Review: Pasture, Parnell, Auckland
Sometimes you come across a restaurant that is doing something so cleverly enticing, with a clear sense of passion, that it is hard not to get caught up in the excitement. For me, Pasture is one of those places.
It's a tiny 20-seater, with polished concrete and wooden accents and many jars of ferments, pickles and koji on display behind the bar. Nestled in the corner is a wood-fired oven where most of the cooking is done. It's a happy marriage of new Nordic and a Japanese aesthetic; a reflection of the working and travelling lives of owners Ed and Laura Verner. Ed is the chef while Laura manages the front of house, yet her background in organic horticulture is put to good use while foraging for the many ingredients that find their way onto the menu.
Food is a six-course seasonal set menu. It's ethically sourced, a mostly plant-based menu with minimum waste – meaning only as much as is needed for a service is prepared. Wines are natural and the list is surprising. If you let the staff guide you, or choose either the paired drinks or juices option, you may be served wine, a Queenstown sake or a Moutere cider, while the non-alcoholic juices could be an infusion or a ferment – exciting and complex, sometimes challenging and not necessarily easy drinking.
During our late December visit, the fleetingly short season of white asparagus was utilised to the fullest. Blanched and thinly sliced into scales, it was presented in a beautiful fan shape, interspersed with slivers of fresh almonds and pickled pink cherry blossoms – a delicately flavoured dish brought together with an oyster cream. The joy of a sliver of bitter almond provided a sharp shock, and the juice match of Granny Smith, cherry blossom and fermented feijoa was equally inspired.
"Eggplant-like steak" was just that. Whole eggplants hung over the wood oven, suspended on string-like pieces of charcuterie, gently smoking over a number of hours. Cut down for each table, they were grilled, then sliced thickly into steaks and served with a sharp basil bearnaise. This imparted a chewy texture in the eggplant akin to rump; the deeply savoury tomato juice that accompanied it was a challenging match.
The dish that is becoming a signature for Pasture is crayfish smoked over manuka, served with a spoonful of bisque so rich and perfectly executed that I wished I had managed to save some of the exquisite house-made wheat and rye sourdough to mop up every morsel from the plate. Just as well, then, that the segments of turnip nukazuke (Japanese pickle) wrapped in nasturtium leaves with housemade umeboshi were a perfect foil for the richness of the dish.
It's hard to not talk about each dish in detail – the heritage black pork with black garlic, with its crisp crust and ever-so-tender meat, was a triumph. Its unctuousness was cut with preserved blackcurrants and the sharp tang of wood sorrel, and it was served with an inspired wine match in Tom Shobbrook's 'Novello'.
Desserts could be problematic for some diners – they aren't cloyingly sweet and they aren't obvious combinations.
Hence buttermilk granita and fresh raw peas with lemon verbena won't be for everyone, but it was fresh and light and a good transition from savoury to sweet. The clever buckwheat, boysenberry, beer and yeast shouldn't be an issue, though – rich, creamy boysenberry ice cream encased in wafers of crisp buckwheat and burnt caramel, it was a richly nutty treat.
If all this sounds like a formula for worthy and formal dining, it isn't. Certainly the knowledge is what you'd expect, but it is the warmth of Pasture's confident and personable staff in sharing this fine-dining food, without even the slightest hint of being patronising or stuffy, that makes the experience an engaging one.
Chefs serve the tables and answer any questions, plaid shirts are the order of the day and the music is a mishmash of quirky tracks, with a good measure of 80s classics. It's playful, fun, challenging and delightful dining.
If I were you, I'd try to get a table for two perched at the bar, overlooking the wood-fired oven so you can watch the zen-like constant attention given to its control. Also, do yourself a favour when booking and ask to reserve a sourdough loaf to take home (they're also available to buy from 1pm, Thursday to Sunday), and savour in its deliciousness for the rest of the week.
235 Parnell Rd, Parnell
09 300 5077, pastureakl.com
Six-course set menu: $135