REVIEW: Cafe: One of Wellington's lesser known tourist attractions is the "Stampede of the Suits" each lunchtime at Nikau Cafe.
On the dot of 12 they storm in through all three entrances, power-dressed and bearing their tribal neck adornment the swipe card on a lanyard. Chatting on their cellphones as they sit down, they take a break from shouting at each other about money just long to mouth an order for the kedgeree.
The undying loyalty of such patrons cannot be called into question, as shown in 2008 when co-owner and maitre d' Paul Schrader and business partner/chef Kelda Hains were forced by the Wellington City Council to mothball their cafe for nine months while earthquake strengthening went on in the adjoining City Gallery. On the day they reopened, Hains recalls, the same customers came in, sat at the same tables and ordered the same dishes.
Very conscious of how busy Nikau can be, my friend Bhakto and I made sure we were there early, at 11.20am, for morning coffee and also to get the best table in this sharply angular house at the end of the banquette, in the corner of the apex, with a commanding view both of the spectacle and of Civic Square.
Not being office workers ourselves, Bhakto and I had begun our morning with a swim at Freyberg Pool, where an exhibition in the foyer is shortly to be devoted to he who lost the Battle of Crete by planning for a sea invasion, when Allied intelligence had correctly predicted it was coming from the air.
Before lunch at Nikau, we toured City Gallery, marvelling at the ethereal beauty of Philip Beesley's scented "Vesica" installation.
Then we admired the intricacy of Paul Maseyk's ceramics, before sighing at the facile pretentiousness of an office chair and a roadwork cone laid on their sides in the middle of the gallery floor.
Following a Hansel and Gretel trail of rags hanging from the gallery's ceiling ducts, we reached an even more bemusing exhibit, hidden away in an obscure nook.
A bunch of folded-up metal security gates displayed a line of padlocks, the last of which remained unlocked. Did this perhaps signify the potential for Zionist expansion as a response to Nazi persecution?
No, it did not: these really were security gates and beside them was a big stack of chairs. We had strayed into the gallery's storage area by mistake.
Having printed their kedgeree recipe on a tea towel, Nikau shores up the legend still further by manuka smoking its own fish in-house every two days. A generous portion of beautifully fresh, subtly smoked white flesh formed a chunky bed beneath a small pile of kedgeree, the famous 1920s version, which, besides the usual rice, onion, hard-boiled egg and curry powder, had just enough cream to bind the dish and no more.
Lois Daish has a great kedgeree recipe like this in her book A Good Year, and Schrader is her son-in-law. Say no more.
To prove there's life after kedgeree, Hains and her team have also taken to making Nikau's own pasta the cutest, most intricately shaped miniature shell called cavatelli. Served with freshly roasted red pepper, deconstructed morsels of my favourite fresh sausage (Island Bay pork and fennel seed) and just a suggestion of tomato, what was there not to love?
Being a rush-rush restaurant for busy drones with time constraints, lunch here is lunch, without the niceties of an entree followed by a main course. For those of us who do wish to have a civilised three-course lunch, the solution, as suggested by the friendly but efficient waiting staff, is to order one of their two composed salads to share as an entree.
A bed of prosciutto, dots of silky smooth goat's cheese, some rocket leaves and truffle oil lightly sprinkled over slices of very fresh button mushrooms, mandolined very thin: such simplicity, such perfection.
All wines being by the glass, I never pass up a chance to drink Millton's lovely weighty, fruity chenin blanc, and so ordered a glass straight up.
Do stay for dessert, even if you are in a hurry.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Feijoa Icecream with Walnut Brittle
As if smoking their own fish and rolling their own pasta were not enough, Nikau also churns its own icecream and gorgeous it is too. Having come straight from the icecream churn, mine had a delightfully stretchy texture similar to gelato. A good, honest sprinkling of bittersweet walnut brittle added contrasting crunchiness and lifted the dish to signature status.
101 Wakefield St (at the edge of Civic Square).
Ph: 801 4168
Open Mon-Fri 7am-4pm, Sat 9am-4pm, Sun closed.
Price range of mains: $14-$25.50
Wine list: ****
Cost: $84 for two (excluding drinks)
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