MUSE ON ALLEN
16 Allen St
Ph: 384 1181
Open for lunch Wed-Fri, dinner Mon-Sun
Price range of mains: $27-$32
Wine list: 4/5
Cost: $133 for two (excluding wine)
Beyond the nine Greek goddesses of the arts, wrote Brillat-Savarin, there is a tenth muse - a goddess of the pleasures of taste, Gasterea.
To my Anglophone ears "Gasterea" sounds a bit like a tummy bug, yet I'm more than happy to recognise the artistry of cutting-edge chefs.
A case in point is the ambitious young duo behind Muse on Allen, who both come clad in iron-plated cred.
Hungarian-born Jozsef Szekely was previously sous chef at Matterhorn, where the artistry is second to none.
Samuel North was previously chef de partie at the White House. In August, he wowed judge Anna Tait-Jamieson and me with freshly baked rabbit pie, thus helping the restaurant win the inaugural Visa Wellington On A Plate Award.
Muse occupies the premises of the former Satay Kampong, which before that was King Sushi, Karmic Vine and The Elbow Room.
Not a lot has changed, but then, not a lot needed to. Satay Kampong had previously spent the bucks on building a nice substantial bar, which stays.
The main change is a white-painted screen down the centre of the room, which delineates the dining area from newly installed bar seating.
High above our heads, a maze of muted lamps provided the perfect level of illumination, and we appreciated the higher than usual volume of music. The pleasant instrumental jazz didn't intrude upon our conversation, yet shielded our chat from the prying ears of neighbours - and for that matter, spared us having to listen to theirs.
Like a finely orchestrated ballet, our meal unfolded in a series of carefully rendered attentions; our waitrons knew exactly when to intervene and when to withdraw.
Sashimi-grade tuna with ginger caramel, grapefruit and pork crackling not only had beauty of form, but also flavour, in which each component played its part.
Duck liver with sweet onion compote, port wine and sourdough appeared to be missing the advertised onion compote, and was served a little too cold from the fridge, but was rich and delicious for all that. This had been my guest's second choice of entree, after learning that the scallops that day were Canadian, and hence frozen.
It said a lot for the level of service that our waitron knew this without having to check with the kitchen - just as she knew who was having what when she brought our plates to the table.
I ordered the angus beef fillet on account of it being advertised as sous-vide. Sure enough, having been wrapped in a vac pack and immersed in a controlled temperature water bath, it emerged beautifully juicy and medium rare. A bed of cashew puree was silken in texture, but while its earthy flavour ought to have worked well with the beef and sauteed mushrooms, it wasn't quite as magical as the quenelle of duck liver mousse served on top.
Lamb with a dollop of goat's cheese is another combination I'd never considered before, but this really did work, particularly as the soft cheese was unctuously smooth, and harmonised with green pea puree to mollify a salty, intensely flavoured puddle of bacon and mushroom jus. Yum!
"Glazed pineapple" implies to me that it is served at least warm, whereas this was served cold, to my guest's disappointment.
I reluctantly offered to swap my kaffir lime chocolate fondant, coconut sorbet, in which the kaffir lime leaf flavour really shone through without dominating. Brill!
In the event I managed also to enjoy the pineapple, thanks to another creative combo of accompaniments: white chocolate "snow" (a fluffy variation on chocolate hail), passionfruit gel and passionfruit curd.
All hail the Tenth Muse.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Sashimi-grade tuna with ginger caramel, grapefruit and pork crackling
Snaking semi-randomly across the platter, this entree might have been composed by Szekely's former boss, Matterhorn chef Dave Verheul. Each and every pretty component was there for the sake of function as well as form: the tiny wedges of grapefruit provided sourness, the powdered ginger caramel offered sweetness, the tiny cubes of soy sauce gel contributed saltiness, while the crunchy nuggets of pork crackling were in satisfying textural contrast to the softness of the tuna. Even a scattering of pretty-pretty micro-greens packed a powerful coriander-type punch.
- The Dominion Post