Pure Sensation/ SC August - October
By Amy Van

The new Hilton is certainly impressive, set teetering on Auckland's harbour edge overlooking an astonishing sea vista. But tucked away inside the hotel is a restaurant making just as much of an impressive mark, this time on the culinary landscape.

Most diners would deem that a charming waterside location, stellar seasonal menu and superb service standards are elements that encompass the essence of many a fine restaurant. White at the Hilton, Auckland offers all of that, plus (and it is possible) a fair bit more. Try a sparkling ambience in the day when the ever-changing colours of the ocean and natural light illuminate the dining area and later in the evening, a touch of glamour and romance when night-lights flicker in the distance.

The moment you step into this venue, you will notice that the pristine interior is white in colour (as you would expect); from the leather chairs, to the marble floor, the sprays of lilies and the six metre-long custom-made white alabaster marble table. The setting is almost like a canvas, where the chefs provide the palette and the diners lend colour and vibrancy to the place.

Encircled by the waters of the Waitemata Harbour, the much-lauded establishment perched at the end of Princes Wharf, has been creating waves since the opening of the hotel last year. This is largely thanks to the creativity of its two award-winning chefs: Consulting Chef Luke Mangan of Sydney's Salt and Lulu restaurants and Executive Chef Geoff Scott, previously of Auckland's famous vineyard restaurant Hunting Lodge. Both culinary maestros captivate diners with their blend of haute cuisine fused with Pacific Rim influences.

Luke and Geoff have both worked in renowned European kitchens prior to this and picked up indispensable culinary skills along the way. Luke, touted as one of Australia's leading chefs has worked at the UK's three-Michelin-star Waterside Inn, while Geoff spent time in Provence and learnt classical French-based techniques at Alain Ducasse's celebrated Louis XV in Monte Carlo. With similar cooking philosophy and having both trained with the Roux Brothers, they steer White's food direction which comprises clean flavours, light sauces and exquisite presentation. The two chefs work closely, first discussing the seasonal menu via email and later confirming their ideas during Luke's quarterly visits to Auckland.

When deriving the menu, the chefs carefully interlace the freshest and finest New Zealand produce. "I am inspired by the challenge of creating something beautiful and delicious with New Zealand produce," chimes Scott. "Knowing where they came from and who nurtured them gives me enormous satisfaction and I believe the diner will experience the taste difference."

He approaches local suppliers who source for unique ingredients such as truffles from Hamilton. "It's all very exciting as these are the first batch of truffles picked from there, after 10 years of experimenting and planting. Now we can offer this magnificent ingredient to our diners. To have truffles grown in New Zealand that are as good as French truffles is a dream come true for a chef," he enthuses.

Recently, they have also sourced wild white truffles from the South Island which, according to the chef, "created sensational complements to the dishes. The wild white truffles were shaved over a magnificent risotto which I learnt to make whilst working in Milan. The technique and recipe were taught to me by Gualtiero Marchesi also known as 'the Grandfather of fine Italian cuisine'. It's a creamy white risotto, simply finished with parmigano reggiano and olive oil. And the white truffle perfume is released by the warmth of the risotto."

Textures and temperatures are also a big part of White's cuisine. An example of the interplay of these two elements is the beautifully presented salmon dish where diners can sample two different 'experiences' on the same dish. One is the salt and sugar cured salmon, with a touch of tandoori spice and raw salmon - natural flavours that have been delicately infused with soy, pickled ginger and shallot dressing. It is then crowned with chickweed salad and a slice of grilled Japanese eel, served warm.

Another appetiser worth sampling is the seared prawns with soft polenta, blue cheese and shitake mushrooms, drizzled with truffle oil - once again, imparting that magical perfume - a dish that strikes the right balance between earthiness and richness. For mains, a must-try is the signature dish of roasted hapuka that is pan-seared then roasted in the oven, and placed on top a puree of celeriac. Accompanying the fish is spaghetti and courgette tossed with fragrant basil, pinenuts and currants.

For a sweet finale, tuck into the licorice parfait dessert - a show stealer and one of Luke's recipes. "The concept of this dish is sweet licorice flavour, sharply contrasted with the lime juice segments and syrup, which works really well," says Geoff.

To complement the menu, White's wine list was compiled by Luke, his business partner Lucy Allan (of Salt) and the hotel's director of operations. The list reads full of superb New Zealand wines (70 percent), some Australian reds and a smattering of fine Champagnes.

So what should guests be looking forward to in the near future? "Over the winter months we are planning a series of winemakers' dinners where I will design dishes to complement the chosen varieties of wine," informs Geoff, adding that for now, the prototypes of the autumn menu are still being tested, and if White's booking list is anything to go by, still more than satisfying its customers.

Address: White, Hilton Hotel, Princes Wharf, 47 Quay Street, Auckland, New Zealand. Tel: 64-9-978-2000.

(Photos courtesy of White, Hilton Auckland)

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