Cafe review: Astoria
There's something deliciously posh about the way 'Astoria' rolls off your tongue.
Fittingly then, Astoria has the air of a grand European cafe, partly thanks to its dark wood and burgundy interior, but mostly because of its sheer size: the counter and rear bench area alone would fill Midnight Espresso.
Astoria comfortably accommodates 150 chatterboxes, its indoor seating spilling to the archetypal umbrella-dotted terrace, facing Midland Park.
Now in its late teens, Astoria is still pumping.
Breakfasts are pure madness (I'm told 100 covers are not uncommon), while by mid-morning the place is a sea of suits, ranging from government ministers and CEOs down to humble office toilers, not to mention the odd lobbyist and journalist.
Then there's a brief lull around 11.30am before the onslaught of lunch.
The coffee, roasted to one side of the dining room in a vintage machine, is very good.
Customers seem to like the fact that you order, pay and then wait for your espresso at the counter, which makes for swift service, particularly if all you want is counter food, as most people do.
Having been around since 1996, Astoria has become an institution - a dangerous status, since it encourages tall poppy syndrome, viz the litany of nitpicking gripes on various customer review sites over the net, including the inevitable allegation that the place is beginning to look tired - despite all the signs of a recent spruce-up, such as the reconditioned front doors.
One sure way to keep things fresh is to bring in a new chef, preferably one with an established reputation like Peter Collins.
Collins is best known for having worked with Mark Limacher at Ortega Fish Shack and Cafe Bastille before that, but his CV also lists Britain's legendary Roux brothers.
Really, Collins is a little too good for a daytime coffee house, but having recently turned 50, he wants to see more of his wife and kids.
Astoria's cooking, needless to say, is splashed with fresh colour, even though the conservative tenor of the menu remains: minute steak sandwich, veal schnitzel, Louisiana-fried chicken.
However, it is now possible to conduct a comparative tasting between tinned sardines and fresh: come into Astoria for breakfast and have sardines from the can (with toast, chopped shallots, lemon, cracked pepper and paprika salt) then return for lunch for the full revelation.
Fresh sardines are an epiphany - at least, they were for me.
Sourced from Solander Seafood in Nelson, my pair were spanking fresh and thus surprisingly mild in flavour, for all their oiliness and faint fishy tang, which men tend to love and women to hate.
Encouragingly, Collins gets eight to 10 orders daily for these fresh sardines, which are boned, beheaded and butterflied, then dipped in a welcome disguise of panko batter and pan-fried.
They come with waxy potato, celery, an oily dressing of celery leaf pesto, dill and chopped chives - the genius touch being tiny cubes of Moroccan preserved lemon.
Around the Maghreb we continue, to Tunisia and its famous brik.
Filo replaces the rustic warka pastry of the original, but Collins has retained the traditional crisp parcel, which he crams with feta cheese, always yummier when served hot, and seemingly less salty too.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Coriander & split pea dip with feta & Astoria bread The dip is simplicity itself - just roughly mashed split peas, onion, garlic, olive oil, a good dousing with lemon juice and the merest suggestion of coriander seed. But with crumbled feta and a more than token garnish of freshly shredded mint, the dish springs to life.
Astoria, 159 Lambton Quay
Phone: (04) 473 8500
Fully licensed, no BYO
Open: Mon-Fri 7am-7.30pm, Sat-Sun 8am-4pm.
Price range of mains: $18-$20
Cost: $70 for two (excluding wine)
Food: 4 out of 5
Wine list: 3.5/5.
The Dominion Post