Never waste a good crisis as they always say. Esther opened in 2020 in the midst of an imminent lockdown and poor economic outlook. But it survived the challenging time and came out stronger.
Inspired by travels chasing the food of the sun, renowned head chef Sean Connolly uses home-grown ingredients to share flavours of the Mediterranean. 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.
British born, Sean’s experience in the kitchen spans the globe, from cooking on the QEII to working in high profile restaurants across Sydney, Adelaide, Dubai and here in Auckland, which he refers to as his second home. Earning celebrity chef status, Sean has an impressive collection of awards and chefs’ hats, plus his own broadcast and documentary series.
In Sean’s eyes, a chef is like a Hollywood set designer, delivering the whole package. Design, music, lights, theatre, magic – and then food. Collaborating with Nic Graham and the QT design team, Sean has lent inspiration to making Esther a light, airy and welcoming space to emulate dining in a friend’s home.
The open country-style kitchen sets the scene for a homely welcome to Esther’s wistful European charms. Produce is theatrically prepped for a sustainable menu that focuses on local daily caught seafood.
Under the direction of the hotel’s Executive Chef, James Laird, Esther features a menu of authentic Mediterranean dishes boasting flavours from Spain, Morocco and Southern France. 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.
Hummus, dukkah, Lot 8 olive oil, bittersweet paprika
I grew a serious affection for hummus ever since I had them almost daily in Tel Aviv, and I will order this dip when I see it on the menu when there’s house oven-baked flatbread available as well. Lot Eight is one of New Zealand’s top producing cold-pressed olive oil growers located in Martinborough. The rich and fragrant oil with the dukkah and paprika spiced up a wonderful dip.
Mixed marinated olives
A mix of different olives marinated in a spicy brine and vinegar mix. Delicious.
Ortiz anchovies on toast, salsa verde
I always keep a can of Ortiz anchovies in my pantry for that emergency. This appetiser gave me inspiration on what to do when I feel peckish at home. The baguette toast was the right companion to the oily, salty anchovies. The salsa verde was served on the side.
Hokkaido scallops, morcilla black pudding, pumpkin
Morcilla is Spanish blood sausage that uses pork blood and fat. The sausage filling has been mixed with rice, onions, garlic and spices to make wonderful blood pudding. The salty pudding is paired with a sweet pumpkin mash. This side dish has totally overshadowed the pan-grilled Hokkaido scallops, which was simply seasoned with salt and chives.
Diamond Cloudy Bay clams, parsley, sherry, garden pea, sourdough
Harvested from the 3 to 5 metre surf zone, the Diamond Shell clam is naturally full of plump meat. The clam exhibits a fresh, fragrant scent of seaweed, with a rich, buttery flavour and a discreet nutty aftertaste. The clam juice is cooked with a splash of sherry and pea reduction and spruced with parsley.
Coastal Spring lamb shoulder, roast garlic, anchovy, Moroccan olives
There is loads more on the menu including great pastas and big communal dishes. We ordered a slow-cooked Coastal Spring lamb shoulder that had been properly spiced and accentuated with an anchovy sauce for the salt, Moroccan olives and garlic for the flavours. The meat simply fell off the bone and the best part of this roast was the soft bone tissues on the rack.
Coastal Lamb is sourced from 17 families from the east and west coasts of New Zealand’s North Island and has no muskiness associated with lamb. It is used by many Michelin chefs including Taian Table.
Highgrounds (Timaru) Porchetta, salsa verde
In the shadow of the Hunter Hills, North Canterbury just outside of Timaru lies Highgrounds, a 370-hectare farm raising free-range pork that has been owned by generations of the Cottle family. The quality pork was used in this expertly executed porchetta with a crusty crackling on the outside and succulent, juicy meat on the inside. This was paired with salsa verde and lemon.
Duck tortellini, pecorino brodo, porcini
Tortellini are pasta originally from the Italian region of Emilia. Traditionally they are stuffed with a mix of meat, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, egg and nutmeg and served in capon broth. Here, these Italian dumplings (tortellini) were filled with shredded duck and served with a sauce (or brodo) made with Pecorino cheese and mushroom (porcini).
Petite green leaves, witloof, baby gem, chervil, hummus
OK, I am always confused with chicory, endives and witloof. All are yellowish (although there’s a reddish version as seen above), slightly bitter and used in salad. I could taste the chervil (French parsley) in the salad, but the hummus in the middle of the plate was perfect as a dip for these crunchy leaves. There’s a shortage of lettuce all across NZ (and Australia), so the baby gem was not present on the plate.
2020 must have be the most difficult year in modern history to open a restaurant but Sean Connolly and his team deserve congratulations, possibly a round of applause and, the best accolade of all, a busy room of diners happily eating his wonderful food.
The service and food had been top-notch, and the ingredients were nothing but the best New Zealand can offer. Maybe it’s because of the way the interior had been arranged, the decibel of the chattering in the restaurant was quick distracting and difficult for a quiet night out. However for business dinners, this was perfect.
4 Viaduct Harbour Ave, Auckland CBD, New Zealand
Tel : +64 9 379 9123
Visited in Jun 2022