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Mela’s fine dining is refreshingly uncool.

Henry Oliver reviews Mela

Mela’s fine dining is refreshingly uncool.

Aug 9, 2021 Restaurants

Trends are easy to see when they’re coming in. A restaurant opens that just feels new — maybe it’s similar to a place you’ve been to while travelling, or dips its toe into some movement that’s been growing overseas, or maybe it’s just something legitimately novel, some combination of influences no one’s executed in that way before — and people respond to it. Word spreads. It’s hard to get in. Everyone you talk to about such things asks, “Have you been yet?”

Soon, another restaurant will open that shares some of the same kaupapa or influence or energy but will be slightly different. And then another and another. Not copycats, but maybe all it took was one forerunner to show that a particular way of cooking for or serving or hosting people was not just possible but could be successful. All of a sudden, the dining scene has changed and it feels like it will never be the same again.

Trends are much harder to see when they’re going out. There’s that restaurant you loved that you don’t visit any more. Or a kind of food or dining that just doesn’t occur to you when you’re celebrating a special occasion or going on a date or treating your mum or just catching up with friends. In the past few years, following similar trends overseas, we’ve seen a major shift in Auckland’s dining landscape away from the formal and complicated towards the rustic and deceptively simple. Restaurants with $40+ mains now go to great lengths to describe themselves as ‘laid back’ or ‘casual’ where they once might have been ‘special’ or ‘exceptional’. And in the past few months, we’ve seen the old guard start to fall. First was Antoine’s, the fine-dining establishment’s establishment, with a ‘classics’ menu that was a time machine back to dishes that you could no longer find anywhere else. Next was O’Connell Street Bistro, which, at only 24 years old com- pared to Antoine’s 49, was a stalwart of duck ragù and steak tartare and fine wine but which sadly could not keep up with the rent in the only part of town a restaurant like O’Connell Street truly belonged.

A much quieter demise was Number 5, which rivalled Antoine’s in the big-money 1980s as the place to rack up a tab of thousands of dollars on wine and charge it to the expense account. In 2019, it was bought by Jacopo Crosti, who hails from Varese, Italy, and was the former head chef of the excellent (and missed) restaurant Beirut, and opened with Enrico Calderaro (also Italian) as head chef. Sadly, despite positive reviews, it found itself not on the top-restaurant lists so much as in the listings of voucher restaurants. Perhaps even being a storied brand like Number 5 can be as much of a hindrance as a help. Post-lock- down, it reopened as Mela with an even newer lease on life — a second overhaul in as many years.

Mela sits in a beautiful old brick building on City Rd, a street full of road cones and car parks between Symonds St and Karangahape Rd now mostly used as a thorough-fare by people heading to or from the many apartment buildings and hostels in the area. But when you step inside its heavy doors, you’re transported into another world. It’s formal but not stuffy, bright, white and warm with the most generously sized table-for-twos in the city. Out the back window you can see the detritus of a city under construction, but you feel removed from all that.

Most new restaurants want to be a part of their surroundings, they want to integrate with the street and with the community they’re a part of. I love all that, but some- times you want to go somewhere else. You don’t want a curated playlist playing slightly too loud, you want the almost-too-smooth jazz and the hushed tones of conversations that sound like they’re either rather serious or rather intimate.

The food follows suit. This is, as you might have guessed, not a better version of food you might dream of making at home. It is not an approximation of a dinner par- ty hosted by someone who cooks better than any of your friends. This is serious food of the Michelin-starred-resumé variety. Fine. Dining. And from the first of the seven courses in the degustation (à la carte is also available), it felt somehow both dated and new, familiar and refreshing. Not that the dishes or their presentation were somehow uninventive (quite the opposite, in fact); it’s just that with all the cool casualness many of us have become accustomed to, this very modernist approach to food — deconstructions, emulsifications, foams, smokes, dots, things that look like one thing but taste like another — feels a little like it’s from another time, even though it still feels very, well, modern.

But, as is not always the case with food like this, it is delicious. Fine-dining food can be more creative than craveable, often tasting like it’s made more for the chef than it is for the diner, but this is not the case at Mela. The chawanmushi topped with salmon roe, served as part of the requisite “snacks”, was wonderfully yet delicately fishy and salted as if custom-made for my palate. I have frequently thought about it since as one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten this year. As was another Japanese-inspired dish: a kingfish aged in kombu, served with fermented chilli and a sunflower-seed purée — a deep, meaty, fermented earthiness that (like the fishy custard) was delicate in technique but robust in texture and flavour.

The excellent venison tartare — served with olives, bone marrow and quail egg — was presented by Crosti as just- like-his-mother-used-to-make. We should all be so lucky!

Yet, when prices are high, so are expectations. And while not every course lived up to the last (my favourite dishes tended towards the start of the evening), the menu was beautifully executed and well paced, weaving a narrative of flavours and textures and techniques that impressed on the tongue as much as they did on the eye.

The staff were nice, if not a little under-prepared to answer questions about the dishes or provide any guidance beyond their learned descriptions. If you like to be served inventive, sophisticated, serious food and then largely left alone (not everyone wants to know where their buckwheat was grown), Mela might be for you. If you expect fine din- ing to come with a certain amount of pampering, maybe not.

Would I rush back, checking in on how the menu develops seasonally? Probably not, though I would love to eat that chawanmushi, preferably by the bowlful. Am I glad I went? Definitely. If nothing else, it’s a breath of fresh air from all the ’nduja and labneh and seared cauliflower and exposed brick and natural wine I’ve become accustomed to. Mela may not be cool, but that’s kinda cool.

 

Mela

***

Address/Contact
5 City Rd, Grafton
09 309 9273
Tuesday — Saturday 5:30-11pm

Dinner Bill
Seven-course degustation $185; Entrees $32; Mains $48; Desserts $22

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