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By Heather• 18 Aug 2017
Rita is found at…... 89 Aro Street, a new venture by the Nikau folks.
You can expect….. to feel right at home. The villa was built in 1910, the same year co-owner Kelda’s grandmother Rita was born. Hence the tradition in some of the dishes, and using whatever produce is available like slow cooked lamb neck or stewed apples. But executed with the lightness and deftness of hand we’ve come to expect from the Nikau team.
The other thing you absolutely must do here is trust the kitchen. With an ever-changing three-course set menu for $65 (meat-based or vegetarian), not printed, and tweaked daily depending on the season and their mood, you are totally in their hands. In fact even Paul didn’t know what the apple dessert was going to be when he ran through the menu for us at the start - a true surprise for all!
They will, of course, check for dietary requirements and allergies, but otherwise just sit back, decide what to drink, and simply enjoy the food and pleasure of each other’s company. Just like being at a friend’s house.
We ingested…. Endive leaves with Hawkes Bay orange to get us in the groove (complimentary), followed by a Kingfish tonnato with salmon roe (an extra treat Paul easily talked us into while our three courses were being crafted), a kahawai cauliflower starter with wonderfully intense dried Gewurtztraminer raisins, slow-cooked lamb neck chops with field peas and excellent house bread (an off-the-cuff experiment with whey, which worked a treat). And finally, the apple ‘surprise’ – apple charlotte with buttermilk-lavender ice cream and miso caramel.
The endive was light, fresh and crunchy, in preparation for the melt-in-the-mouth marshmallowy Kingfish to follow. And the rich lamb fell apart as eaten, a lovely foundation for the silky smooth Drunken Nanny goat cheese, with again, lots of texture and freshness from sprouts and radishes to round out the dish.
And the highlight of the apple charlotte for me – the intensely flavourful, yet not overpowering, miso caramel. Just as well I don’t live in Aro Valley, or they’d never get rid of me.
The drinks…. are also a small list, but cover all the bases. You can choose from a house-made soda (plum shrub on this occasion), Hardieboys ginger beer, Fever Tree tonic water, three beers (yes, including a Garage Project from next door), and pretty much one of each wine varietal (glasses range from $12 to $16). If you fancy something a little more cosmopolitan, you could try a Nikau quince vodka and soda, or a Cocchi Rosa Americano on ice.
The service…. was friendly and relaxed, with lots of conversation between diners and staff, as if we were friends already. The calm unhurried vibe is an absolute reflection of the team's experience.
What tickled me most… were the slide-out cutlery drawers beneath each table. With a nod from Paul prior to each course, we'd dive in and arm ourselves using whatever cutlery we liked. Although, I have to confess we did come unstuck by the last course with no spoons left. The cutlery was also wonderfully tactile, and one member of our group might have been subject to a frisking before departure. We'll call her Miss S.
The chip fiend was also heard to say out loud that he’d finally found a restaurant where he could eat his own meal in peace without sharing. Who does he think he's kidding?
What to keep an eye out for in future…. more experimentation based on the seasons and ingredients available.
NOTE – Rita is evenings only Tuesday to Saturday, with two staggered sittings from 5.30pm and 7.30pm. Because they’re an intimate space, table numbers are limited to six people.
Georgia meets maker and baker Brigid of Milk Crate cafe.