One of my favourite things each week is opening my inbox on a Wednesday morning to find The Denizen newsletter ready and waiting. I’ll admit, whilst living overseas I actually lived my Auckland life vicariously through their write-ups and reading about all the new food spots popping up around town always made me feel a little homesick. With so many new places to eat and drink, I started compiling a list of everywhere I simply had to go when I was back. High on that list was The Sugar Club, and three weeks ago I finally made it to the top.
The Sugar Club is quite spectacular. With or without the food, the view from the 53rd floor of the Sky Tower is definitely worth the feet-tingling elevator ride up. It’s the casino crowd that’s always deterred me from actually venturing inside the tower, preferring instead to keep my feet firmly on the Federal Street ground. But word on the street was that The Sugar Club was so good, so good in fact that no busload of tourists was going to stop me. Evidently, despite being smack bang in the middle of the biggest tourist destination in the city, Peter Gordon’s restaurant has managed to keep its cool. Cool enough for Les Gens to host their long ladies lunch there too, in the private dining room I might add. A fitting setting for a fine Saturday afternoon affair.
The set menu was $70 a head for three courses (or in their case, three plates) and a glass of champagne, reasonably priced for a ‘fine dining’ experience. The lunch menu boasts a tempting selection of small plates, organised with the lighter dishes on the right hand side and the more main-like dishes, but at entrée size, on the left. Old favourites like Peter Gordon’s Beef Pesto circa 1987 (the year after he opened the original restaurant in Wellington) making a welcome comeback. Using fresh New Zealand produce with fine, imported ingredients, The Sugar Club is fusion cuisine at its Kiwi best.
For me, navigating a fine-dining menu is always somewhat of an arduous task. The dishes are often so intricate it’s hard to know exactly what’s going to appear, and when it does show up it’s often drastically different to what you imagined, but in a good way. It’s kind of like lucky dip. That’s the charm of fine-dining though; it’s an experience of discovery with intriguing tastes and the textures. The presentation offering just as much of a treat for the eyes as flavours do for the taste buds.
The Sugar Club’s lunch menu is undoubtedly delicious, and better yet it’s easy to navigate. There’s an elegant balance of cuisines and flavours that complement each other without trying too hard, effortlessly avoiding any too-fancy fails. There’s definitely an Asian thread running through; think laksa, miso, tempura, and Pekin duck, a welcome fusion with the more Western style ingredients. Gordon’s strong sense of New Zealand pride enriches the menu. There’s no shortage of fresh seafood or fine meats; our Kiwi classics given a fancy makeover by the master chef. Creamed Paua on toast anyone? And I’m not talking about Vogel’s.
For my entrée I chose the grilled Whangamata scallops served with cauliflower and a macadamia shrimp sambal. I was tossing up between this and the coconut laksa soup which sounded equally as delicious, and of course I was eyeballing my neighbours dish with food envy when hers appeared. Nonetheless, my scallops were delightful, and whatever the creamy panna cotta-like accompaniment was absolutely made the dish. Gotta love those mystery surprises!
For my “main” (or in The Sugar Club’s case; second entrée) I jumped on the day-boat fish bandwagon along with about 85% of the table. Served with clams, coconut, tofu, ginger carrots, kale, aromatic curry paste, this dish was just as much a pleasure for my taste buds as it was an aromatic treat.
For dessert I chose the sorbet terrine and ice cream collection which was served with seasonal fruits and a Cointreau orange tuile. This was an unusual choice for me as I normally dive head first into the most chocolately thing on the menu, but by this stage I was quite full so the idea of something so rich as the dark chocolate and caramel gateaux sounded much less appealing (note to self: maybe I shouldn’t have gotten so excited over the bread bowl in the beginning). The taste combination was amazing; the balance of raspberry sorbet with the finely chopped up fruit was delicious, the pistachio ice-cream a treat with the sweet Cointreau orange tuile. The tuile was possibly my favourite part of the dish (typical sweet tooth!). Indulging my inner girly-girl, I was enamoured by the presentation of this dessert which was only elevated by the pretty pink plate and floral touch. The taste was just a bonus.
To me, what makes a good restaurant is made up of three things: the food (obviously), and this includes the presentation; the service; and the vibe, which includes the setting. If something is lacking in one department it can quite easily be made up in another and I’ll still have a great time. I never enjoy fine dining when it’s too fancy schmancy (stuffy, stale, whatever you want to call it). Sure the food might be exquisite but without a satisfying ambience, the former is lost on me. This is why I typically prefer bistro dining to fine dining. Both scoring highly on the food front, it’s the energetic vibe typical of a bistro that gets me. It’s that casualness that encourages loud chatter and big laughs that I love (Coco’s Cantina is a perfect example). Sure the service might not be as sophisticated as you would expect at fine-dining restaurant, but you’re more likely to make friends with your waiter and to me that’s just as good.
That being said, The Sugar Club scored exceptionally on the food front (as expected), very well on the service front, and pretty well on the vibe front. The setting was spectacular, obviously – that view is unbeatable, and the fit out had a sort of opulence unknown to most Auckland spaces, but it was overall energy that was somewhat lacking. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fun; put 12 interesting girls in one room with champagne and great food and there was no shortage of good conversation or animated laughs, but I’m referring to the space as a whole. Bearing in mind it was early on a Saturday afternoon, in Auckland, in the middle of winter, so a packed out restaurant with a lively ambience was perhaps a bit ambitious.
All things said, the food, the presentation, the setting, and that view; The Sugar Club was a certainly a sweet experience. It’s not somewhere you would go all the time, but it’s perfect for a celebration or an epicurean treat. Next time I would quite like to go at night. I can imagine that the 53rd floor view with those endless city lights would be enough to make you feel like you’re overseas in a big cosmopolitan city. Or at least good enough to pretend you are, especially with a cocktail in hand. Forget the sugar high, go sky high.
For more information about The Sugar Club or to make a booking, check out their website here. The private dining room seats up to 12 guests, perfect for a celebratory lunch or dinner with guaranteed the best view in town. Oh, and there’s free valet, just remember to get your ticket validated.
© Samantha Shorter and Bright Eyes, 2014.