The first thing to be said about the Cuba St Bistro is that although bohemian, it's clean.
The wooden floors are swabbed, the dust is cleared, the wine glasses sparkle, the crockery is squeaky clean.
All that I could see needed upgrading was the grimy nylon flushing cord in the men's loo.
For Cuba St Bistro, you see, is the rebranded Roxy Cafe, which last February was the surprise standout in a list of 30 Wellington eateries temporarily closed for serious breaches of hygiene regulations.
Co-offenders included Royal India, Golden Crown Restaurant and Satay Palace.
How rich that three of Wellington's dirtiest eateries should be so regally named.
But not so the Roxy, which always stood for the common people - now even more overtly so as Cuba St Bistro.
Big black and white photos around the walls are a paean to the Quarter: Cuba Mall as it looked in the sixties, a demo of the unemployed during the 1930s Depression.
In the best hipster tradition, the walls themselves are of exposed brick.
Chandeliers here replace candles dripping from old chianti bottles and the napkins too have moved on beyond red paper serviettes to posh, stiff white linen, beautifully folded to contain the cutlery in a pouch.
Nevertheless there's no pretence here to anything beyond honest bistro fare.
There are one or two attempts at fine dining nonetheless, as in 'Crab ravioli with crab beurre blanc and chili oil'.
I don't know why I ordered this dish, since it was unlikely to match the freshness and excellence of crab ravioli I'd had at Waimea out on Waikanae Beach a couple of weeks previously.
Actually I do know why I ordered it: I'm obliged as a critic to pick whatever is most technically difficult.
Well presented, the portion was unusually generous: a neat stack of three big round ravioli where often you only get one.
But alas, as soon as I cut into the first ravioli, a fishy odour assailed my nostrils. This impression was confirmed by the excessively fibrous appearance of the crab flesh. Pooh. As for the beurre blanc, there was no flavour of crab that I could discern, only the distracting sting of chilli.
My guest seemed pleased enough with her rosti; against the evidence of the mushy morsel she gave to me to taste, she insisted her grated potato had been intact.
She loved the watercress, but not having read the menu properly, she didn't realise the rosti came with wood-smoked salmon, all of which got handed over to me and wolfed almost as quickly as my dog gobbles his dinner. Each to his own taste.
Then she asked our sweetly obliging waitron if the only chardonnay by the glass on the list was a nice one.
This is the point at which every waiter must feel tempted to reply, 'Of course it's nice, otherwise it wouldn't be on our list, you git!'
Instead ours went off and brought back 15ml for my guest to sample, which is what I call service.
It passed muster, as did the shiraz recommended on the menu for my sirloin (One Thing You Should Try).
Chicken is not something either of us would normally order at a restaurant, and after a certain to-ing and fro-ing between the waitron and the chef as to the cut (first it was going to be thigh, then breast, then thigh again) we judged it competently cooked, if a tad lacking the zing you'd expect from a lemon and thyme marinade.
I'd have sprinkled the meat with more lemon juice and added a fresh thyme sprig on serving.
Creme brulee was nice, but excessively runny; accompanying blueberry compote was too sweet, a biscotti plain stale.
I did want to like this place.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Char-grilled Sirloin Steak with creamy mash, red wine braised beef and roasted bone marrow jus. This came as a great thick torpedo, tasty and juicy, with jus, spot-on mash and lovely chunks of cooked bone marrow fat which I sliced into tiny slivers and melted over each forkful of meat. Unfortunately the little chunks of braised beef steak were dry, and, as invariably seems to be the case wherever I dine out in Wellington, a steak ordered 'rare - very rare' came medium rare. I'd try getting around this problem by ordering my steak blue, only I'm concerned some chef would take me at my word and serve the beef raw and still cool in the middle, which is not the same as rare at all.
Cuba St Bistro 203-205 Cuba St Ph: 890 3939
Fully licensed and BYO
Open seven days for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Price range of mains: $21-$32
Wine list: 3/5
Cost: $96 for two (excluding wine)
- © Fairfax NZ News