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First Look: The White Rabbit

Jan 30, 2015 Bars

By Catherine McGregor. Photos by Ken Downie.

Over the past few years, the site at the corner of Customs and Gore Sts has suffered something of an identity crisis. First it was the Britomart Hotel, then the Rose & Crown, then the Brewery Britomart. After that came the Crown, and now it has a yet another new name — The White Rabbit — and a new look to match.

Step one in the revamp? A hell of a lot of white paint. Back in November, when owner Mark Keddell (who also runs Libertine, Snapdragon/Goldfinch and Wellington’s Matterhorn) began the overhaul, the place was as black as a teenager’s bedroom. Now the room is cleanly white, with lots of quirky design touches to keep it from feeling sterile.

Sean Marshall, who works alongside Keddell as group executive chef, describes The White Rabbit as a “cross between a ‘50s farmhouse kitchen and a Parisian cafe”. In practice, that means an all-day eatery/hostelry, open from 7am (8am on weekends) until late, serving a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu (the latter served in the upstairs dining room), with an extensive grazing menu to fill the gaps in between.

The food is by Ian Harrison, whose CV includes legendary UK restaurants like Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and Marco Pierre White’s Yew Tree, and whose last Auckland role was head chef at Clooney. Harrison’s menu combines the approachability of bistro-style cooking with the flavours and techniques of fine dining, incorporating plenty of seasonal ingredients. Market fish comes with charred sweet corn and a fennel and squid salad; sardines on toast are layered over a smash of feta and broad bean; a watermelon and tomato salad features perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes, creamy goats curd and a variety of interesting and unusual leaves from speciality supplier The Secret Garden. Harrison’s current obsession: native New Zealand ice plant, which he uses to add a cucumber-like freshness to salads and vegetable dishes.

The drinks list is by wine guru Gary Olasz, of Roxy and Clooney fame. He’s a busy guy: as well as managing the wine lists for five restaurants and bars (including the soon-to-open Matterhorn Auckland, on the old Libertine site), he’s currently studying for the ultra-demanding international Court of Master Sommeliers exams. His wine list for the upstairs bistro is divided into common-sense categories like “crispy, edgy whites” and “full, meaty reds” and includes a good range of 375ml bottles, ideal for two people. Beers include Emersons pale ale on tap; manager Charlotte Harroway says they plan to add more craft beers soon.

Once the brewing equipment that used to live on site was removed — necessitating the temporary removal of half a wall — Keddell and Marshall found themselves with a whole new room to play with. Enter Jones, an intimate cocktail bar with a plant-filled smokers’ courtyard. Jones is constructed entirely from recycled materials (including leftovers from the main bar renovation) and brings what Marshall calls a “little slice of Wellington” to the heart of Auckland. The main entrance is on Gore St, but there’s also an internal connecting door — and an integrated billing system across the three dining and drinking areas.

They say the name was inspired by the all-white paint job and the way the revamp happened so quickly: like a rabbit out of a hat. But of course it’s the perpetually late Alice in Wonderland character you’ll think of first. Have a very important date? You really should try the White Rabbit.

The White Rabbit
69 Customs St East



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