We’re told that Whitebait is not just a relocated White House; it’s part of the trend away from stilted ‘fine dining’ to a more casual experience, though still with high-end food and pricing. There are no certainly no white tablecloths, but there’s also no mistaking this for a rambunctious diner. The conversation was a polite, moneyed burble as the smiling young staff seated us and supplied us with a pleasantly crisp Albariño. Comfortably settled, my date and I scanned the concise menu and waited to order.
After half an hour of rumbling stomachs and increasingly unsubtle attempts to make eye contact with the many waiting staff, someone finally took our order. Has the fashion for tapas and shared plates made us unrealistically expect the option of finger food to start? Whitebait is apparently too casual for amuse-bouches, but too fine dining for bread and olives.
Once the food did arrive, it immediately began to make amends. My date’s scampi crudo was jewel-like in colour and attention to detail, but far from bijou in size. Crustacean-dodger that I am, the delicate charms of the raw scampi escaped me. But its texture was flawless, and the freshness and crunch of the accompanying mint, parsley, almond and shaved artichoke lifted the dish into brilliance. My salmon cured in Sauvignon Blanc was sumptuous in flavour and mouth-feel. Pickled multi-coloured beetroot and carrot lent it a zingy, vernal freshness, but the dish was then given a brunch-like heartiness by adding generous doorstops of brioche and a gooey dollop of crème fraîche.
After the artfully presented entrées, the mains were endearingly rustic. My date chose a Catalan-style fish and shellfish stew, served in a traditional metal pan, with a medley of fish chunks and marine invertebrates simmering in a hearty saffron-scented romescada broth. My fish steak really was conceived as a steak: a fleshy slab of sea-beast served on the bone, with a mound of onion rings, and dripping in devilled butter. Expecting fine dining portions, we’d ordered fried potatoes, fennel and potato gratin, and a small herb salad, but everything was enormous. We should have struggled, but the food was so superb we couldn’t leave a crumb.
We attempted a few tiny sweets for dessert, and contemplated our surroundings. Something about the tone of the wood, the bespoke fish-themed carpet and the proportions of the space made it feel more like an airport lounge or convention centre than a place to relax and indulge one’s senses. The designers were clearly given a brief to express local themes, but the results speak of “100% Pure New Zealand” branding rather than anything recognisably Wellington. Athfield Architects’ original building concept celebrated the grittiness of our industrial waterfront, but references to ferry ramps and rusting hulls gradually gave way to neutral tones, to attract apartment buyers accustomed to the pristine, summery sparkle of Auckland or Sydney harbours.
I once felt at ease amid this kind of international corporate luxe, but must have spent too much time living near Cuba Street, since I now prefer restaurants not to feel like BMW showrooms. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. In any case, the food is spectacular, the portions generous to a fault, and the team should be professional enough to fix the initial glitches with the service.[warning]
Address: Clyde Quay Wharf, Te Aro
Phone: 04 385 8555
Cost: Entrées $24–32; mains $35–41
Open: Lunch Tue–Fri 11.30am–2.30pm; dinner Tue–Sat 5.30pm–late
Food: Kai moana
Drink: Panhead Port Road Pilsner (on tap) $11; Bodegas Terras Albariño $60/bottle[/warning]