Review: Country Life
Many moons ago, possibly as early as the 1930s, Country Life began as humble tearooms, a fraction of its current size. A solitary sign out the front simply read "TEA".
However, from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s, a much expanded and renovated Country Life was quite the smartest restaurant on the Kapiti Coast, with a long, intimidatingly expensive wine list that repeatedly won awards.
But after the Spillers sold up the restaurant hit hard times and not even Martin Bosley was able to rescue it.
Back down the ladder it slid, into the lumpish cafe grub of the Vella restaurants, three of which once existed along the Kapiti coast.
Last June, Vella On The Coast was bought by a couple who have reinstated the name Country Life.
Having made a special journey from Wellington in anticipation of a slap-up lunch, I was somewhat dismayed to find they'd posted a sign out front, offering $10 Lunch Specials and $20 Dinners. That seemed a bit desperate.
As I walked to the front door, I noticed a battered sandwich board with homemade lettering reading "Cafe Open", leaning at an angle on the stump that had once been a leg.
We entered and took in the rest of the new look: large mirrors fringed with paua-shell chips, varnished driftwood sculptures and violently coloured Kiwi folk art: cattle frolicking over lime green pastures, pohutukawa blooming in perpetual bright crimson.
Where once were snowy white tablecloths, now are paper serviettes and cheap cutlery on bald, chipped tables of lowly provenance.
Happily ensconced in Country Life's once- magnificent dining chairs, a dozen or so pensioners happily munched their $10 Lunch Specials. Basking in memories of luxury, they conveniently ignored the fraying threads and grubby patches at the corners.
We weren't so thrilled with our fodder. "Oooh! That's not very nice fish," said my father- in-law Tom, a keen fisherman, when I gave him a sample of my whiting.
"Whiting" can sometimes refer to hoki but I believe this was the equally mediocre southern blue whiting, whose inherently soft flesh is rendered still mushier by the standard practice of freezing it at sea.
"It doesn't taste of much," said Pam of her portion.
Despite being a $10 Lunch Special, her Lemon and Coriander Fish had actually sounded more exciting than the Cajun Fish Salad I'd ordered as a $16 main: "Strips of fresh fish lightly seasoned with Cajun."
This begged two questions: didn't they really mean freshly thawed fish? And wouldn't that seasoning involve cruelty to innocent Cajuns?
In reality, the fish was short on all seasonings, even salt. My enticement to order it had been the promise of "Crispy Noodles & Salad dressed with lemon Capper [sic] Dressing," but there was no evidence of said Cappers, or lemon, or even a solitary noodle.
I'd hate to guess what was in the sweet, crimson sauce that blanketed Tom's overcooked Lambs Fry and Bacon, or in the neutral brown goo over a deeply average lamb shank and mash.
There were none of the promised portobello mushrooms with the Vegetarian Corn Stack, the hero of which was "Kumara, Corn and Coriander Fritters".
The fritters didn't taste of fresh coriander, which was probably just as well, for if they did, I suspect the clientele here might complain of a queer medicinal taint. Adding mashed kumara to the fritter batter was a mistake, since it made the fritters even doughier than they already were.
Asked to explain the platter of bread and dips, our waiter appeared totally flummoxed. Obviously no previous customer had caused this much fuss.
Eventually it transpired that one dip was sundried tomato pesto with blue cheese (I couldn't taste the latter), while the other was dukkah, a coarse, basic homemade version with coriander seed, sesame seed and cashews.
I've had better.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
It's a vicious circle: the slower your turnover, the sadder your cake cabinet begins to look. I ought to have warned Pam against ordering the second-last custard square; sure enough, its once crisp pastry had softened with old age.
The filling of a raspberry tart tasted of bulk extender, making a slice of fresh carrot cake the highlight of our meal.
Hurry along and you might get the last slice.
8 Main Rd, Waikanae Ph: 04 902 6200 Fully licensed Open for lunch and dinner Price range of lunch mains: $13.50-$18 Food: ** Service: ** Ambience: ** Wine list: ** Cost: $93 for two (excluding wine)
The Dominion Post