REVIEW: David Burton resists the urge to yodel and finds better things to try in Newtown.
When chef Kurt Allain and his wife Melissa arrived from Nova Scotia last year, they weren't intending to stay. Nevertheless, they now find themselves down the end of a lane in Newtown, hoping to make a go of the former Eateria de Manon.
At the entrance to the lane, some rather wonky, distinctly home-crafted signage announces their new venture as the Villa Restaurant and Bar.
But in truth, their "villa" is still the Swiss Chalet as it emerged 30 years ago, when landlord Stanley Noble lavished detail upon detail in the curly-wurly joinery to bring Wellingtonians the fantasy of an alpine retreat worthy of the von Trapp family singers.
At one stage, the restaurant was to be rebranded Do Re Mi, which would surely have been an invitation to yodelling.
No tenant has been allowed to undertake renovations, but Kurt Allain diplomatically insists he wouldn't want to change a thing about this warm cocoon of cheesiness, where a fake log fire twinkles in the grate, even in summer.
Allain's people are Arcadians, the Canadian precursors of Louisiana's Cajuns, who closely identify with the seafood they extract from their icy northern waters.
Like me, my brother, his yachting crew and almost every immigrant from Europe, Allain believes the small blue New Zealand mussel to be both sweeter and tastier than the almighty greenshell - which to mainstream Kiwis is pure heresy.
Blue mussels being the only variety available in Canada, Allain stuck with what he knew and embraced our blue shells with such enthusiasm that when he wrote his first menu, he offered them three different ways. Predictably, patrons complained, some claiming they'd been "shocked" by the small size (when in my experience, the bigger the mussel, the tougher the texture).
The upshot is that Allain has replaced the blue mussels with greenshells, which my brother and I gave a miss.
John being a scallop aficionado, we tested them instead on their seared scallops with pea and mint puree. These had been fried over a very high heat until burnished and golden on both sides, while remaining translucent in the centre - brilliant.
It's a pity we couldn't taste the advertised truffle oil, but the accompanying pea and mint puree was silken smooth and tasty, albeit an unattractive shade of olive green.
Decorating our plates were half the flowers from my front garden, all of which I took to be edible. A fuchsia proved pleasantly peppery, rather like a nasturtium. Pansies, violas and hearts-ease tasted unthreateningly neutral, but I have to say that lavender definitely belongs inside a cake of soap.
Seared duck breast was also nicely browned at the edges and served atop a little haystack of Pak 'n Save-style mesclun, elevated somewhat with raw walnuts, sliced pear and a red wine vinaigrette.
Like John's beef eye fillet, my salmon came nicely rare, its accompaniments working on the principle of sweet with sweet: peeled orange segments, pumpkin and lentil salad, dressed with chilli-hot paprika oil.
A trio of chocolate mousse, layered in a cocktail glass with the white in the middle, sparkled on top with finely ground praline, which added a welcome crunch.
All these good things you might venture to try, should you be in search of a cosy neighbourhood hostelry in Newtown.
THE VILLA, 167 Riddiford St, Newtown
Phone: 380 1100
Open: For dinner Tues-Sun from 5pm
Price range of mains: $26-$35
Cost: $107 for two (excluding wine)
Wine list: 3/5
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY Chargrilled Beef Eye Fillet There's nothing original about this dish, but it's that utterly classic combo which never fails to flatter a good steak: mushrooms, jus and a simple cube of standard blue vein, slowly melting from the residual heat of the meat.
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