Lauraine Jacobs

Food Writer and Author of Delicious Books


10 June 2014


Now here’s an idea we don’t think about often - a sophisticated lunch or dinner in a city hotel. Nick Honeyman’s arrival at the Sofitel maybe the best thing that’s happened to the Auckland hotel scene for ages. Too often hotel food is geared to the tourist and business market. However the combo of this beautiful hotel that seemed to have lost its way for a while, and one very talented young chef who in his previous jobs had been consigned to the backroom of a busy pub followed by a stint in the kitchens of a monster sprawling place in the culinary wastelands of the North Shore, must be good news and a fortuitous match for both. I sincerely hope so.

The site is great. Perched on the inner reaches of the Viaduct Basin with views of bobbing boats and the skyline of the city, the restaurant at the Sofitel sets an ideal stage. Pass through a stunning walkway with water features and shiny glass to get to the main dining room Lava. It is so named for the spectacular sheets of gold and black patterned Mexican onyx that adorn the walls. Our waiter told us it looked like lava – and it does. (But in a previous life another waiter had told me the restaurant was Italian themed and the strongest feature was the “Italian marble” walls – funny how stories are made up and lose the plot!) And this newly appointed chef to oversee all the food served in the hotel including their premier restaurant Lava, is one of Auckland’s most talented rising star chefs. The French hotel chain is on to a winner.

Chef Honeyman, born in South Africa, comes with excellent culinary pedigree. He wandered about Australia when he left school, fell in love with restaurant life there and began cooking. Along the way he has worked in the restaurant of Japan’s much lauded Iron Chef in Tokyo, and then time working with Pascal Barbot who has the Michelin three starred restaurant L’Astrance in Paris, a mere stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower.

He has picked up influences from both, developing and refining his own style that is chic, complex and intricate. Don’t expect any plain old steak and chips or pumpkin soup here. The dishes are all made with market fresh ingredients, thoughtfully composed to make an impact with a veritable balance of colour, taste, texture and seasonal surprise. His first menu is not ambitious; Honeyman has chosen to present four first course choices ($23), four mains ($35-42) and four desserts ($16). There are also the very important oysters, and four side dishes; chickpea fries with roasted garlic aioli, hand cut potato fries, red cabbage slaw with boiled egg dressing and roasted broccoli with lemon olive oil. I wanted to celebrate the simplicity of those side dishes as they are delicious and not in any competition with the mains.

We opted for the degustation menu in order to get a real feel for the new menu as all the dishes were from that. We opted out of the wine matches however. That’s a personal thing as I always want to totally concentrate on the food and find that a different and often unfamiliar wine with every course is distracting and can be more than I need or even want. There was excellent bread and hallelujah, that bread stayed on the table, with more arriving, throughout the savoury courses. Bread is not a first course. It is a necessity to mop up the lovely juices at the bottom of any dish.

From the first sight of our first course I was in love. A couple of slices of vanilla cured Ora King salmon were delicately arranged with little piles of avocado, some crunchy rice tuiles and crumbs and silky icy coconut sorbet. Feathery herbs finished a dish as fine as you could find anywhere. Refreshing, delicious and light enough to hardly make a dent in my appetite.

We proceeded through six more courses, each as carefully thought out and balanced as that first dish. Honeyman dares to dabble in unusual combinations, and they work. His ‘tete de porc’ was tightly rolled piece of tender pork meat topped with a fleshy sea scallop with cauliflower puree some buttered popcorn (another of his signature playful garnishes), tiny pieces of smoked eel, lovely jus and some crunchy almost sherbet like crumbs on the top. Batons of fresh fish were cut with precision, and an array of paper thin beetroot sheets waved a pattern around them, supplemented by truffled onion and brie cheese. Lovely.

Other dishes revealed more great combinations. Soft beef sirloin with tiger prawn, ginger and smoked carrot; wagyu beef tartare on brioche with a cheesy custard; merino lamb rump with porcini crust, celeriac and Japanese mushrooms. Vegetarians are well catered for too. There’s a lovely Japanese rice congee with kombu, the perfect onsen egg and parmesan as a starter, and for a main course an open ravioli with soy milk curd, cooked and raw baby vegetables and purple carrot.
Gluten free and vegetarian dishes are thoughtfully noted on the menu and there’s an exciting option known as “de-Light by Sofitel” which is comprised of spa style dishes that are low in calories and ‘portion controlled.’ If you must...

That theme of combinations of flavours continues through the dessert menu. I cannot any longer say that I am over the very trendy and overworked foam for Honeyman is a master of this technique. My ‘pina colada’ dessert came with coconut crème brulée, pineapple, freezing cold coconut sorbet and a covering everything was a veritable mountain of beautiful clear bubbles of a colada foam. It was stunning and provided a sense of fun and lightness to end a superb meal. I understand the hotel has an excellent cellar and no doubt if we’d chosen the matched wine option it would have been put to the test. But for the reasons previously stated we just chose a decent chardonnay to accompany our meal.

Service was excellent but this was a hotel and I could only laugh when the excellent waiter brought an I-pad to the table and asked me to fill in a survey to rate the evening. Get rid of that crassness please, and rejoice in the wonderful experience this talented chef is delivering to diners.

Lava, Sofitel Auckland, 21 Viaduct Harbour Ave, Lighter Quay ph 09 900 9000

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