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Whites only

Ich bin ein Aucklander

by Thor Iverson

Ask not what your winery can do for you…

The aquamarine rippling of the Hauraki Gulf throws shadows and highlights onto the trees below us. A breeze gently ruffles the leaves, then stills, freshening the quiet air but leaving nothing but memory in its wake. I hold up my glass of sauvignon blanc, which shines bright and clear in the sunlight, and take a deep, luxurious sniff. All is right with the world.

Though not quite as much is right with the wines.

We’re on the patio at Kennedy Point, looking down a rather precipitous cliff to the ocean, and working through a tasting conducted by a friendly young Californian. But after the sauvignon blanc, I’m afraid it’s all as downhill as the below-patio slope.

Kennedy Point 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Soft grass, lime, and green apple with ripe gooseberries and a nice, tingly finish. Fun.

Kennedy Point 2004 Rosé (Waiheke Island) – A rosé of merlot, which I’ve rarely thought to be a good idea, showing oft orange blossom and sweet honeysuckle-laced peach. Too sickly for me.

[sunset at Matiatia]

Matiatia sunset
Kennedy Point 2002 Merlot (Waiheke Island) – Actually a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, and cabernet franc. There’s plum, blueberry, and walnut with lots of barrel spice – nutmeg and smoked vanilla, primarily – but it’s imbalanced between fruit and tannin, and a bit over-oaked as well.

Kennedy Point 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon (Waiheke Island) – Herbed liquor, rosemary and walnut with big greenish tannins. There’s plenty of structure, but it’s not exactly good structure…and it’s not holding much of anything together, either.

Kennedy Point 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon (Waiheke Island) – Lots of thyme and sorrel, with peppered almonds and a soft underbelly. A lazy, underripe wine.

White sails at sunset

After a quick shopping trip to Oneroa’s market and butcher, we dart back to our villa for a quick change and a slightly less quick check of the computer. Our host, a professional photographer, generously gives us his spectacular book of Waiheke photos, plus two wall-sized posters. The uncommon generosity of New Zealanders continues.

We hop in our car and drive to the ferry wharf at Matiatia, parking in a lot into which commuters just returned from mainland jobs are streaming; the phrase “idyllic lifestyle” surges immediately to mind. Their suits and cell phones are a somewhat jarring reminder of what we’ve left behind these past few days…but then we’re headed into the city ourselves. Our ferry ride to Auckland is sun-drenched and peaceful, but we soon realize that we’re surrounded by sailboats. On a public sailing day, it seems that all of Auckland is afloat, riding the breezes with fluttering white and multicolored triangles. We part this sea of sails at a steady clip, all the way to the Queen Street Ferry Building, and are once more deposited onto the low-key streets of New Zealand’s biggest and busiest city. If there are lingering rush-hour crowds, they’re not in evidence.

Just around the corner from the ferry is the nautical-themed architectural wonder of Princes Wharf. Like a modernistic cruise ship permanently docked on the harbor, metallic whites and dark silvers show off a series of shops, hip cafés and restaurants, and bars that are just starting to pick up with post-workday activity. The consistency of the architecture, inside and out, is marvelous. At the end of the wharf, with windows overlooking Waitemata Harbor on three sides, is the swanky Hilton Hotel, where one finds a frequent contender for the title of Auckland’s best restaurant: White.

[sails on the Hauraki Gulf]

Hi sailor, Hauraki?

[Princes Wharf]

Princes (of) Wharf, not whales
The first secret about White is that it’s really much more off-white – beiges and creams and taupes all make their appearance – though the overall color scheme is decidedly monochromatic, and strikingly so. The second secret is that despite all this serious design, White is looking a little ratty around the edges. Nothing overt – a chip and a frayed cloth here, a bad paint patch there, some highly-abused flatware on the table – but just enough that there’s the slightest patina of the faded grande dame, a weary wear and tear. In any case, it’s a beautiful evening, and despite the visual appeal of the interior we just can’t bear to sit inside when there’s a stunning view in multichromatic blue available on the restaurant’s patio. What’s perhaps a bit surprising is that the table to which we (and all other early diners) are led is so casual and downscale; nothing fancy about these tables, and the same could probably be found at any seaside joint with moderate pretensions towards quality.

