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IMG_6989We’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.

And waited.

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.



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]