Saturday, 10 October 2015

New Zealand Series - Bistro Gentil

I was looking forward to heading back to New Zealand for a holiday, it had been an exciting year to date, which included changing jobs and moving to HK.  As exciting as the year had been, I really needed a break and what better way to do so than a short ski holiday. Of course when I travel anywhere nowadays, I'm always considering the food angle and looking for the very best local dining.  I was a little bit dubious that I would find something amazing while travelling to Wanaka, a town in the South Island of NZ with the total population of 5,037.  Boy was I wrong!

Checking into our cute little bed and breakfast, Wanaka Haven, we immediately asked our host, Steve, for some local recommendations and without missing a beat, Bistro Gentil was mentioned.  Never one to delay, we asked if Steve could get us in for dinner the night of our arrival.  A quick call revealed he couldn't, the place was full, which was quite a promising sign.  Asking for the next available sitting, we were able to secure a reservation a few days in.  No matter, some skiing would have us anticipating the meal even more.

Located a few minutes drive from the bustling (kidding) centre of Wanaka, Bistro Gentil started its life as an outlet for fine French Olive Oil and then extended to a range of fine foods and balsamic vinegar.  Of course the natural extension was to expand on the delights of French gastronomy and combine them with the incredibly fresh ingredients that New Zealand has to offer.  Securing the services of  award winning chef James Stapley, with Mario Rodrigues as Head Chef, Bistro Gentil was born.

The food at Bistro Genil combines French traditional flavour combinations and techniques, then giving them a modern twist using the best in-season ingredients that Central Otago has to offer. There is a natural element to their food, using vegetables from their own garden, as well as wild herbs and flowers foraged from nearby.

One of the more interesting elements of the menu was the wine menu, which took a very different approach to most restaurants.  When we were seated, we were given an access card and instructions on how wine was served at Bistro Gentil.  There were groovy looking dispensers against the walls and all you had to was select the wine you wanted, insert the card and the dispenser did all the rest. It was unique, but SC made the fatal mistake of not putting her glass under the spout in time and lost a bit of her first glass - a mistake she wouldn't make again!

We opted for the seven course tasting menu over the more traditional a la carte affair.  Boasting that the menu changed daily and only using in-season produced at the whim of the chef, we were excited when reading through the well put together menu.

Kicking off with an interesting looking amuse bouche that looked remarkably like a cigar mid smoke, the dish was actually a duck parfait inside a golden tuile and surrounded by a bread and butter 'ash'.  Adding to the deception, the cigar was presented in an ashtray and was quite realistic looking.  The duck parfait was sweet and creamy and the bread and butter ash providing a strange powdery texture that melted under the tongue.  Despite its appearance, I quite liked it.

The tasting menu started with a flavour bang!  A lovely black bowl was the perfect showcase for the broccoli soup with walnut crumbs and roquefort cheese.  The sharp contrast of the green colour was matched by the strong broccoli flavour, balanced out with sheep milk blue cheese, providing a calming effect.  A little texture from the crunchy walnuts and we had the perfect way to start the meal, and I was left wanting more.

It's surprising how much flavour great chefs can extract from vegetarian dishes, with the next course being a fantastic example.  The confit beetroot salad with goats cheese mousse, lentils, dates and black garlic looked amazing on the plate, very much like a work of precision and art. Using different coloured beets, there was a wonderful colour to the plate, which looked extremely appetising.  What I loved about the dish was the goats cheese mousse, which pulled the components together.  There were lots of little surprises though, the sweetness of the date, the earthy flavour and texture from the lentils and the subtle garlic flavour.  It was a triumph and had me sold that perhaps vegetarian food was not all bad!

The beautiful dishes continued with the 40° salmon with smoked avocado, poached squid, squid cracker and candied chilli.  Curved like a backwards 'C 'on the plate, the bright colours worked well with the earthen plate.  The expertly cooked salmon was soft and had a subtle flavour that partnered superbly with the squid crackers.  Little piles of soft avocado puree danced on the tongue and every now and then, there would be a sweet chilli bite from the candied chilli.  I also loved the little strips of the poached squid, which were not quite a soft as the salmon, but the extra texture was appreciated.  

Continuing with amazing flavours and beautifully presented bowl of food, our next dish was fresh blue cod with textures of cauliflower, chorizo, grapes and almonds.  The dish was heavenly, largely on the back of the cauliflower puree and the freshness of the cod, but what really made me smile were the little squares of caramelised chorizo that were interspersed throughout.  There was a surprising benefit from adding the grapes, which gave not only sweetness, but some needed acidity to help with the sweet puree.  It was a perfectly balanced blow of food, but I had an issue.  Because the dish was presented in a bowl, it was actually difficult to eat - something to consider for the restaurant.

We were starting to fill up by the time our last savoury dish arrived, but any thoughts of not completing the meal were dispelled when the aroma hit.  The free range pork prepared two ways with house made black pudding, parsnip and pickled quince was delightful.  The confit free range pork was so soft that it fell apart, with the perfectly cooked pork loin bringing bags of flavour. Finished with parsnip chips, puree and winter vegetables, the dish was the perfect winter meal and an incredible way to showcase the best that New Zealand had to offer.

We had a little palate cleanser which was one of the most interesting I'd seen or tasted.  Little wedges of frozen tamarillo and mandarin were placed carefully alongside a lemon foam and jelly. The brightly coloured little dish was sharp, very sharp, but I didn't mind, it had done its task of cleansing my palate for dessert.

Dessert was simply named chocolate bounty, and it was textures of chocolate piled together with a creamy vanilla sorbet, lemon jelly squares and rounds of curd.  Given that the previous components of the meal had been so beautiful and delicious, the dessert was a bit of a let down. Even with the sorbet and curd, the dish ate a little dry and to be perfectly honest, was quite hard to eat overall, simply due to the texture.  It was interesting, but I'd love to have seen a dessert that was a punctuation mark on the meal, this was more of a question mark.

Dessert aside, I was completely blown away with our meal at Bistro Gentil.  The dishes were well thought out, impeccably put together and most of all, completely yummy!  I shouldn't have been surprised though, the restaurant had won a Chefs Hat in 2014 and the chefs were both well regarded and clearly very talented.  

Service left a little to be desired though, it was a bit hit and miss.  We were warmly greeted and shown to our table, but then had to wait for long periods of time for attention.  I think we were disadvantaged by a large table next to us, which seemed to get all of the attention.  It wasn't super busy either, with most of the tables taken inside, but the covered balcony area was mostly empty.

If you're travelling through the South Island of New Zealand and have the opportunity, I'd definitely recommend Bistro Gentil. It was without doubt the best meal we had on our holiday.

The lovely little petite four made up for the dessert - it was a lovely little ice tea
Dangerous?  Self serve wine!!
A lovely little fire was perfect for a NZ winters eve

    Bistro Gentil Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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