Lunch at Riverstone

For our last day in South Canterbury, we decide to take a trip south, crossing the Waitaki River into what I guess is actually North Otago. We are going to have lunch at the café at Riverstone Kitchen, Cuisine Magazine's Casual Dining Restaurant of the Year in 2011, and supreme winner in 2010. Hoo ha! Exciting stuff.

But first, we head to the much maligned Waimate; Ma and Pa had been to a little café there that they wanted to show us. It is called the ArTrio Café, and it is run by three delightful expat Malaysian fellas - they have been here in Queen Street since 2009. They serve Malaysian food, freshly ground coffee, baking, and display art on the walls of the café.

We just go for coffee, as we have lunch plans already, but the service and hospitality we receive is warm and friendly, and the coffee is excellent. They bring out complimentary Malaysian cookies and a green tea chaser - superb. The café itself is a mishmash of op-shop furniture, and has pretty lamps and tables - it is actually kinda chic. Their menu looks intriguing, as do their baked goods - I will definitely check it out next time I am down.

And then, on to Riverstone.

Around midday the place is pretty well chocka - it is fortunate that we have booked. We take our seats at a lovely table on the deck overlooking their glorious market gardens (luckily, it is in the shade too - it is a sweltering day). Our waitress brings a drinks menu, and I order a Three Boys pilsener (from Christchurch), which I neck in record time (it's hot!), before joining Plus One and my parents in having an impeccable Camla Farm cider (from Dunsandel). Boy, amazing cider - fresh, and bright and crisp; very thirst-quenching. Medicinal, almost.

The menu - concise, straightforward and entirely to the point. And on point. It is clearly designed to showcase the quality of the produce grown locally - much of it on site. There are fish and chips, and a lamb pie, a chicken and quinoa salad, salmon, stuffed zucchini flowers, corned beef with pickles - I would, most probably, happily demolish any of these. The menu changes and evolves with the seasons, and with this in mind I pay particular attention to the specials. Today, they are a roast chicken with polenta, and fresh mussels in a coriander, ginger, garlic and coconut milk broth - bingo! Sounds like just what I feel like.

(There is also a five- (or six-?) course set menu, but even with my mighty eating chops I am not up for this today.)

To start, we share a tasting platter (see pic). For the four of us, at $28, it is more than generous - it is laden with tasty morsels to whet the appetite. There is a pea pesto, some confit (I think?!) pork, some eggy frittata with a cherry jam, salmon, chicken bites, prosciutto with gorgeous sweet, milky buffalo mozzarella, and what I think is my favourite bite - chopped, fresh, tangy apricots with goat cheese and a sweet, tangy balsamic reduction; amazing.

We have all ordered different dishes, which means I get to check out a smattering of the menu. Father has the Okaahu lamb pie (with champ, smashed peas and gravy), mother the prosciutto, cherry, Meadowcroft goat's cheese and vincotto, Plus One the other special (roast chicken with polenta, kohlrabi and snow peas).

When the food arrives, everything looks bold and confident, and - that word again - generous. My bowl of mussels is huge - I count 15 of them, not bad at all. P1's roasted chicken features a whole breast, Pop's pie sits handsomely atop some fine-looking mash and gravy, while Ma's salad features huge, juicy cherries and crumbled goat cheese, with gorgeous thin slivers of fine prosciutto.

The mussels are excellent - just lightly cooked in the sweet, delicious broth, and there are a couple of chunks of a fresh sourdough to mop up the juices and broth. Nothing is too strong or overpowering, and everything tastes of itself and is in harmony with the other ingredients. Everyone seems pleased with their meals - little or no menu-envy, which is a less common state of affairs than you might imagine.

This is world-class cooking, with first-class ingredients - chef Bevan Smith knows what he is trying to achieve, and how to deliver it in a busy, bustling café-restaurant. It is food of a higher standard than is delivered in many of our (much-touted) wineries, for which you can probably thank the quality of the produce, together with the clever flavour combinations and overall attention to detail.

I would love to try dessert (they are apparently excellent), but, honestly - I am absolutely stonkered. I don't feel bloated or "bleaurgh", but I have been well fed - I do manage a coffee (of a type I have coined the "medium black" - exactly halfway between a short and long black - clever, huh?).

So, then, an excellent and thoroughly recommended dining experience, and easy to see how it has struck a chord with so many diners. It is a polished and stylish enterprise whose food and service are right on point, and I would love to come back and try the tasting menu - something to try next time.

Anyone else been to Riverstone? Your verdict? And other North Otago eateries worth a go? And - any fans of ArTrio Café in Waimate?!

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