The Omnivore evolution, part 2

06:53, Nov 21 2012

Another place that has undergone a bit of a reinvention lately is one of my favourite Wellington eateries, and one at which I have enjoyed some of the finest food I have ever had. The Matterhorn is a veritable Wellington institution, and one at which I have eaten, and written about, not one, but two degustation meals from chef Dave Verheul - one of them vegetarian (!).

I really rate Dave's cooking. I think he is right on point in terms of being contemporary, and in terms of presenting beautiful plates of impeccable food, without being over-complicated, or silly or pretentious - a difficult line to stay on the right side of.

So, when it was announced that The Matterhorn was changing the style of food they served to the ubiquitous shared plates, my first thought was how this would affect the cooking style of one of the most meticulous, perfectly realised, technically proficient and sophisticated chefs in town. And, after I wrote this, about the shared plates thing, Dave tweeted me; "I am going to change your mind, and point it out with 'the finger'"...

I think that The Matterhorn has always struggled with what it actually is - primarily, I think, it is seen by most people as a bar. So, when it was anointed as Cuisine's Restaurant of the Year in 2008, that actually rather confused the issue - is it a bar, or a restaurant? Can it be both, in equal parts? And should I be concerned about the new "shared plates" thing?

Given that Plus One and I were popping along to see the Wellington Vector Orchestra, with Michael Houstoun playing Rachmaninov, at the Wellington Town Hall on Saturday (courtesy of my buddy, The Mexican, who seems intent on developing my gentrification), I thought I would pop along and find out.

A few people have had a good crack lately at proving to me that my fears of shared plates are unfounded - notably, my recent, hugely successful visit to Depot in Auckland. But their style of food is rustic, homely, easily given to the "shared" style - how would this style of food translate? Or, would it have changed beyond recognition?


I shouldn't have been so concerned. We begin with kingfish cured in gin botanicals, sesame cream, rhubarb, unripe tomato and salted cucumber, and a venison tartare with pickled radish, nashi pear, yuzu and wasabi. The kingfish has been on the Matterhorn menu for some time in one form or other, and this variant features impeccably fresh fish with a whole lot of other fresh, vibrant tastes and textures. The venison is light and sweet with the nashi, with a pleasing heat from a wasabi crumb. Both dishes are excellent appetisers, and, while I hate it when people say "I'm salivating", I actually am. The phrase that comes to mind for both dishes is "surprising", which is to say they deliver flavour in spades, and a little something extra besides.

We then share (gyah! I'm actually getting the hang of this!) the smoked wild pork hock with farro tabouli, mint and cardamom yoghurt, which arrives at the same time as some roasted cauliflower with lemon yoghurt and vadouvan-spiced brown butter and a salad of shaved courgette and asparagus with broad beans, chervil, lemon, parmesan and mint. The pork is succulent and beautifully seasoned, with a delicate smokiness, accentuated by the gentle tang of the spiced yoghurt, while the roasted cauliflower was rich and spicy and caramelised (and appreciably better than the roasted cauli which I make at home). The salad is fresh and bright and makes a perfect showcase for seasonal veges; again - delicious, surprising.

And finally, just the one more round of dishes: crisp beef cheek, white soy crème, black garlic, watercress, celeriac and yuzu remoulade, with a gratin of red cabbage, date, parmesan and caramelised red apple - heavier, richer food, that still has that characteristic depth of flavour. The beef is meltingly moist and tender, and the flavours are complex and perfectly balanced - dark, and rich, and savoury, and umami. It is gorgeous. And the red cabbage, which arrives in a scaldingly hot pan, is sweet and unctuous with the dates - my buddy Mike, who is setting up for a gig there that evening, tells me he has tried to make it at home, and failed, resolutely.

I would love to stay and "share" some dessert, but the orchestra is a-calling, and being late is probably poor form (we are a bit late, anyway, as it happens). My fears that Dave's impeccable cooking will be compromised by the shared style have proved groundless - he has simply translated the superb food he has become known for into a slightly different style - one which probably sits more easily with Matterhorn's bar status, and one that means more people might get to try more dishes of his delectable, complex, detailed food.

My other thought is - I could simply order dishes of this food... and NOT share it.

Always an option.

As I sit at the orchestra and listen to the alternately soothing, and melancholy, and joyful sounds they are creating (I am finding it very good for digestion), watching the conductor, and the soloists, and the various sections (including one guy who seems to not really do anything much, apart from hitting an impressive looking gong - twice), I scramble for some convoluted metaphor between the music and the food, before deciding that that actually WOULD be embarrassingly pretentious...

Great night out, mind - shared a few bites, then checked out a band... new horizons and all that. Home by half ten - even better.

Adapt or die - restaurants need to make food that people want to eat, in a style that suits the most people, and that's what the Matterhorn has done. Trust me, this is food you want to eat - whether you share it or not is up to you.

Have you tried the new Matterhorn menu? Or other "shared" type menus? The best you've had?

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