Service, however, is neither ratty, nor faded, nor downscale. Rather, it is tremendous (as it should be at these prices), and unquestionably world-class, though in a slightly friendlier, more authentically Kiwi way than might be acceptable in, say, New York or Paris. The highlight of the night’s service involves an unaccompanied dish of butter…but that’s a story that should be told by my wife, and will remain untold by me.

The food is excellent, and yet for all this excellence remains disappointingly dull. Life has been sucked out of some of these dishes and much of this restaurant, and that’s a shame, especially since White’s reputation is such that it will often be the only experience foreigners have of upscale New Zealand dining. But it must be said: Vinnie’s is much, much better (and, in fact, it seems that the chef that made White famous is now the chef at…one can already see it coming…Vinnie’s), and that’s just a comparison of two high-end Auckland restaurants. There are more.

I start with Moreton Bay Bug in a wasabi dressing with kaffir lime essence and soba noodles, which presents a lot of interesting flavors but doesn’t manage to mold or meld them into anything exciting. A shrimp and crab raviolo with daikon radish and a somewhat anonymous broth (it’s supposed to be “bouillabaisse consommé,” which is a concept I can’t quite get my head around; what’s the point of clarified bouillabaisse?) is just…well, it’s “eh” made manifest. Much better are a zingy-crusted hapuka, which manages to take the pure essence of fish and add some interesting accents, obscuring neither the accents nor the fish, and a minty panna cotta with the perfect texture and balance of an often-overwhelming flavor. The less said about the awful bread, the better.

We arrive a bit early for our reservation, and so make up the time at table with a few drinks from the highly-regarded bar. My mojito – made straight – is overly tart and sloppy, but Theresa’s “kiwi bellini” is pure island fun. With dinner, we can’t resist the allure of riesling:

Kahurangi Estate 2003 Riesling “Reserve” (Moutere) – Made from the country’s oldest riesling vines (they’re not really that old, but all such things are relative anyway), in the moutere clays of Nelson. It’s big and mineral-driven, showing limestone-dominated green apple, massive acidity, and a perfect dose of balancing sweetness. Balanced and long, it’s quite ripe and yet manages to come off like a slightly less stern and Teutonic Spätlese from a warmish climate. Very impressive.

A fine espresso, served with precision according to detailed timing instructions, makes up for a disappointing liquid finalé:

[Auckland at night]

When the lights go down in the city
Wishart 2003 “Late Harvest” Chardonnay (Hawke’s Bay) – Crisply acidic, but overly light, dull and boring.

We leave generally satisfied and happy, but also feeling like we’ve spent a lot of money to little good purpose. White is certainly not the restaurant it was once reputed to be (though I have no way of knowing if it ever was), and while the view and the service are praiseworthy, I can’t see any reason to return.

Bring on the night

The ride back across the Hauraki Gulf, in cool but comfortable night air, is as smooth as it is balance-restoring. The golden glow of the Ferry Building recedes, to be replaced by the copper-tinted spire of the Sky Tower…and then all is obscured by the searing lights of Auckland’s commercial wharf. But soon, these lights are but bright clusters of stars low on the horizon, and as the last illuminations from the encircling shores recede into the open water, one’s companions become the moon reflected in the black mirror of sea and the steady hum of an engine. There’s a feeling of utter peace, tinged with just the faintest hint of sadness; we’ve the feeling of farewell, though there’s no good reason for it. We look to the sky, listen for a word…but our companions of moonlight and propulsion have no answers for us.

That’s OK, though. Tomorrow, we’ll have different companions: old friends with new adventures…and sheep on the attack.

Disclosure: one more than the usual number of wines made available for tasting at Kennedy Point.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.