Restaurant review: Artisan at the Bolton Hotel
Make no bones, Artisan is a hideaway.
Diners out need to know the place even exists, for Artisan requires a special detour through the lonesome, whistling canyon that is The Terrace after dark. Then it's a merry twirl up a spiral staircase to the mezzanine floor of the boutique Bolton Hotel, past a striking modern glass statue of Kate Sheppard.
After all that trouble, and with the price of mains reaching well into the thirties, you'd expect to find something special.
And so you do. As at Logan Brown, there's a classy little amuse bouche to begin, but unlike even Logan Brown these days, Artisan maintains the romance of white linen table cloths.
The napkins are crisp and spanking white, the stemware tall and thin. The wine list ought to be more extensive than it is (16 by the glass, 46 by the bottle) but at least Artisan has now abandoned its experiment with stemless wine glasses, which are technically incorrect insofar as they heat a white wine held in the hand.
Possibly a major reason Artisan stays open is that it must: as the hotel's only restaurant, it has to be available to guests for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Whenever I dine here, there are never more than a dozen others, and taking this in account, the dining space has now been segmented off with screens of long fabric ribbons. Another screen now partially blocks the stairs, replacing the mezzanine effect with the welcome illusion of a room. Great.
Modest, homely little lanterns have replaced the modernist chandeliers, thus deflecting rather than attracting attention to the low ceiling stud. Even better.
With the benefit of both a formal chef's training and a classical studies degree, executive chef McLean Fraser (ex Rydges, ex Dockside) brings philosophy to the job: "Artisan stands for something. It's not nutrients, calories or 'likes'. It's more classic than that. Simpler. It's about good food. That's food with a story and service, not a science. It's honest."
As proof of the integrity of its ingredients, Artisan lists its artisan producers at the start of the menu.
Among these is Ora King Salmon, its product presented as hearty chunks of raw fish, very subtly cured with vodka, then alternated with cubes of orange-flavoured Campari gel, radish and a tangle of edible pea tendrils. It's seemingly simple, yet deceptively so.
"Duck liver creme caramel" is, thank god, nothing of the sort. In reality it's a perfectly sane duck liver parfait, creamier than usual, the joke of the name being poetic licence: with its cap of fruit-flavoured gel, this truncated cone only looks like a creme caramel. Accompanying puy lentils ought to have offered earthy resonance, but were somewhat dry and, unlike the reconstituted dried shiitake mushrooms, in fact contributed none.
But we loved the cranberry gel and the wafer thin, crunchy melba toasts ("crostini").
250g sirloin steak with agria wedges, bone marrow, sage butter and watercress was perfect in all aspects except, alas, the meat itself. Cooked marginally beyond medium rare, it was more dry than juicy, as our charming maitre'd had promised.
Chocolate Marquis (sic) was more an airy mousse than a dense marquise, but let's not quibble: it tasted divine, having been made with fine chocolate. Artisanal chocolate, no less.
ONE THING TO TRY
Bourbon-infused lamb neck with smoked mash, pickled mushroom, asparagus, and truffled walnuts Lamb necks ought to be the new lamb shanks, and in McLean Fraser's hands, they are. Granted, these lean morsels are a little chewy, but sous vide cooking helps heaps, and being a secondary cut, they have a deeper, sheepier flavour.
AT A GLANCE
Mezzanine floor, The Bolton Hotel, Bolton St
Ph: 462 3770
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days
Price range of mains: $32-$38
Cost: $143 for two (excluding wine)
Food: four stars
Service: five stars
Ambience: four-and-a-half stars
Wine list: three-and-a-half stars