“A PLACE WHERE PLEASURE COMES FIRST”
The trouble with some top chefs is that they forget they’re making your dinner. It’s an occupational hazard for restaurant reviewers that they put up with all sorts of fashionable culinary nonsense when what they really want to do is have a meal. So when something like Baduzzi happens, we tend to weep with pleasure. I will endeavour to restrain myself in what follows.
Baduzzi is the creation of one of the city’s very top restaurateur/chef combinations: Michael Dearth and Benjamin Bayly of The Grove, which has quite rightly occupied a special place in the affections of Auckland diners since 2004. They’ve done so by never forgetting that you’ve come for dinner: Bayly makes food that tastes like food rather than some concoction prepared for the edification of the kitchen. Unsurprisingly, the same philosophy underpins their pair’s new venture in the Wynyard Quarter.
The restaurant is what might be called upmarket downmarket – “food of the people”, it promises on the front of the menu – a place where pleasure comes first. The restaurant’s name is that of some of Dearth’s forebears, I assume (it is not explicitly stated), old black-and-white portraits of whom adorn the menu, along with an Italian proverb that means “you don’t grow old when you’re at the table”. Given the speed with which things happen, that’s a promise that’s easy to keep. The atmosphere is classy but not at all stuffy, thanks to a handsome but understated fitout – leather banquettes, marble tables, bentwood chairs and high-mounted tilted mirrors that expand the space and emphasise its busy cheerfulness.
You won’t get a booking here unless you’re a group of eight or more; you wait for a table at the bar, which is no great hardship. But if that doesn’t appeal, it may be worth arriving for dinner, as we did, in the late afternoon rather than the early evening. I’ve heard it described as a meatball restaurant, which conjures up to me images of gingham tablecloths, and swarthy men with large napkins tucked into their collars. It’s not like that at all, but there is a menu section called polpette, which is the Italian word for meatballs, along with the primi and secondi piatti you expect in an Italian restaurant. (There are also excellent vegetarian options). These are not Mamma’s meatballs: ones made with crayfish and chickpea are delicate but satisfying, allowing the sweetness of the fish to come through; wild red deer is mixed with mushrooms and celeriac to make a big and brassy taste that would go well with a rich red wine; lamb and thyme ones have a whiff of lemon. I’d preceded this with flame-grilled sardines – why is this lovely fish so rarely used? – paired with golden raisins, pine nuts and feta. Elsewhere on the table, a salad of dreamily tender squid with a subtly tangy dressing and a superb three-level dish of veal bolognese and creamy eggplant topped with mozzarella were meeting with great approval.
Space precludes my going on at great length about the chicken saltimbocca (small folded parcels stuffed with sage-infused creme fraiche) which were superbly discharged, if a tad salty; and hearty pasta dishes (rabbit ravioli, and a flat pasta with a duck and mushroom ragu). Two of three desserts were also quite sublime: a chocolate torta and a semi-freddo, sticky with honey and toffee. The evening’s sole false note was the cannoli – a ricotta-stuffed pastry of Sicilian origin – whose fried dough had a distastefully fatty taste that bordered on the rancid. It’s worth noting that, although individual dish prices are very reasonable (meatballs start at $12; primi at $15; secondi at $18), the servings are small, and a good feed with wine will come in a $70 a head. But there is an exuberance about this place that makes it a memorable and joyful experience. It will certainly be full long after it’s stopped being fabulously fashionable. Verdict: Go now – or sooner if possible.