A mighty meal at The Matterhorn

22:26, Feb 01 2012

When The Matterhorn was sold in 2010 to the Auckland-based Pack Group, some people were outraged that one of Wellington's iconic "indie" institutions - a venue that had midwifed the nascent Fat Freddys Drop and been a favoured haunt of the Lord of the Rings hobbits, and seen more than its fair share of shenanigans - had fallen into the hands of a perceived enemy of all that was loose, groovy and "chillaxed". An "enemy" who also owned The Lone Star, Wagamama and Foxglove (on the Wellington waterfront). It was like the sort of mistrust that was expressed when a favourite "indie band" (such as Nirvana or Husker Du), signed to a major record label - the fear that whoever was ultimately responsible for paying the bills would harm something that they loved and felt a certain ownership of.

What the naysayers didn't necessarily know about The Matterhorn was that the place that the then owners had striven to create was in serious danger of running out of puff. They were worn out. They needed a break. They needed a change. And the place itself would have changed regardless. And that Pack weren't really looking to change things - rather, they wanted the place to maintain its status as the best bar in New Zealand, and one of the best bars in the world. And to regain the 2008 Cuisine magazine accolade of being the best restaurant in New Zealand.

One of the key changes came with former head chef Sean Marshall heading to Auckland to become executive chef at The Roxy. With that came the installing of new head chef Dave Verheul, a tremendously likeable chap as well as a gifted and innovative chef who has worked under Gordon Ramsay at The Savoy Grill (yikes!), and Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck ("pass the nitrogen...")

Last week I was invited to come and try the brand, spankin' new degustation menu at The 'Horn. Seven courses. Matched wine or cocktails. Hoo ha! As I noted last week - not all beer and skittles in this "writing about food" world, but this was clearly a case of more beer than skittles.

I had been advised that the whole shebang would take a while, and it is totally the sort of thing that you would want to take your time over, so we made a 7pm start. Boy, just as well - from go to whoa, the whole meal took around three hours, and with that, no rushing and precious little malingering. The Matterhorn has always had extremely competent and knowledgeable staff (I reckon you can attribute a lot of that culture to former co-owner Christian McCabe, a guy whose palate, food knowledge and attention to detail is unbelievable), and our waitress Peta-Megan was a ringing endorsement of the fact that this hasn't changed under the new regime. She guided us, gracefully, patiently (I ask a lot of questions), through a seven-course tasting menu (that actually turned out to be eight) with an attention to the details and subtleties of the menu that really enhanced the whole experience. Her knowledge and experience were much appreciated - service that was friendly, well-informed and impeccably attentive, without being over the top - bravo. Spot on.

Now, bear in mind, when I say "seven courses", this is no piggy buffet hogfest, oh no. This is a serious procession of impeccably conceived and brilliantly executed food that showcases both spectacular technique and magnificent ingredients. We are first offered some bread, with house-churned butter, sprinkled with sea salt - glorious. I always think (as, it seems, do many of you) that to offer bread first up is to offer a generous welcome to your diners. I like it.

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And then - "The Deg" begins, in earnest. Brace yourselves - we're going in.

The whole thing is designed to build from lighter, more delicate dishes, starting with a Kingfish sashimi - delicate slivers of impeccably fresh fish with dashes of flavour from spiced tomato, horseradish cream, celery, lovage and wild fennel, and building through a crab and terakihi terrine, with preserved lemon curd, nasturtium, pea leaves and crab essence - for me, a dish that with the fish and peas, reminded me of childhood. Both these dishes showcase seafood from Yellow Brick Road - unbelievably fresh fish that is sensibly just given a nudge with sympathetic flavours to allow it to show off all it wants.

Next came one of my absolute favourite dishes of the evening - a goat's curd custard with heirloom tomatoes, tomato marmalade, pine nuts, green olive and summer herbs - a beautifully presented dish, and an absolutely shining example of how to avoid the dreaded clichés of the underwhelming and played-out vegetarian dish (see stack, vegetable). As it turns out, The Matterhorn has a small roof garden (Dave's baby!) in which they grow herbs, leaves, edible flowers and the tomatoes that this dish showcases, and you can really taste their freshness.

