It was back in 2018 that Plabita Florence first burst onto Auckland’s dining scene with a pop-up series that she called Forest. Serving an array of groundbreaking, plant-based cuisine that used unexpected flavours and unique ingredients to harness the potential of vegetarian food in a way that no one had done before, Florence quickly grew Forest from pop-up to permanent space, taking up residence on Symonds Street in 2020. The restaurant was cosy and inviting, with seating for up to 17 patrons only and a three-course set menu that changed every week, designed to showcase the freshest seasonal produce with a particular focus on highlighting the untapped potential of some of the lesser-used vegetables.
But earlier this year, Florence closed her Symonds Street address to expand the Forest concept yet again and now, she has finally opened the doors to the newest iteration of her renowned restaurant, with a charming space on Dominion Road.
“At Symonds Street, we used to change the menu every single week and often heard people complain that they’d missed a dish they wanted to try,” Florence tells me. “I put in a hell of a lot of culinary research through that weekly practice of changing the menu though, and now I feel like it’s time to turn the learnings from that into more of a classic menu.”
At the new Forest, diners will find a more traditionally structured, a la carte menu that marries mainstay dishes with seasonal specials and still plays into Florence’s experimental, exciting and exceptional culinary approach. From entree-sized snacks like ‘Upside-down Broccoli’, which sees the vegetable lightly-battered, fried and served head down in a pool of green-olive mayo, to larger mains that are designed to share and a number of mouthwatering sides and add-ons like Florets Bakery sourdough served warm with ‘old wine butter’, which Florence explains as “wine dregs reduced to a tasty syrup and whipped through with warm, salty butter,” the food offering at Forest is, as expected, a gastronomic journey.
“I try to make things delicious first, and play with them after that,” Florence tells me, explaining how her approach to food had changed since those early, experimental pop-up days. “No one cares how clever you are as a chef if it doesn’t taste good first,” she continues, “I think that’s a lesson we all have to learn at some point.”
Despite the slight format change to Forest’s menu, Florence is still keeping seasonality close. By harnessing what is in season, Florence hopes that her diners might garner a deeper understanding of how to cook and eat in line with it, and by extension, how to adopt a more sustainable, waste-conscious approach to dining.
But beyond all that, she wants people to have fun, to feel welcome and to expand their palettes. In fact, the whole underlying idea of the new Forest space has been to capture a kind of child-like whimsy, where the interiors (complete with crayon-decorated walls, interior foliage and beautifully rich tones) make for a playful, unpretentious vibe. Bringing them to life was, it seems, a family-friends affair, with Florence crediting her brother for helping with the build, her grandmother for coming out of retirement to create the striking stained-glass window above the front door, her friends Hannah Broatch and Mason Rattray of Hatch Workshop for their design contributions (including hand building the cork table tops) and Emile Drescher for his exceptional woodwork.
Florence hopes that her dishes will be able to tap into that wonderful intrigue of childhood too and ignite the imaginations of her diners, emphasising to me that there’s no need for dining out to feel stuffy. “I think it should be special,” she articulates, “but it can also be funny, silly or a bit surprising… I like to do something different.”
Now, the result of Florence’s vision is finally being realised, with the doors to Forest having officially opened from this morning. Given that originally, this day was supposed to be back in January, this is a big moment for the restaurateur. “Being able to open our doors feels huge,” Florence says, lamenting the significant and frustrating construction delays she came up against in her journey to get to this point. “I’m excited to get back to cooking for people and doing something I’m good at!” Along with being open for dinners, Forest will also, for the first time, be open during the day too. From 7am, the team will be serving Kokako coffee and satiating bites (including a particularly delicious-looking olive oil cake with rhubarb, runny custard and a dusting of apple skin sherbet).
So whether you’ve long followed Florence and her exciting offerings at Forest over the years, or are just discovering her unique culinary approach now, she is a chef to know and her restaurant a spot to keep firmly on your radar.
Tuesday — Saturday, 7am until 2pm
Wednesday — Saturday, 6pm until 10pm
243 Dominion Road