To celebrate our last night in Wanaka, we decided to push the boat out. Shed our ski gear, put on something smart and go out for a really special meal.
Bistro Gentil in Wanaka sits a little out of town, on Golf Course Road, with stunning views of the lake, it doubles as the cellar door for Maude Wines during the day and offers fine French dining at night. It has terrific reviews and seemed just the ticket.
The kitchen is overseen by Mario Rodrigues, who promises modern French cooking with a heavy emphasis on local ingredients. Rather intriguingly the restaurant also offers wines by the glass, half glass and tasters, through an Enomatic self-dispensing wine machine.
We were presented with our wine card upon entry, which was used to total up the amount dispensed through the evening, allowing us to match the dishes we had ordered after confirming with a taster, rather than committing to a whole glass up front. On the face of it an innovative system, however not without its issues.
The first being that the card we were provided already had $50 loaded onto it, which caused some embarrassment at the end of the evening when I had to protest that I had in no way consumed $85 worth of wine! Good Lord they should have confiscated my keys if that had been the case. Second many of the wines were not available to taste, so I had to have a glass anyway.
Finally as we were seated directly in front of the machine we did feel a little crowded as our fellow diners clumped together behind us to discuss their choices and serve themselves, presenting a constant stream throughout the evening. Call me old fashioned, but once I’m seated at dinner I prefer to stay that way, not be leaping up and down to help myself to libations, worrying that I am being observed, heaven forbid judged, in the process.
There are two menu offerings, a 5 course degustation, with or without matching wines; and the a la carte. Lamb and fish being the dominant features of the degustation, and not to our taste that evening we elected to go a la carte.
I started with the Crispy Pork Belly with wasabi puree, parsley sponge and the rather airly termed ‘textures of daikon’. Having spent a great deal of time, during my tenure in Japan, preparing daikon in a multitude of ways, I was most entertained wondering how you turn a large white radish, resembling a anemic carrot on steroids, into anything proposing complexity in the relationship between the materials of which it is composed! The little one, with her Gallic fondness for cheese ordered a large slab of french blue to start. A Bleu de Laqueuille it transpired, nowhere near pungent enough but very prettily plated with pears and some unidentified pastes, crackers and bread. And garlic snow.
The pork was most artfully arranged with little blobs of pureed greens, dusted with star anise powder and the ubiquitous snow (WHY?!). The daikon was thinly sliced and deliciously astringent, cutting through the fattiness of the succulent pork belly; and though it provided the dish with texture, in and of itself had not undergone any radical texturalisation process, that I could ascertain.
For mains I ordered the Confit Duck leg, with purple kumara, charred orange, hazelnut and raspberry dukkha with plum chutney. The little one ordered Steak of the day served with black pudding, parsnip puree, broccolini and blue cheese sauce. To accompany we chose buttered baby peas, kale with bacon and shallots; and of course French Fries.
The duck looked amazing, but was sadly a little dry and completely without defence against the force of the dukkah, which lambasted me both with flavour and texture, until I like the duck, admitted defeat.
The little one, having ignored all pleas to not fill up on bread, was also defeated midway. Notwithstanding her steak was both expertly prepared and plated, and the kind staff allowed us a doggy bag, so as not to leave a morsel behind. The accompanying black pudding and blue cheese sauce were gratifyingly rich, and the parsnip puree the perfect foil to their savoury ardour.
The peas did not distinguish themselves, their preparation better suited to baby broad beans I think. The French Fries hearty wedges of what tasted to me like Ilam Hardys, crisp on the outside and floury on the inside.
We were feeling a little tight around the waistband by this point; however the desserts were too good to pass on, so we elected for the Vanilla creme brulee with passionfruit and cream cheese ice cream for me and the Ode to Chocolate: Chocolate brownie, dark chocolate mousse, milk chocolate cremeux, cocoa gel with banana ice cream for the little one.
As I widely acknowledge, I do not have a sweet tooth, and as such do not feel in a position to fairly evaluate desserts; however it was at this point that the kitchen revealed its force majeure. Every element in both the brulee and the chocolate plate brought individual prowess to a synergy of such sweet delight we were in awe. Accomplished and elegant, undeniably sophisticated, particularly the chocolate plate, they were the equal of any Michelin starred dessert I have eaten in France, or in fact the world.
Bistro Gentil is the sort of restaurant that you hold in your heart; a restaurant for special occasions or as balm for the travails of the world. It is the sort of restaurant that you wish was just down the road from you, and for the already lucky people of Wanaka, a jewel that actually is.