When Viva steps foot inside Pasture, co-owner Laura Verner has accidentally burnt the buckwheat. The room has a peculiar savoury smell, although it could just as easily be the open fire that the chefs fan periodically, embers crackling. Barely anything here is cooked in a pan. Large cuts of meat are charred on the open flames, pork smothered in hay until it catches, crayfish brought to the table on smoking manuka branches.
It’s only been open since August, but already Pasture has become one of the most talked about restaurants in Auckland, no easy feat in a city sprouting new openings faster than hay catching fire. They serve degustation to only 20 diners at a time, but despite its exclusivity, it’s not the sort of place to worry about the mess you’ve made on the tablecloths (there aren’t any).
Pasture is perfect, with room for improvement. That is to say, this restaurant would make a top 10 list in almost any city in the world, but we don’t live in San Francisco and I’m a little concerned that elements of this cutting-edge culinary experience may be too much, too fast, for some guests. Opening a modern Nordic-style restaurant in Parnell is a bit like opening an Apple Store in Selwyn Village.
I’m thinking mostly about the winelist, which is other-worldly in terms of its scope and imagination, but will be an unexpected challenge for anyone whose usual technique involves picking a known varietal from a known region. There is a pinot noir but it’s not from Central Otago and doesn’t taste much of pinot noir; there is a sauvignon blanc but it’s from Adelaide and fermented on skins which colour it orange; there is one sparkling by the glass, a chardonnay (it’s pretty orange too).
Pasture is a very small restaurant. There are twenty five seats for dinner, and only four in the early afternoon. From midday there will be sourdough, made from New Zealand grains, milled on site. You will be able to buy some to take away and happily nibble on the crust while you enjoy a cup of Kokako single-origin coffee at a little breakfast bar, close to the entrance of the main restaurant. From there you’ll be able to watch, through a set of uniquely designed sliding wooden panel doors, as Ed and Laura Verner and their team prep for the evening’s service. This is fine dining, but not as we’ve come to know it.
Two years of pickling and fermenting and preserving and tasting have gone into Pasture, and it hasn’t all been successful. Some things just didn’t work, so there’s been a great deal of trial and error and there will continue to be as the restaurant evolves.
The menu will change with the seasons and with the chef’s ability to get hold of different ingredients. When you book, ask to sit at the pass next to the open coal fire – those flames are integral to how everything is made at Pasture. “It’s an unmatched flavour that you get from cooking this way,” says Verner, “so we cook everything we can over coal.”
I would say this is thoughtful food, but it’s more than that because it’s hard for restaurants to challenge what customers expect from them. They’re taking a risk and aren’t afraid of whether the public will like it. Well, of course they will, it’s great.
I like Pasture, and I like that Ed and Laura are part of a movement towards slower restaurants. Places where the focus is on quality and responsibility, where there is an opportunity to educate us on where our food is coming from and why, as the Earth’s temperature rises and we start to change the way we’re eating and the way we think about food.
They don’t shout very loud about any of this. They just live and cook in a way they think is right, and quietly show punters there is more to life than perfectly trimmed fillet mignon.
Squelching through muddy bush tracks in Maraetai on a damp July day, it’s hard to believe there is anything remotely edible in this dappled green glade. But chef Ed Verner thinks differently. He’s frantically plucking leaves and offering tastings.
There are kawakawa leaves — hot, green and bitter. Further on in the clearing wild jasmine flowers — sweet and fragrant. Next, wood sorrel — lemony, tart and tasty. Hold on, gorse petals? Yes, that prickly farmers’ nemesis happens to have edible flowers. Bright yellow and snappy tasting, they too may just end up on a salad plate at Ed and his wife Laura’s new pastorally-inspired Parnell restaurant, aptly named, Pasture.
“We like to see plants that most people see as pests, as opportunities,” she explains while plucking an onion flower in a grassy Clevedon glade. It’s a fitting philosophy for a couple whose wedding pictures were taken in a field of wild carrot flowers. Indeed, the same flower also features on the business card for Pasture. This new age-old age, fine-dining restaurant is powered by open-fire cooking and draws on local organic ingredients, many of which are sourced from Clevedon Valley, where the couple have spent the past few years.
With our basket full of leafy bounty — we’ve also collected feijoa, fig, quince and lemon leaves, along with manuka, bottlebrush and citronella geranium — Ed explains how he may put these leaves to work.
“I’ll bruise, ferment, then air dry them; oxidisation produces interesting new flavours,” he explains. Some he’ll leave fermenting to use in vinegars — he’s already made an aromatic spruce needle vinegar that goes well with mushrooms — while the dried leaves can be used in preserves, juice concoctions or even as fragrant additions to the smoking tray above his kitchen fire. Ed’s also planning to make jasmine lemonades and aperitifs such as elderflower wine, fermented juices, shrub concoctions, kombucha and nut milk combinations.
Experimentation and creativity are big factors in Ed’s cooking. He and Laura had a taste of this approach while working at Kadeau — a Michelin-star restaurant in Copenhagen that spearheaded the new Nordic cuisine movement, which promotes local and seasonal produce. The idea is to transform the tastes and smells of the region into unusual culinary combinations: think fermented flowers and preserved berries suspended in honey.
Their experience at Kadeau — Ed worked in the kitchen and Laura in the extensive garden — had a marked impact on their vision for their own restaurant. But there have been many other sources of inspiration, through work in other restaurants in Europe, Australia and New Zealand and their world travels.
“I spent a lot of time in Japan and those miso flavours have really influenced my cooking,” says Ed. Japanese hospitality also had an impact. “After a meal, the chef would follow you outside and wave until you were gone. I love that.”
The idea of genuine service without pretension appeals to this low-key couple, who are determined to give diners not just a mouth-watering meal, but an experience to match.
And what an experience it will be. The custom-built restaurant on a quaint cobbled lane in Parnell is all wood and stone, with a focus on a crackling fire. The intimate dining space, with a capacity of 25, will be centred on three chefs, who will be accessible for conversations with diners — when they’re not wrestling with a roasting beast on a spit. The waiters won’t just be there to hustle plates, they’ll be storytellers, conversing with customers about the provenance of the food and wine, all of which will be local and organic.
This idea of using all parts of a product, whether it’s honey and beeswax or an entire animal, rather than 30 cuts of eye fillet, fits with Ed’s ideas for a sustainable restaurant.
“We have to think about our food as a valuable resource. You wouldn’t believe the amount of wastage in restaurants. If it’s not ordered, it’s thrown out. We aim to take one ingredient and put it through many processes.”
That means he may order an entire cattle beast and make different dishes from each part — for instance, scraping the bones for a beef miso soup and curing the more unusual parts, like the neck. As for vegetables, he may use the perfect cabbage leaf for fine-dining nights and make sauerkraut for their more casual and experimental Sunday bistros. A set menu also reduces wastage. But not creativity. At Pasture, six courses will be offered, along with organic wine or juice pairings. The menu will list only ingredients, the dish will be a surprise.
“I don’t think you can put us in a box,” Ed says. But if you could? Inside you’d find a crackling fire roasting something smoky and delicious, freshly baked bread, homemade preserves, organic wine and perhaps even the odd gorse flower.