Cafe Neo surprises despite trepidation
132 Willis St, Wellington
Phone: 04 385 9553.
Hours: Monday to Friday 7am to 4pm, Saturday to Sunday 9am to 3pm.
Sounds: None detectable above the hum of conversation and the hum of what sounded like a refrigeration unit.
Coffee: Gravity. Hot, strong, perfectly silky foam on top. Actually quite good. 5/5.
Mags: A well-stocked rack with design and interior magazines, a few copies of The Dominion Post.
Clientele: Mostly middle-aged, appeared to be regulars.
Try this: Roast chicken, bacon & avocado sandwich on grilled sourdough with lettuce, tomato and aioli; served with fries ($16.50).
To be honest, I didn't expect much from Cafe Neo, but a recent visit changed my mind. The interior feels dated - wooden floors, older wooden chairs and tables, and big blackboard menus on dark, reddish walls make the place feel smaller than it actually is.
The menu, too, feels like it would be at home in the early part of this decade - a mishmash of cafe-style food that might have been trendy 10 years ago, but now feels boring and same-old: a chicken curry here, a Thai beef salad there, burgers and a pasta of the day.
But it was actually Cafe Neo's website, with its unappetising photos of various menu items, that almost made me want to skip the place entirely. While the photographs may have been well-intentioned, a misguided use of the camera flash has made everything look awful: pallid, washed-out fish, limp-looking bacon, grey-tinged poached eggs. After seeing these photos, I was expecting the worst.
But when we visit on a recent weekday around lunchtime, I'm pleasantly surprised. The first of the surprises is how popular it appears to be - the place is busy, and there are only a couple of tables for us to choose from.
Pleasant surprise No 2 is the coffee. I've ordered a flat white, without specifying my usual preference for a smaller tulip cup. It arrives in a large cup, and my heart sinks a bit. But then I taste it - it's hot, strong, and not too milky; the foam on top is perfectly silky. I breathe a sigh of relief. This is good. And then our food arrives, and it looks nothing at all like the photos on Neo's website. I've ordered "the mash stack" ($15.50; a stack of field mushrooms, tomato, spinach and hollandaise atop what is described as a "gourmet mashed potato cake".)
The "mashed potato cake" turns out to be a generous helping of mashed potato, roughly shaped into a disc and fried just enough for it to hold together. The field mushrooms are tender, there's plenty of spinach, and it feels hearty and healthy all at once. However, it's not the most exciting of meals, and I'd prefer a bit more hollandaise.
I think I'm suffering from food envy, though, because my date has picked the delicious-looking and smelling roast chicken, bacon and avocado sandwich. At $16 it's a bit pricey, but this is one solidly respectable sandwich: sturdy toasted bread, perfectly cooked bacon, plenty of roast chicken. I sneak a few bites and keep wanting to go back for more.
To finish, we share what is quite possibly my new favourite slice in Wellington: Neo's caramel macadamia slice.
It's a hulk of a slice - a substantial shortbread base topped with a thick layer of soft, moreish caramel and a crumbly macadamia topping. It's exceptionally good, but exceptionally sweet - sharing is recommended.
The slice is only one of a wide selection of equally delicious-looking slices sitting behind the well-stocked counter.
There are also several salads to choose from, some sandwiches, quiches, muffins - typical counter food. A sign behind the counter proudly proclaims everything is "made @ Neo by Neo".
Cafe Neo may not be on the cutting edge of Wellington cafes. But it has its charms: well-made cafe food, good coffee, and the most delicious slice I've tasted in a while. Judging by the number of people there, it seems to be doing fairly well. But they need to reshoot their website photos to reflect what's truly going on there.
The Dominion Post