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On our last visit to Queenstown, we’d somewhat tentatively made an evening reservation at The Bunker. It was a meal that we’d never forget, not least because the dark and – on the exterior – gloomy-looking establishment, tucked away on otherwise-desolate Cow Lane, sported no sign, name, or indication (other than aromatic) that it was a restaurant at all, much less the one that we were looking for. But oh, how two years can change a place. Cow Lane is now a hip back-alley destination, stocked with trendy-looking after-hours clubs, and The Bunker sports a sign identifying it as such. A little bit the magic is gone.

Inside, however, it’s possible that things have gotten even better. A small, cozy room with the potential for only sixteen covers (eighteen on a packed night, assuming some of the diners are waiflike), it’s intimacy is enhanced by a crackling fireplace and soothing wood tones that soften the otherwise elegant room into something decidedly more casual. Yet the place just reeks of atmosphere. The success of The Bunker may be that it blends elegance, comfort, and “scene” so seamlessly, weaving a relaxing spell of satisfaction around – as last time – a crowd comprised primarily of tourists.

Well, it is expensive. And (no) thanks to the plummeting U.S. dollar, much more so than on our previous visit. This doesn’t really change the food equation, but it does place new limitations on our wine choices, and I entrench for a serious study of a long, heavily-nationalistic, and carefully diverse wine list while Theresa browses the menu. I settle on venison loin (a touch undersalted, but this is easily rectified with a small table-top bowl of fleur de sel) over flawlessly-cooked lentils and crisp duck breast with mutually-enhancing apples and potatoes, as much enticed by the dishes themselves as I am angling for an excuse to drink local pinot. I don’t have to dangle the hook for long, and catch an intriguing bottle from the extensive and wide-ranging options (there's a regular and a reserve list).

The food is extraordinary, served with taste and restraint yet never obscuring the vivid flavors of the ingredients, and delivered by a staff that moves with calm and friendly efficiency. The much-heralded but profoundly underachieving White, back in Auckland, isn’t even in the same league. The only bit of controversy we can dredge from the restaurant is over the bottled fizzy water: Antipodes is an excellent product, but Theresa absolutely despises what she terms overly-precious packaging. I rather like it.

We move to the comfortable sofa that fronts the fireplace, now stoked to a lively burn as the first of the late-evening revelers enter and move quickly upstairs to the hipper, more casual bar, for desserts both solid and liquid. A chocolate extravagance is executed with precision, balance, and skill, though I finish it quickly so not to conflict with our dessert wine (Pegasus Bay "Finale").

Coffee, from a press, is perfectly roasted and steeped; another shining example of this country’s skill with the bean. It, alongside the warming fire, the enveloping couch, and the ambient music is almost enough to dissuade us from the return trip to our house. (2/05)


Copyright © Thor Iverson