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21 Jan 2019
Situated on Clyde Quay Wharf, within the long arm that stretches out into Wellington Harbour, Whitebait has the reputation of hosting one of Wellington’s finest of dining experiences and plating up the ultimate experience in fresh cuisine.
The menu is seasonally-focused and chef James Pask likes to play with exciting seasonal ingredients that catch his eye.
Whitebait’s current dégustation menu is called “A story of our seas” and has an emphasis on New Zealand kaimoana (seafood). However, in Aotearoa you cannot deny the relationship between land and sea and we were wowed by the breadth of ingredients from both – the menu took us on a journey across land and sea in six courses (and just a little bit further, with another course or two!).
Our waitstaff referred to this course as “snacks”, but this proved to be a very humble title for the selection that awaited us: a bread selection from Wellington Sourdough, served with both cultured and seaweed butter – both perfectly creamy and salty!
This was followed by a raw oyster with rhubarb mignonette and dill Cloudy Bay clam with spiced clam conserve – two shellfish presented with a complexity of flavours. We were then served a Spring Pea Tart with Persian Feta and Sea Lettuce. The base of the tart was delicate and perfectly formed; thin, crunchy and crumbly all at once. One bite and it dissolved into sweet crumbs, the freshest of young peas, and salty, creamy feta, and the salty sweetness of the sea lettuce. So much freshness, texture and complexity in one mouthful!
First course – Chatham Islands Scampi with Spring Herbs & Confit Tomatoes
The sweetness of this poached scampi was like kissing the sweetest crab in the ocean! Submerged in the shallows of a fermented tomato broth and olive oil (made by the chef's close family friend in Nelson), there is a harmonious interplay between the clean, grassy character of the olive oil, fresh acidity of tomato, and the sweet, salty silkiness of the scampi tail. The scent is all plucked-stem freshness, reminiscent of picking fruit and vegetables. Complex and clean.
Second course - Smoked Albacore with Endive, Green olive and Preserved Tomato
Plates with four simply deconstructed endive leaves, arranged like a flower bud are placed in front of us. Pulling the petals apart, reveals a streak of vibrant smoked tuna tartare, mixed with mayonnaise, green olive and tomato. The singular endive leaves act as a little boat in which to pile the tuna tartare in lieu of a traditional tartare toast. The tuna has the faintest wisp of smoke, despite the lovely creaminess of the mayo, as well as a salty freshness that wasn’t over powered by the smokiness. And the crunch of that endive! It was so crisp – the perfect fresh companion for the tartare.
Third course – Lemon Sole, roasted on-the-bone with chilli butter
The simplicity of this dish is deceptive, masking a complexity of flavours. A sole sole on a plate (a garnish would have ruined perfection!), and one touch of the fork to fish sees the softest of flakes falling away from the bone.
The lovely, smoky, chilli from the butter, seasoned to every mouthful, leaving you ready for the next. The touch of browning from the butter, encased the sole and held it together like a loose skin. An extraordinary adventure into morishness; a perfect example of when less is more and more is moreish.
Fourth course – Kingfish with Barbecued Zucchini, Nasturtium Pesto
This was a beautifully textural dish - the slightly sweet nasturtium pesto, paired with the perfectly crispy kingfish skin, and brought out the sweetness in the fish, and also had enough structure to carry the oiliness of the kingfish and subtle char of the zucchini. The nasturtium leaves on top leant a lovely caper character, which tied in with the herbaceous character of the 2016 Chardonnay from Ata Rangi.
Fifth course – Wild Fennel Sorbet with Buttermilk
We were informed this was a somewhat polarising dish; a splash of green in a sea of buttermilk. The flavours were chlorophyllic and liquorice aniseed-y in the very best way! Green and intense but tempered by the addition of buttermilk, the slight tartness of which brightened the deep spice of the fennel. A soft and smooth dish, which had us scarping the bowl for every last drop of buttermilk.
Sixth course – Rhubarb with Champagne, Meringue & Elderflower
Think a high-end Eton Mess. In a bowl, we find a perfectly smooth pink disk, as round as the moon, scattered with tiny elderflowers (sourced from a secret location). It’s just waiting for one to abuse it with one’s cutlery; we’re told to give it a good satisfying (and somewhat heart-breaking!) crack to reveal the decadent rhubarb and champagne combination beneath. There is enough fruit-sugared sweetness to please the sweet tooth, and the gooseberry and champagne aromatics of the elderflower make it the perfect tart accompaniment for the sweet-tart nature of the rhubarb.
We were asked to not quite put our appetites away just yet – our six courses at Whitebait were topped off by two, adorable petit fours; little treats that wouldn’t look out of place on an Alice in Wonderland-like side table, accompanied by a pretty little card with the words “Eat me”. These were new offerings from Whitebait – a honey tuile, made of a crisp, thin wafer, curved into a cone, housing a delicious peach sorbet, and a choux vanilla pastry cream and candied pecan praline.
The perfect punctuation on which to end our fresh, culinary adventure, which took us to a different kind of wonderland, across land and sea.
Whitebait fine dining restaurant is the latest venture for award-winning Chef, Paul Hoather that showcases seafood and local produce.