About a year after he opened Pasture in Parnell, Auckland, Ed Verner’s interest in the drinks department of his burgeoning restaurant started piquing. He’d never employed a sommelier and he was no bartender, but he wanted to bring the same amount of surprise and adventure to beverage as he does food.
Last year, when Pasture won Metro’s Restaurant of the Year, Verner’s six-seat dining room went from struggling to booked-out every night. A bar became the obvious new vehicle for his expression. “It makes sense for me to design a dish and a drink to go with it,” he says.
In late July, the brass letters that make up Boxer were fixed to the bar’s brick-tiled entrance on Parnell Road. Verner and his partner Hillary Eaton, a journalist who recently relocated from Los Angeles, had wavered on the name – it’s Verner’s favourite album by The National - but as plans to open faltered under Covid-19 restrictions, the little bar that nearly wasn’t came out fighting. Against the odds, Boxer finally opened and it sits street front, with Pasture tucked in behind.
This is a chef’s bar and the space is as experimental as the drinks. Akin to a deconstructed kitchen, two islands seat 11 guests, while a record player and a rotary evaporator (the type used in laboratories) are among the few things on display.
There’s no clutter, no mirrored bar stacked with bottles, no glasses sitting ready. Verner and Eaton worked with Nat Cheshire of Cheshire Architects to achieve a space that would tie in with Pasture’s Japanese, new-Nordic inspired dishes and aesthetic, yet still be distinctly different.
“Nat is a long-time friend of Pasture and he was the first person I got in touch with,” says Verner. “My food is simplicity with no clutter and I wanted this to be a super-clean, minimalist space. The cocktails aren’t garnished, the ice is crystal clear, the glassware is lightweight and the space had to have a kitchen feel to it.”
Drinks are made on site or in collaboration (specifically for Boxer) with local makers. There’s a vermouth with Unkel, which is made with plants and herbs from their vineyards and from Boxer’s own neighbourhood, and there’s a white whisky by Thomson ageing in a barrel. And there’s a cider in the works with Peckham’s. Freshly pressed wines from Unkel that are too young to drink are mixed into cocktails – a riesling with parsley and pineapple distillate, say.
As with next door, there are theatrics. A hot poker from the kitchen fire is carried through to the bar to warm a cocktail, a whisky-based drink diluted with coffee-distilled water, which is served with a side of truffle. You get a drink and a show. “Bars haven’t really evolved that much but I think they will in the next five to 10 years,” says Verner. “You can approach anything in any way you like – you don’t have to follow a textbook.”