SKYCITY Grand Hotel
90 Federal Street
(09) 363 7030
6.30am - late
I didn’t expect to like this place and I don’t really know why. Maybe because you have to walk through a hotel lobby to get there, and past experience tells me that hotel restaurants are not always to be relied upon. Anyway, I walked in a skeptic, and then I was served housemade ricotta with pine nuts and honey, and told to spread it onto garlic and rosemary pizzetta – served ever so casually in a cardboard pizza box – and I was sold. This casual all-day bistro is perfect for the Grand Hotel, it loosens the whole place up. It takes all that sparkle and turns it into substance.
This restaurant was originally the home of dine by Peter Gordon – the Father of the Federal Street dining precinct, the pinnacle of starched white table cloths and crystal glassware. At Gusto, they’ve opened the space right up, transforming it from the ever-so-slightly sterile grand dining room it was into a casual, welcoming all-day bistro.
The music is louder and more fun, and there are tactile wooden surfaces and fresh flowers dotted about. It’s still grand though, don’t get me wrong. The kitchen bar is marble, as is the pasta-making station – where a chef rolls pasta before your eyes. Those same glittering chandeliers hover above you while you eat, like UFOs. The waitstaff are crisply dressed and quick to refill your water glass. Ours was knowledgeable and thorough, and she made perfect lunch recommendations.
Gusto is Italian in style and attitude. The menu is intended for sharing. It’s no fuss, hands on, and a little bit dramatic. For me, the tone was set by that aforementioned ricotta, which I will continue to eat in my dreams. We also tried a vibrant tuna crudo, piled high with green apples and radish. Then we moved our huge eyes to the mains, sampling the wild boar ragu served on a pile of perfect fresh pasta. The ragu was gamey and rich, with a surprise addition of bright green peas.
Somewhat foolishly, we also ordered the kingfish tail. I say foolishly only because I think it could have served a family of four. It emerged fully formed, and our charming waiter carved it up for us, teaching us how so we’d be able to do it ourselves next time. It was a sight to behold, wrapped in prosciutto, covered with capers and sage. These were flavours that caused me stop, slap the table and exclaim, which is probably an embarrassing habit for fellow diners.
We were full. We were more than full. We ordered Rum Baba (it had been recommended, you see). An unassuming slice of cake was set down before us, then doused in rum and set on fire, then hidden beneath a small hillock of marscapone. Divine flavour combinations. Heavenly. How did it go out of fashion? Why? The fact that I’ve not eaten this dish until the age of 28, is a travesty.
The food at Gusto won me over. The fit out is nice, yes. The giant octopus painting is pretty cool. But the food is exceptional, and I think this place will hold its own on Federal Street, even with all that good company.