While last year's fire at the Sofitel was undeniably a disaster, its effect upon the Jardin Grill has been cathartic.
The rebuilt restaurant may look exactly the same, with its sumptuous furnishings and its dark cocoon of wallpaper based on the classical Dutch flower paintings of Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750). But the clean sweep of staff has been total, and necessary.
This time round, waiters exhibit poise, charm and thorough wine knowledge. Executive chef Roy Giam has been head-hunted from Charley Noble, pastry chef Mariah Chua Xin Yuan from Hippopotamus, and best of all, from Jardin's mediocre opening wine selection, John Saker has been called in to write a list which now ranks among the best in Wellington.
As when the Grill first opened, the smell of burning manuka fills your nostrils upon entering the vast dining room. Management won't say how the restaurant fire started, but looking at the crackling logs of the woodfire grill, I was reminded of the spark which merrily danced up a flue and caused the conflagration at The Bresolin.
I'm glad I ordered the woodfire-grilled asparagus, which tasted subtly but distinctly of manuka smoke, since this meant I didn't feel compelled to eat one of the five grilled steaks on offer. Steak is all too often my last resort at lesser restaurants, but here, impressively enough, I was able to work my way through a full un-steakhouse menu, beginning with a cauliflower velouté. Creamy and subtle, a quenelle of tarragon mousse was melting its way across the surface of this soup, along with a heartsease flower set in gel. For contrast, there were pearls of salty salmon roe, making this dish perfect for the new breed of reducetarian, suffering the pangs of meat withdrawal.
Catch of the day, snapper, was fractionally overdone – perhaps for the sake of achieving its appealingly crisp skin. Accompanying squid was underdone, but the basic concept, in which this duo was rounded out with squid ink sauce, fennel, cucumber (both pickled and fresh) was fully coherent.
I saw through both these courses with just a single glass of wine, thereby justifying spending $32 on the Coravin ritual, whereby the maitre d' injected a needle through the cork and stole 100ml from a bottle which would otherwise be far beyond the average customer's pocket – a 2015 Domaine Morey-Coffinet "En Cailleret 1 er Cru" Chardonnay from Chassange-Montrachet in Burgundy.
Expecting a steely, austere Chablis-style chardonnay, I did indeed get a mineral aroma, but underlying that was full-bodied, opulent fruitiness which, dare I say it, seemed remarkably Antipodean.
My guest meanwhile, was drinking a glass of 2016 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($20) that I could smell from the other side of the table.
This had all the potency needed to match a hearty entrée of Atlantic scallops, sauce verte (essentially a salsa verde), a smoky semi-dried tomato and a Jerusalem artichoke wafer. It was delightful, even if both salt and chilli dominated slightly.
Chilli too, had an unannounced but unmistakable presence in the Wagyu Beef Bolognese, with house-made farfalle pasta, butter-fried sage leaves and shavings of pecorino.
Dessert, Le Jardin du Printemps – a series of icecreams, mousses and gels with a seasonal theme of roses and lychees – was laid out like a formal garden, complete with "shrubs" of green sponge, thus telling a corporate story: in each of their hotels, Sofitel likes to find a tie with France, and here it's between the nearby Wellington Botanic Garden and Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris.
From disaster then, has emerged a triumph, worthy of this luxury hotel chain.
Sofitel Hotel, 11 Bolton St
Ph: (04) 472 2001
Open 7 days for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Price range of mains: $28-$58
Cost: $153 for two (excluding wine)