It’s a clever restaurant indeed that can both transport you to other climes, and make you feel right at home. That is precisely the power of Esther.
On a sodden evening where biblical rain has left mini-rivers where the kerb should be, Sean Connolly’s stunning new Auckland restaurant – inside the just-opened QT Hotel – is both comforting refuge and delicious escape. High-ceilinged and open, yet warm and inviting, the space has been cleverly created to give you the sense of dining in the home of a friend (albeit a rather well-off one).
Rustic chic is the order of the day; at huge poured-concrete islands heaving with glossy fresh produce, you can watch kitchen staff in cream linen aprons prepping your meal; little recesses built into the islands gleam with crockery in everything from earthy organic hues to bright leafy greens; copper and ceramic bowls are placed here and there, a wood-burning brazier blazes its cheerful welcome. And then, the wow-factor focal point – the colossal ‘disco ball’ oven, made by Marana Forni in Italy, and decorated here with tiny gold tiles. We watch, mesmerised, as a creamy-white pillow of puffed bread goes around on a Lazy-Susan-style rotating base. It’s like Netflix for the bread-obsessed.
In an unusually close collaboration for a designer and a chef, Sean worked with QT interiors whizz Nic Graham to bring their joint vision to life. They’ve collaborated on every detail, from the exact colour pistachio for the French Molteni stove right down to crockery.
The décor in the main dining space is a nod to the waterfront location - large mesh shapes in black, gold and silver – reminiscent of fishing nets - hang from the ceiling, and an imposing giant urn studded with barnacles is like something hauled from the sea.
Sean Connolly in the kitchen
And then… ah, the food. Top chef Sean – formerly of Sky City’s The Grill and Gusto at the Grand fame – had a lot on his plate in bringing Esther to life. Living in Sydney with his family, he had a closed border to deal with, and a lot of the planning was done remotely, much of it via video calls with executive chef James Laird and staff. But after flying here for the opening, and of course the mandatory two-week isolation, here he is. And here it is, Sean’s labour of love, a restaurant named after his grandmother that speaks to everything that, for him, is the essence of Mediterranean culinary magic. You won’t find an exact replica of, say, a Moroccan tagine, here; what you will find in abundance is that holy trinity of Mediterranean ingredients – salt, lemon and olive oil – and dishes that speak in a flurry of regional accents. Food fragrant with memories - of a cafe in Sicily, a tapas bar in Jerez, a souq in Marrakesh.
Bouillabaisse and Charcoal Bull Horns
Plate after plate is placed before us, each one the perfect marriage of European-inspired flavours and local produce, with a focus on sustainably caught local seafood. The snacks: taramasalata with salmon caviar, chives and olive oil; a salumi plate with pickles – the meat soft as silk; vegetable fritto misto with salted egg yolk aioli; escabeche of Cloudy Bay clams with white wine, sea herb salad and chilli.
Escabeche of Cloudy Bay Clams with White Wine, Sea Herb Salad and Chilli
That puffed bread lands before us – prick it with a fork and it deflates like a sigh, ready for tearing and soaking up the oil from the tomato and Spanish onion salad. And a highlight – proof that excellence and simplicity are mutually compatible – the Ortiz anchovies on toast. Perfectly pitched saltiness, crunchy wafer-thin toast, herb-laden salsa verde. If I was served only these all night long, I’d think I was in heaven. Or Cantabria.
Whole Butterflied Gurnard with Gremolata
Then comes the pasta – bucatini in a lemon and saffron sauce, buttery and beautiful, with a grating of fresh parmesan. Next the ‘big’ plates: whole butterflied gurnard with gremolata – with every single bone removed; spatchcock chicken, harissa, and cavolo nero cabbage. And the chef’s pick – slow-roasted merino lamb shoulder with roast garlic, anchovy and Moroccan olives. The duck fat potatoes served alongside are a garlicky delight, as is Sean’s spin on Greek salad – barrel-aged feta, Moroccan sundried olives, tomatoes, cucumber and red wine vinegar.
By this stage we are in a divine stupor, believing ourselves unable to eat more. But then the Basque cheesecake appears, so light and creamy, it is more akin to flan than any dense New York-style version. My portion is cut in front of me, straight from the gooey, crumpled baking paper - another homely touch.
Barrel-Aged Feta, Moroccan Sundried Olives, Tomatoes, Cucumber and Red Wine Vinegar
I could wax lyrical about so much more – the friendly and discreetly attentive service, the cosy glow from the metallic pendant lights over the islands, the cheese trolley with its ‘come-hither’ slabs of brie and blue under their individual glass cloches, the beautiful packets of Curious Cropper tomato seeds gifted as you pay the bill… but best I just let you go make your booking so you can see and taste all of this for yourself.
Bon appetit… and happy travelling.
Sean Connolly in the kitchen
Visit Esther's Instagram here.
Esther QT Auckland
4 Viaduct Harbour, Auckland