As people who eat out a lot, Clyde and I tend to favor neighborhood holes in the alls over anything expensive or pretentious. "Special occasion restaurants" are not normally my thing, as, in my experience, they tend to focus on fanfare over food. I'm not interested in paying big bucks to sit in a gorgeous room and be served exquisitely sculpted but mediocre meals by a snooty waitstaff -- especially not when solid, delicious dinners can be had from friendly, passionate people at a fraction of the price.
But last month we elected to splurge on dinner at Clooney in Auckland -- and I'm glad we did, because I had one of the best meals of my life.
And so you'll know: I don't toss around phrases like that lightly. I'm not the sort of guy who pushes back from a hamburger or a steak or a plate of pad thai or a pizza or a barbecue sandwich and says, "Whoo! Best meal of my life!" For me, meals and memories are closely intertwined; the food we eat along the way becomes an integral part of the fabric of our journey. So: when I say "I just had one of the best meals of my life," that means something really remarkable has happened.
And that's exactly what our dinner at Clooney was: remarkable, from start to finish. The magic begins when you walk in the door, encountering a cool, black, lofty space punctuated by low, round tables and crescent-shaped booths upholstered in soft leather. The dining room -- a converted warehouse -- could have too easily been rendered as harsh and chilly, but a clever designer carved the expanse into a series of half-glimpsed, intimate spaces by encircling each with floor-to-ceiling curtains of dangling black fibers.
These curtains serve two purposes. First, because they are semi-transparent, you're aware of other diners -- which is good, because you don't feel creepily alone. At the same time, they serve to make each table feel cozy and protected -- shielded from the prying eyes of others. Second, because the hanging fibers part easily, the waitstaff can pop in out out unobtrusively, filling glasses and delivering plates from any direction.
So: you're inside and seated. The next pleasant surprise? The staff. In the States, I'd expect a joint like Clooney to be staffed by distant, aloof, or pretentious folk: the sort of poeple who can say, "Would you like to see our selection of imported water choices?" without laughing. But here -- and maybe this is just that wonderful Kiwi magic at work -- the staff know the trick of being warm (without being cloying) and human (without pretending to be your new best friends).
Instead of silly questions like, "Do you have any questions about the menu," they offered disarming insights right up front: "You know chefs -- they have a thousand words for potato. So: just wanted to let you know the 'frommage blanc' is actually a bit of cheesecake." Instead of slinging faux compliments about (like my least favorite waiter comment of all time -- "Excellent choice!"), they were able to chat in friendly and accessible ways about the wine choices and the side dishes. Instead of laboring to impress us, they seemed genuinely dedicated to making sure we had a great meal..
Clyde started his meal with salmon and scallops, which arrived nestled in a bed of delicate, savory foam. The salmon looked as though someone had carved it from a small block of orange-pink marble; the scallops were arranged around it like pearls. I'm not sure how these were prepared, exactly, but I do know this: every single bite melted away in your mouth, as delicate as a dream. To boost the delight factor, the entire plate was scented with orange peel and saffron, to boot.
I went straight for the venison -- an odd choice, given that I'm not much of one for, well, venison. My plate arrived laden with exquisite cubes of perfectly-cooked, tender meat, garnished with currant sauce, redfruit, and licorice-scented black barley. I paired this with a side of parmesean fries and tomato salad, and found myself literally swooning over every bite.
Desert? Oh, yes. I didn't go with the "frommage blanc," but I did order the Valrhona chocolate pavé, a decadent "cobblestone" (you know, like you'd "pavé" the streets with) of creamy chocolate mousse and delicate chocolate biscuits, surrounded by strawberries and scented with green cardamom. Clyde wasn't as wild about his buttermilk panacotta (studded with lychee), but friends Tony and Marlene seemed thrilled with their Roquefort Papilion: a collection of madelines saturated with honeycomb.
Perfect atmosphere. Perfect wine. Perfect beer. Perfect service. Perfect food. We laughed and shared stories and made plans far into the night.
At about $100 US per head, Clooney won't ever be your "every Monday night place," but for an adventure we'll always remember ... it was a bargain. If you're in Auckland, just go.
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