the outside bar - was sparked by "a bit of everything".
"We're not dumbing down the food, though. We're just going to serve it in a more casual, easy-going way," Verheul says.
"The world has changed and we have to change with it. [The recession] is not the reason we're doing it, but it's a hard industry in Wellington at the moment."
Verheul honed his skills under Gordon Ramsay's protege, Josh Emmett, at the Savoy Grill in London.
He has been running the Matterhorn's kitchen for the past year and a half and is renowned for breaking culinary rules.
The 28 dishes do sound adventurous. Among them are fried pigs' tails with house-made kimchi, kingfish cured in gin, clams steamed in a crayfish and lemon verbena bisque, roast wagyu beef for four people and a Thai-style, eight-texture chocolate dessert.
Time will tell how it appeals, but the Cuisine judges raved in 2008: "Stunning produce, unpredictable combinations, fresh thinking and thorough craftsmanship were the hallmarks of every dish."
Bar manager Claire Harlick has given the bar menu a makeover in the same spirit, including a new wine list and more than 10 new cocktails developed exclusively for Matterhorn.
Among the homemade infusions is a clarified tomato mix that takes a week to make. First, fresh tomatoes are infused with fresh chilli, fino sherry, horseradish, salt and pepper and fresh lemon, then rested for a week. Then it is passed through cloth to produce a clear liquid with a full, ripe tomato taste.
Burton says the Matterhorn's vegetarian degustation menu includes some of the best vegetarian food he has ever eaten.
"It's really brilliant food. The technique is impeccable and creative."
However, he believes the popular bar and eatery has struggled with its dual roles, both as a fine-dining, award-winning restaurant and a dimly lit, popular bar.
"There is that cross-over period when you wonder: 'When is it dinner time and when is it drinking time?' It's an uneasy compromise, so this new direction may be the way to do it," he says.
"But one thing I have noticed is that Matterhorn has been popular among the older crowd, and it seems to be one of those places where you take your parents, so if they abolish the idea of an a-la-carte menu, they may lose that demographic."
Burton says Wellington restaurants have had a patchy winter, even the popular ones, and there's a growing trend around the world away from formal dining fare of an entree, main and dessert to smaller tasting plates.
"There's a real breakdown of that formal type of eating towards the sharing of plates."
- © Fairfax NZ News