Ask me to tell you a story about any of the places I’ve seen in the world and it won’t take long for flavours and ingredients to come tripping off my tongue. Taste (and in particular, food) is such an integral part of how we see the world – whether harvesting fresh turmeric root in New Caledonia, blanching tomatillos in New Mexico, making fried bread in Fiji or digging up tuatuas off the secret spot in my beloved Northland.
Taste and aroma transport me to places I remember fondly and there are few places I remember as fondly as Paris, the week before Christmas. I flew in to a snowstorm that grounded the Eurostar, caused traffic mayhem and transformed Paris into a wonderland of sparkling crisp snow while the clouds overhead evaporated and the skies turned blue. So many changes to travel plans meant four of us bundled into a single studio apartment in the 7th arrondissement, a breath away from the Seine.
When you think of French food, and really, I mean the classic French cuisine which is laden with butter, duck fat, rich ingredients – the beauty of this cooking style is in the technique. I remember this in Paris; no matter which little bistro we ate in or even Fish La Boissonnerie (owned by New Zealander Drew Harre, along with the wine shop on the corner!) – a stunning ingredient might simply be put on a plate, but combine that ingredient with technique and voilà! A memory is made or it is remembered, brought back to mind in living colour.
Last night, I spent the evening in Paris Butter (the restaurant, not the condiment) and I remembered. Firstly, I remembered delicious meals at Vinnies, as I stepped over the familiar V in the entrance tile, from which Paris Butter has been transformed. And then I remembered Paris itself, with the winter light crisp in the air and the delight of the menu du jour awaiting me. I saw executive chef/owner Nick Honeyman in Ponsonby just a couple of months ago and caught up firsthand with his plans to open his first restaurant here in New Zealand. I first met Nick years ago, among a crew of the ‘next generation’ young chefs making an effort to push New Zealand dining forward. He’s driven, passionate and talented. In the five years since then, many of those ‘young’ chefs have gone even further and continued to inspire and delight, including Nick.
Going further for Nick usually means a summer (NZ winter) working in Le Petit Leon, a restaurant in the Dordogne region of which I believe he is now part-owner. Those breaks usually entail a flurry of photos on social media of foraging, exploring and creating from fresh, local produce. So it seems natural that after all this time, his first venture (alongside a business partner and trusted team of kitchen allies) is also French.
French technique applied to beautiful produce and in a lighter, fresher Antipodean style is how I would best describe the thrust of this place. Touches of smoked glass and chandeliers, a rich and warm blue bench seat and warm light diffused through the dining rooms reminds me of Paris in the afternoon light, sitting in St Germain. It’s both old and new, classic and interesting. The design was led by Olga Skorik who is part of the Paris Butter family. I say family because I’ve heard Nick quoted as talking about every kitchen you join is like a family and that tone was evident in the atmosphere last night.
So to the food? I desperately wanted to try the Cloudy Bay clams, served in the style of escargot – but by the time we arrived at our later booking, they were gone for the day. A good sign, I hope for both the clams and the prawn ravioli! Thankfully, the chicken liver parfait was delicious, served with chewy sourdough and crisp pickled vegetables. Some things don’t need to be anything other than classic, they just need to be good and this was, absolutment.
The gin-cured salmon entrée with coconut crème fraîche was delicious and refreshing – something to dance over while I enjoyed the last of my Parisian Sour, a house made variation of the classic featuring plum and Bordeaux. My dining companion also enjoyed the venison carpaccio, which has to be a stellar ingredient at any time of the year but seems particularly suited to autumn, and the punch of smoked shallot, pickle and parmesan.
I had read about the ‘KFC’ dish on the menu – an encrusted confit chicken leg and served on smoked lentils with a tease of truffle. I was always going to order it, because of all the classic French ingredients I love, I have a strange obsession with the Le Puy lentil. I was not disappointed – a dish that might seem rustic and simple at the outset is a paradox. It is that simple (chicken and lentils) and yet delightfully complex. There were elements in the final dressing that I couldn’t quite describe but I could’ve eaten beyond my fill too easily.
Thankfully therefore, we decided to share dessert. We were celebrating a few recent victories and milestones and I do not usually have dessert or go to restaurants in opening week. Having seen the crème brûlée method at play in the kitchen and given it is my friend’s favourite, it had to be indulged in. The deep, dark crust gave way with a satisfying ‘Crack!’ and the cool custard underneath came way perfectly on the spoon. The best thing about this dessert is simply the layers of caramel, toffee, cream and bitter sugar that play on the tongue.
If I was to describe the night in simple, brief words – it would simply be to say this is France through New Zealand eyes. Of course, that would seem to brush over Nick’s South African and Australian heritage as well as his love for Japanese cuisine but there is a piece of home here in New Zealand and also in France, so without labouring the detail, that’s how I’ll describe it. It’s both smart and approachable food, and approachable from a price point too, which I think is a segment of the restaurant business in Auckland woefully under-served.
A booking later in service, in the early days of a restaurant opening is traditionally risky business. The staff finding their feet, floor teams learning their rhythms and the anxious anticipation of how it will all go sometimes collide unexpectedly. Minor bumps aside, the front of house team were nothing but warm, welcoming and attentive and there was a sense of all things in their place. The new fit out has opened up the dining floors to the outside streetview, which dictates a certain sense of relationship to the surrounding neighbourhood and the light, both from streetlamps and the sun. It’s comfortable and inviting, so you should consider yourself invited.
It was brief but nice to say hello as Chef made it out to front of house; an infrequent chance to say thanks and congratulations. Auckland still needs to dine out more to realize the unique and rich food culture we have on our doorstep, and to ensure these talented, remarkable chefs continue to thrive here. I will be going back because that’s what you do, when it’s a neighbourhood kind of place, promising to deliver well turned out seasonal fare.