Chef’s Table – an Italian feast to share

It’s no secret to those who know me well how much I love food. I love to cook it, I love to eat it and I particularly love trying new flavours and combinations.

When it comes to dining out I will confess that up until a few years ago I had little love for the idea of ‘sharing’ when at a restaurant. I always preferred to make my own choice from the menu and enjoy every mouthful with no interference from anyone.

There’s a brilliant episode of Gavin & Stacey where Smithy turns up as they’re about to order in a curry. He promptly rattles off his order, only to be disgusted to learn that their intention is to ‘put all the dishes in the middle of the table so everyone can have a bit of each’. Smithy then delivers the most hilarious diatribe about his hatred of this practise, convinced that everyone will go straight for his bhunas! In the end he retracts his order and tells them he’ll get his own and eat it in the car. Look the clip up on YouTube. I laughed for hours after watching this episode.

These days – thanks to some standout eating experiences – I am now a reformed non-sharer. And it is all thanks to a restaurant recommendation by a friend. The restaurant in question is Masu at Sky City Grand in Central Auckland. At the time of first hearing about it from my friend I wasn’t particularly familiar with Japanese cuisine. But my husband and I are always keen to try something new so we arranged to go with friends a few weeks later. Wow, wow, wow! Without a doubt one of the most incredible eating experiences of my life. Every single morsel I put into my mouth was delicious. So delicious. And it was all about sharing. I loved it.

Since that memorable night I have been on the lookout for similar experiences. I was fortunate enough to have one this last weekend. My husband I went with a group of very dear friends to a restaurant named Gusto on the Grand. Also situated at Sky City Grand in central Auckland, it serves up the most delicious Italian cuisine. A great start as Italian is by far my favourite cuisine of the world. But we decided to step things up by booking the Chef’s table.

I cannot tell you how cool this was and how much I recommend it. The Chef’s table seats six people and is situated in the kitchen area between the kitchen itself and the servery – you feel as though you are actually a part of it. As the night unfolds you can watch the hardworking kitchen staff churn out dish after dish of exquisite food. I have incredible admiration for those who work in a professional kitchen. The expertise and pressure involved to get through a busy night’s service makes it unlike any other job on the planet.

If you do decide to give this a try I highly recommend going with Chef’s choice. Rather than choose dishes yourself, Chef will create the menu and treat you to a succession of dishes that will surprise and delight you. Often he will be at your table as the dish is delivered so that he can explain what you’re about to eat. I, of course, bombarded Chef with questions all night about how things were prepared and cooked.

Although the food is designed to be shared and portions are small I think by the end of the evening I’d counted around fifteen dishes in total. Trust me, you do not go away hungry.

So here’s the rundown. By the end you’ll be salivating!

 

Garlic and rosemary pizetta with housemade ricotta. The honey and pine nuts are lovely here as is the texture of the ricotta. Perfect combination.

Fondue with shaved truffles. Truffles are basically a fungus, but oh so delicious – not to mention expensive. In fact, white truffles are one of the most expensive ingredients on the planet. Eat this dish with the reverence it deserves.

 

Buffalo mozzarella with fennel, celery and walnuts. I adore mozzarella and when I’m in Italy I just about live on it. I particularly loved the fennel here. Fennel has such an interesting flavour with that hint of aniseed. And served raw the crunchy texture goes beautifully with the creamy mozzarella.

Octopus carpaccio with shallots and chilli. This was one of the standout dishes for me. Once again, it looks deceptively simple. But the flavour and texture of the octopus was divine (although not raw as you’d expect with a carpaccio). Such a surprise!

 

Pork and veal meatballs with tomato sauce and pecorino. This was another of the standout dishes for me. These meatballs are hands down the best I’ve ever tasted. I always use pork mince when I make meatballs because I think it adds great texture and sweetness. I usually combine it with beef mince but I will have to try the combination with veal. I know I’m talking a lot about texture but I think it is such an important component of a dish – just as important as flavour. I hope you can see from the photograph just how delicious and melt-in-the-mouth these meatballs were. I had to ask Chef the secret – his answer was extremely simple. They soak the breadcrumbs in milk first. The tomato sauce was rich and full of flavour. The pecorino added a welcome sharp note. Delicious!

 

Clams with spaghetti, garlic and chilli. There was something very special about this bowl of spaghetti, the thin pasta strands soaking up all those delectable juices of just cooked seafood. The garnish here is pangritata – breadcrumbs fried in olive oil with garlic and herbs until crispy. It’s commonly referred to as poor man’s parmesan although I have to say there was nothing ‘poor’ about how it tasted.

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Pappardelle with duck and pea ragu. This was my third standout dish. I’ve always been a huge fan of long slow cooking and am a confirmed pasta addict so this dish hit all the right notes for me. The duck is braised first before being shredded and added to the rich ragu (loved the peas). The pappardelle was perfectly cooked and I love these fat ribbons of pasta. It tasted incredible.

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You’ll see by the dishes I’ve noted above and by the ones yet to come that there is a flow happening here and it’s very in tune with how Italians eat. They like to start with the lighter dishes. Pasta is served as a second course. The meat dishes then follow. Considering that we’d enjoyed two outstanding pasta dishes I was geared up and ready for the meat dishes . . .

Kingfish tail saltimbocca with sage and prosciutto

Crumbed veal cutlets

Duck fat roast potatoes

Baby cos lettuce and radish salad with white balsamic dressing

So here it is, the main course . . .

The kingfish looked stunning when it first arrived to the table, the tail cooked whole and wrapped in prosciutto. It was cut into pieces for us at the table.

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The veal was tender and cooked to perfection.

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Duck fat roast potatoes – I don’t think any more needs to be said.

Beautifully fresh baby cos leaves with crunchy radish and a sharp dressing.

This is food on another level.

And now we get to what many would call the business end of the meal – dessert. I don’t have an overly sweet tooth. Generally when eating out I prefer a starter to a dessert – I can rarely eat three courses. But fortunately I had room left on this occasion because it would have been a crime to miss these desserts.

Passionfruit pannacotta. This is one of my all-time favourite desserts – airily light and creamy, palette cleansing and a complete joy to eat. It’s the sort of thing I feel like after a meal if I do decide to indulge in something sweet. The passionfruit was a fantastic contrast.

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Salted caramel popcorn semifreddo. Translated semifreddo means not quite cold or half cold – you get the picture. This means it is not quite the texture of frozen ice cream but more of frozen mousse and if that sounds rather yummy you would be right. Salted caramel is an all-time favourite of mine – it’s one of those occasions when my underused sweet tooth kicks into action.

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Orange scented tiramisu. This is one of those classic Italian desserts that most people have heard of and probably tasted at some point. The hint of orange here was perfectly balanced – you could definitely taste it but it wasn’t overpowering.

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Warm chocolate pudding with vanilla gelato and boysenberries. I’ve saved the best for last. This is a rich dessert – there’s no getting away from that. But I don’t think there’s much I need to say about this one. Surely the photo will tell you everything you need to know – a superb combination and the perfect way to finish a perfect meal.

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How’s that for an eating experience? My friends and I had the most wonderful evening. It was so much fun, so interesting and full of surprises. Go with an open mind, prepared to try new flavours and combinations and you’ll come away as happy as I did.

I’ve set a goal for myself to try and recreate a few of these dishes in my own kitchen so watch out for some recipes to follow. Perhaps I’ll start with those incredible meatballs.

 

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