Place: As a Brit, a few years ago the word Matterhorn simply referred to the giant pyramidal mountain peak straddling Switzerland and Italy. A place I'd probably never visit, but one that sounded magical nonetheless. I can now call myself an Aucklander (I once pre-ordered takeaway breakfast from The Unbakery, which is ample qualification), and the word had a similar distant reverance until a month ago when I heard it was headed north (see, I AM an Aucklander!).
The original Matterhorn is the deep, moody and mysterious heart of Wellington's Cuba Street, where it has existed in the form of a coffee house, bar, restaurant and music venue since 1963. It's not much of a stretch to term it a Wellington institution, in fact, and is known for an esoteric coolness. Perhaps it's the fact attitude is privileged over appearance - guests can turn up in ripped jeans and scuffed-up chucks and still be treated to a club house experience, seven days a week. It's now got a second home in Auckland, transposed to the building that previously housed Libertine.
People: Matterhorn is one of a number of restaurants Mark Keddell and Sean Marshall (both formerly of Pack & Co restaurant group) have recently acquired, alongside White Rabbit (previously The Crown), and Snapdragon. They began by subtly renovating Matterhorn Wellington in November, bringing new life to a format that had been untouched for 12 years.
Sommelier and deservedly ubiquitous restaurant host, Gary Olasz, is behind an interesting wine list, and Matterhorn Wellington's Riki Carter has been borrowed to invent one of the most exciting cocktail menus that can be found in Auckland. I should also mention Seb - the waiter has been flown up to teach the Auckland team 'Wellingtonness' . He is indeed the real deal, epitomised by the fact he also moonlights at Weta Workshop.
On the menu: There are nods to the capital's menu with unique twists - Duck and Brioche translates to Duck Wellington up here, while the advantage of a charcoal barbecue in the Auckland kitchen means veal rib is served with an authentic criss cross of black char lines.
The restaurant's owners are moving so swiftly between projects that I ask whether Executive Chef Sean can relate to Paul McCartney's admission that he's written so much material he often lands upon songs he's already created when trying to think of a new one. He laughs in agreement, but notes that "Unlike pop songs, old dishes can be dropped and picked up again five years later and evolve into something even better than before".
He gives the example of their intensely rich and fragrant Market Seafood Consommé, which originated in Wellington a decade ago when Sean was in residence as a chef. He reinvented the dish years later at fine dining restaurant Roxy in a cold, jelly form, and the it is now back with sophisticated vengeance on the Auckland Matterhorn menu.
Game and wild rabbit are staples which are served alongside seasonal vegetables and continually reworked to perfection. Dessert is a similarly rich affair, with the Rum Baba providing a theatrical final course thanks to an at-table flambé session using Stolen Gold rum, which douses a cigar and orange syrup-infused cake. It's a fitting end to an altogether, well, 'sexy', menu; the kind of diet you'd imagine Mad Men characters to live off.
Decor: Matterhorn's chocolate brown sheepskin rugs, amber frosted glass and gas tealights would be just at home in an upmarket Swiss ski lodge. I'm not sure if this is an intentional nod to its geographical namesake or simply an attempt at recreating Wellington's mysterious hipster cave feel. The space is incredibly well-divided – a refreshing change from Libertine's expansive feel. Exposed brick and character details of the heritage Victoria Park Market shell are thoughtfully drawn attention to.
Go tomorrow: For a sophisticated yet laid-back dinner, a tasteful Friday night of cocktails and dancing to live music, or for Sunday snacks in the sunny courtyard.
Address: Victoria Park Market, 37 Drake Street, Freemans Bay, Auckland
Open: Monday to Saturday: 3pm till late, Sunday 1pm till late.