There aren’t many good things to come out of the pandemic. Greater appreciation for our country and our families would be among them. New Parnell eatery Va Bene would be another.
Chef Paul Patterson, a Nick Honeyman protégé who spent years honing his skills in Paris, was planning to open a restaurant in New York in April last year. Instead, a visit home turned into an extended stay in Aotearoa and even a stint as a television Romeo on The Bachelorette New Zealand. We have all dealt with covid-19 in our own ways…
Based on the classic corner wine bar you find in upscale French and Italian neighbourhoods, Va Bene is a collaboration between Patterson, Olympic decathlete Brent Newdick (who owns Aperitivo next door) and Parnell hospitality stalwart Esmeralda Kasmara (Bandung, Non Solo Pizza).
The vibe is chic and professional, the food is expertly curated and the place is still testing its wobbly fawn legs, having opened in late May. All signs point to an even tastier future.
Three of us arrive for lunch on a Sunday to find we have Va Bene to ourselves, so we settle at one end of the 24-seat communal table that runs down the centre of the restaurant. Racks of Perrier-Jouët Champagne line one wall and a colourful skull painting grabs attention on the other. Bare bulbs hang casually from the ceiling. No one is trying too hard here.
It’s worth knowing that all seats in the restaurant are barstool height. This is not a venue where you slouch in padded armchairs and ignore your dining companion. You need to be feeling lively.
Definitely check out the wine list and whisky menu – not forgetting the cocktails, which have been designed with help from Patterson’s friends at the effortlessly cool Le Syndicat in Paris. You know you won’t get closer to a night out in a casual-chic Parisian bar for the foreseeable future.
We order a whisky sour, a glass of French rosé (Château Routas 2019) and a tumbler of tap water (Dry July – someone has to do it). These are accompanied by juicy green olives and sliced sourdough served with fragrant truffle-infused olive oil and balsamic vinegar, which is gone so quickly it’s almost embarrassing.
The menu is all about high-quality animal protein: beef bourguignon, duck breast, rib eye steak. Patterson is a carnivore, having become a barbecue master in his years overseas. He has won awards at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (considered the globe’s most prestigious) with his friend Mitch Benjamin, and was head chef at Rosie’s Smokehouse BBQ in Paris. There is a smoker out the back and a focus on teasing out that woodsy umami flavour that makes barbecued food so satisfying.
My advice to vegetarians would be to order the grilled halloumi. The cheese is firm to the bite, smothered in garlicky mushrooms and topped with a few orchid-pink strips of pickled onion and some roasted almonds. It would serve as a filling meal on its own, and you would not feel the least bit shafted.
Each plate comes in small and large versions, so you can decide whether to share or go solo. The immediate hit for our group is the wagyu beef bavette with burnt eggplant purée. The tender beef, a flank cut, is allowed to showboat, with the eggplant offering a dark and smoky accent to each bite. A few brussels sprouts leaves and a couple of carrot spears serve as the vegetable accompaniment. I would have appreciated a bit more veg for $40, but the flavour is phenomenal.
What appears to be a fairly ordinary pan-seared fish of the day is a flavourful surprise, adorned with feijoa and rhubarb salsa and chubby cherry tomatoes that literally burst with salty goodness. The chilli and lime prawns divide our group, mostly because one of us is not a seafood lover, and more fool him. For me, this is the other top dish of the day. The coconut potato purée is insanely creamy. Plump king prawns are sweet and tender, but there are just three of them, and for $28 I would have liked to see a fourth little soldier join the party.
This is my only hesitation about Va Bene. The food is excellent – simple combinations of top ingredients cooked to perfection – but some dishes seem overpriced. Worst offender: a small plate of heirloom carrots glazed with mānuka honey and sitting in a spritz of beetroot purée costs $16 without being special enough to warrant it.
We finish up with coffee and a few bites each of bread-and-butter pudding, one of three sweets on the menu. It is slightly heavier than would be my preference, but the whisper-light vanilla cinnamon cream offsets the bulk. We eat every bit.
To experience Va Bene at its best, I would recommend an evening sitting, with the bar side of the operation in full swing and the communal table really coming into its own. That said, Va Bene is Italian for “all right” and this restaurant is much more than that, even on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
Menu: Large and small plates, $5 to $75.
Where: 131 Parnell Rd, Parnell.
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 11.30pm; Sunday, noon to 4.30pm.
firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 09 600 2840