Dining 200 metres above Auckland, the Harbour Bridge flashing in the distance and the city rippling with lights, is a unique experience.
With views this spectacular, there’s a danger the food will be overshadowed – that it’ll fail to compete with the fascination of scanning Tāmaki Makaurau from above, the night-time blackness of the Waitematā and the jigsaw collage of buildings.
The Sugar Club, fortunately, has no intention of succumbing to its setting. Celebrated chef and fusion-cooking trendsetter Peter Gordon may be gone but the seasonal, contemporary cuisine here is still worth seeking out.
My partner, Cass, and I made a relatively last-minute booking, securing the last remaining reservation on a Saturday night: 9pm.
The elevator ride to the 53rd level (the same floor thrill seekers pay to jump from) takes you to a sophisticated space wrapped around the circumference of the tower, with a bar just off the entrance.
Among the curiosities on the drinks menu are concoctions called Aoraki and Hangi Pit from the "Native Cocktails" series. With the stated aim of creating a liquid portrayal of New Zealand, the mixologists at The Sugar Club are clearly confident in their powers. Whether or not their drinks capture aspects of Aotearoa, who can say?
The creativity on display is commendable, and the bar itself – with its low chairs beside floor-to-ceiling windows and the literary touch of a bookcase against the wall – is a sleek, artfully decorated space.
Cass and I, however, skipped the cocktails and headed straight for our table, which was nestled right beside the window. The dining area was busy, but not full.
While we waited for drinks and perused the menu, we took turns pointing out the obvious landmarks, such as the large "Whatever" neon sign at City Works Depot. The Sky Tower usually dominates downtown Auckland, but like the French writer who reportedly ate lunch in the Eiffel Tower every day to avoid seeing it, our vantage point was finally free of the beautiful needle.
Richly adorned space
But enough about the views.
It’s hard to find online, but according to our waiter, the head chef at The Sugar Club is Henney Lee. Gordon, who founded the Sky Tower venue in 2013, left in 2020 to start his new restaurant and cooking school, Homeland, in Wynyard Quarter.
An Instagram post announcing his departure includes photographs of the exquisite Massimo Micheluzzi vases he chose to decorate The Sugar Club, a space richly adorned with dark wood, brass fittings and marble in apparent homage to the romantic age of travel in the 1920s and 30s (the bathrooms feature portholes looking out over the city).
Cass and I opted for the à la carte menu ($115 per person), which lets diners choose one each from a selection of entrées, mains and desserts. Vegetarians are well catered for, too: a plant-based tasting menu is $139 each, with beverage pairing an extra $80. The more-carnivorous tasting menu, which includes a lamb dish with sumac and celeriac, is $159 a head.
Before we got into the menu proper, our waiter served us kūmara sourdough with whipped butter and two fresh oysters. Continuing with the seafood theme, I opted for the malt-cured salmon with daikon, roe and diced apple for an entrée. The finely diced salmon was covered with ribbons of daikon which, while beautiful, were a little bland. The fish itself, though, was delicious and made salty by the roe, which also peppered the venison tartare Cass ordered.
A streak of puréed roast capsicum brightened the plate I got for my main: roasted celeriac pie, the pastry flaky and with just the right amount of crunch. The dish was served with zucchini and smoked chickpeas flavoured with paprika, a hugely textural addition that contrasted with the softness of the sliced zucchini rounds.
Cass got the market fish. The snapper came with lemon yoghurt, water chestnut, cos lettuce and chunda (a kind of mango preserve).
All of the dishes were well presented and our waiter, who was attentive and pleasant throughout (he started by asking if it was a special occasion), didn’t offer any tedious or pretentious explanations. However, when asked, he pulled up a chair and sat beside us to talk through the flavours.
We got two desserts, but "The Figgin’ Goat" was the clear star: fig-infused chocolate crémeux and honey ice cream with goat-cheese sauce. I’d be hesitant to add goat cheese to any sweet dish of my own making, but in this instance it worked beautifully, adding a tangy creaminess that complemented the fig slices and the crémeux.
And with that, we were done, whisked back down to street level where we could, once again, look up at the tower and wonder at the symbolism of its lighting (one of the waitstaff informed us of a website, whyistheskytowerthatcolour.co.nz, which offers explanations).
For anyone looking for a dining experience with a view, aside from in-flight meals, The Sugar Club offers the most elevated eating in Auckland. And given it costs $35 just to go up the tower, the prices are hardly sky-high.