The following course featured some heavenly line-caught Northland snapper, confit pink radish, baby turnips, fennel, almond and, curiously, a jus roti (roast chicken gravy), that lends the fish a rich, dark, savoury flavour that takes a little getting used to, but was certainly a new taste sensation for this diner. We then progressed to a tiny breast of chargrilled quail, mushroom rice, parsnip crisps, witloof and wood sorrel - I had never actually eaten quail before, and was thinking it would be gamier, but it was, in fact, like a richer, sweeter kind of chicken. Ish. Delicious, anyhow...

We are now five courses in. Far from feeling bloated and heavy, I feel as though my tastebuds are being massaged towards some sort of higher state of consciousness. The next course is one I have been really looking forward to - Southland venison, cocoa, cauliflower cream, spiced beetroot, raspberry and rosehip. And, oh my Lord, I am not disappointed. The meat is meltingly tender and succulent, and the accompanying flavours all serve to accentuate different aspects of the character of the venison - the sweetness (raspberry), the chocolatey notes (cocoa), and the earthiness (beetroot). A truly beautiful dish with a dazzling array of clever flavour combinations. Only one more course - I truly think I'm going to make it...

But what is this I see heading my way - not the listed lemon & yuzu curd, white chocolate, spiced rum and coconut sorbet?! NO! An extra dish - like a hidden track on an album. Hmm, crafty. In the tradition of serving a sorbet or palate cleanser between courses, we have a delectable little glass of raspberry granita, fresh raspberries, lavender flower petals, goat cheese mousse and crumbled chocolate, cunningly bridging from the venison to the actual dessert. And oh, but what a dessert it is - a crunchy crumble concealing a tart, tangy lemon and yuzu (a kind of Japanese citrus fruit - I asked!) curd, with a meringue tube filled with the sorbet, and the instruction to smash it all up and mix it in together, making for a bit of a riot of flavours on the palate. Amazing - a triumph of both technique and taste, and again I am reminded of childhood (no mean feat at my age) by the sweet, tangy curd and the subtly coconutty sorbet.

I have deliberately not mentioned the wine and cocktail matches until this point, so as not to unnecessarily obfuscate proceedings. I am actually often sceptical as to the accuracy (or, indeed, necessity) of drink-food matching, but then I know very little about wine. I sometimes think it is easy for fast-talking waitstaff (or, in really posh gaffs, sommeliers) to bamboozle booze simpletons (like me) with all their talk of subtle undertones and herbaceous qualities, until you find yourself nodding in agreement for fear of being shown up (as a dumbass).

What I want from a drinks match is something that is just good to drink with the food being served - suffice to say, the matches here are, for the most part, superb. The wine matches are impeccable (particularly the NV Laurent-Perrier demi sec champagne which accompanied the dessert), and many of the cocktails (by bar manageress and "mixologist" Claire Harlick) often only really reveal themselves in combination with the food - a Bloody Mary, kind of (but with gin) that accompanies the kingfish starter being a prime example. The only two that I would have reservations about are the sorrel bitters scented bourbon and averna that accompanied the quail, which is a delicious drink, but which to me seemed more like the end of the meal digestif, and the Pisco, yellow chartreuse and celery bitters number that joined the goat's curd custard and heirloom tomatoes, and seemed a little overpowering - perhaps a tiny tweak is in order?

It has, nevertheless, been a quite extraordinary meal. This is not, by any means, food you would, or could, cook at home. Neither is it something you could eat at every mealtime. Rather, it is an experience - "living to eat" in the best possible way. Absolutely top notch produce, lovingly and innovatively prepared and cooked by expert, professional cooks doing rather more than rehashing things they've seen on Food TV or in cookbooks (which is what I am perfectly happy to admit is what I do, at my best).

A phrase that springs up over the course of the meal from Peta-Megan, our superb waitress, is "fine dining with its shoes off", and I think that is a superb epithet for what The Matterhorn is up to these days. I thoroughly enjoyed the food, and the experience, and would heartily recommend you pay them a visit, if this sort of thing sounds like your bag.

Do you have favourite memories of The Matterhorn? Have you dined there in the past, or have you dined there since its change of ownership? And - have you enjoyed a degustation menu elsewhere in the past - care to describe what you ate?

The Matterhorn Degustation: $130 PP plus $70 wine and/or cocktail match

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