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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.

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. A fine espresso is served with precision according to detailed timing instructions.

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. (2/05)


Copyright © Thor Iverson