Auckland restaurant review: Kim Knight eyes the menu at Esther, Sean Connolly’s viaduct venture

Volcanic tomatoes and a less-than-fishy surprise. Restaurant critic Kim Knight is underwhelmed at Esther.

For a split second I thought I had Covid. The taramasalata was tasteless. I needed a second opinion.

“I’m really not eating fish,” said my vegetarian (sometimes pescetarian) dinner date.

“Trust me,” I said. “You won’t taste a thing.”

The dip was runny and the “flavour” more watery gruel than salted, cured roe. I picked at the pops of salmon egg scattered over the top but, otherwise, left a $10 plate untouched.

“I’ll get it removed from the bill,” said the waitperson and even though I said that wouldn’t be necessary, that would have been the decent thing to do. (They didn’t).

Sean Connolly is the chef who gave us delicious steak and his grandmother’s carrots at The Grill and excellent pasta everything at Gusto. But, so far, I’m feeling a bit so-so about his new restaurant at the QT Auckland.

We’d booked for two and, frankly, that was one more than the table could comfortably accommodate. I’m not the narrowest of persons but I’m not normally twice the width of the dining surface. These were built for solo travellers, breakfasting with their laptops – try to get a seat closer to the kitchen action and feel more like a part of this aesthetically beautiful restaurant.

Esther claims to bring “authentic tastes of the Mediterranean’s sun-soaked shores to Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour”. At first glance, there’s something for everyone but we spent days trying to figure out the best shared-plate approach.

The $10 taramasalata is, in reality, a $20 dish because, of course, you need the puffed bread (or a soup spoon). The fritto misto vegetables ($30) were dangerously delicious. Literally. Light, crisp batter and plenty of vege – but only a sadist would deep-fry a cherry tomato.

It was at this point we ran into serious planning issues. There’s a $6 (presumably mini) lamb souvlaki on the snacks menu but otherwise the only red meat options are communal, raw or rabbit. I actually loved the sound of the latter (wild, with peas and pappardelle) but it wasn’t going to work for the vegetarian.

Seafood? I’d seen photos of the bouillabaisse and the thought of tackling exoskeleton on our tiny table made me anxious. Similarly, I couldn’t eat a whole butterflied gurnard AND the clams escabeche ($30). This sweet-spicy-vinegary cooking technique is a staple of high-end summer cooking magazines and, it turns out, tastes exactly like the catering-sized buckets of marinated mussels my mum bought cheap from the factory shop in Havelock. Life lessons: My childhood was swisher than I thought and I prefer clams raw.

Saganaki ($25) is baked cheese with honey, chilli and you’d have to be a vegan not to love it. It’s a fine line between mouth-burn and needing a knife and fork but even in its most molten phase it didn’t feel as dangerous as that volcanic tomato.

“Gnarly” roast pumpkin ($22) might have been the dish of the night. The vege sat on an incredibly flavoursome heap of barley, edamame, seeds, cavolo nero, onions, coconut yoghurt – there was a lot going on – and it was all delicious. Except, sadly, for the pumpkin. At first we thought it was undercooked but you know how sometimes they’re just so watery and bland the best thing to do is buy a new one? It was that, but more expensive.

I had earlier asked the waitperson if we could, perhaps, lose the table lamp. He’d agreed, but the resentment was palpable. Good news, at least, for the duck-fat potatoes (so good) and asparagus and (quite a long time after we’d ordered them) two more glasses of wine.

My view was tilt-slab and corporate. Face into the restaurant, however, and it’s a work of art – a sculptural ceiling, piles of storybook tomatoes, a bronze gold glow from the bar and kitchen. It feels international and, also, Auckland.

The dessert list was definitely one of the best I’ve seen recently: Rhubarb and blueberry galette, pistachio baklava, creme catalana, et al. I am firmly of the opinion that puddings are for eating, not experimenting. Esther serves the stuff you know and like. Bring on another slice of burnt Basque cheesecake – and, perhaps, a carnivorous companion. On the menu, the bistecca Florentina is marked with an asterisk. It is the chef’s pick and, I suspect, should also have been mine.

Esther Restaurant, QT Auckland,4 Viaduct Harbour Avenue, ph(09) 379 9123. We spent: $249.50 for two.

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