Stuff Limited (NZ)


15/20 48 Hereford St, City 03 390 1580, Lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat Sharing plates $14-$56 That spinning bar stool looks high and, er, spinny. My wife’s already up on hers, but she rode horses for years, so no reassurance there. Up I go backwards with a heel push on a handy bar and luckily “stick” like a well-trained Russian gymnast. So it’s all good. Inati’s a bit like that. This new restaurant in the hotting-up CBD riverbank area is challenging in many ways. It would be easier to choose a table along the glitzy floor-to-ceiling glass wall that faces Hereford St, but it’s on the stools that you experience the full Inati treatment. The chef’s table is in fact a chef’s counter. You sit side by side with your horsy date and everything arrives over the counter from the other side. That includes the dishes you share, wine, water and interaction. You watch the chefs prepare, cook and plate up your dish, right down to placing tiny flowers (foraged, we are told, from the surrounding streets) delicately on the plate with a pair of tweezers. Inati gets away with this show-all approach because chef Simon Levy’s food is so good. He’s a former head chef at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, so there’s that precise polish you’d expect. A downside might be that, at the counter, it feels like the whole dinner revolves around the comings and goings of the kitchen. We were trying to guess a garnish leaf, and a young chef politely looked up and offered “miner’s lettuce”. So he’d overheard and was being helpful, but the point is, everything you say can be heard. Mind you, waiters have to deal with diners while standing among the chefs, so that must encourage an intimate knowledge of the menu – which is what they had. The menu and wine list fit on one cleverly folded page. There are 20 dishes – five desserts under the heading Nectar, three bigger meat dishes under the heading Large Plates, and smaller, entree-sized dishes under the unplugged headings of Earth, Land and Sea. The small wine list is all-Kiwi except for Perrier-Jouët Champagne and one $1500 Aussie cab sav. This is a freestyle arrangement where you can order anything in any order, and the food arrives in the order it does. It can be unnerving to peel away structure, but we got used to it quickly. In the end it’s like a finedining sushi train – you help yourself whenever and go with the flow. Where Inati really gets interesting is with the food. Each dish is inventive and innovative, with little surprise dabs of texture and flavour contrasts. We skipped the large plates and galloped among the smaller lot. Asparagus came charred (in front of us) with crispy tapioca puffs, blobs of smoky egg emulsion and thin slices of pickled onion rings, all covered in those edible wild leaves and flowers. The donkey carrot is a large half carrot that has been slow-cooked for half a day, then pan-seared and served with smoky carrot puree, shaved carrot, grated taleggio cheese and thin slices of pear about the same size as that (miner’s) lettuce leaf. This is as good as carrot gets. A lamb prosciutto was another full-flavoured adventure. The moist, thinly sliced (in front of us) prosciutto was as intensely sheepy as a lamb roast. It was backed up by pickled pear and a pumpkin seed crumble. So you had intense savouriness, an acidic tang, sweetness and crunch, beautifully balanced. Maybe that was the dish of the night, but also maybe it was the “crispy chicken cereal”. This was another playful, savoury, crunchy masterpiece. Thin slices of parmesan bread, a few tender pieces of confit chicken wing, crispy, salty shards of chicken skin and a big scattering of toasted, intensely chicken-flavoured seed mix that included buckwheat and quinoa, spiced up with ras el hanout. Then there was the boeuf-nut, a dish that really messes with your expectations. A praline-topped doughnut is filled with shredded beef cheek with a dash of coffee, served in a pool of sweetish beef jus. This odd mash-up of meat main and dessert seems wrong, yet it works. And it was the transition dish before we tried a lemony posset and another savoury-sweet marriage with an apple croustade and bacon-flavoured ice cream. Poached apple chunks, crunchy pastry, ice cream... bacon. I ordered it for the novelty of bacon ice cream and I certainly got bacon flavour, but I think the classic, tangy, not too-sweet posset with its berry and hazelnut trappings topped it. This is food that says “oi” and prods you in the chest. It gets you talking, but an elegant technique underpins it. I landed the stool dismount using the “hopeful slide” technique and left confident that food is playing its part in the exciting new inner city. EWAN SARGENT