If I had to name the café which I thought to be the most effortlessly accomplished in central Wellington; which most consistently delivers a high standard of food that is contemporary (without being overly foofy or trendy) and delicious, in a pleasing environment, with agreeable, appropriate service, then I'm reasonably certain that that café would be Nikau Cafe, next to the City Art Gallery.
I have written about Nikau before - but that was about breakfast, and the much-vaunted sage eggs, and about how I had heard so much about them that I was kind of willing them to fail, to be less extraordinary than I wanted them to be, just to disprove all the yea-sayers. They weren't, though. They were delicious.
But still, that was breakfast, and this is lunch - a meal I rarely make it out of the Cuba precinct to eat. My buddy PJ has just shifted offices and been lunching with me rarely, and I suggest that we up the stakes a little from my steady diet of Malaysian, falafel and cheap Tuesday pizzas, and get classy. I moot that we go to Nikau for lunch.
Now 15 years old (despite being closed for a period for earthquake strengthening), Nikau has aged gracefully. Its fitout still looks fresh and contemporary, its location next to an art gallery lending it a pleasing ambience (much like the way Quilter's Bookshop lends its leather-bound literary vibage to another of my favourite city cafes, Milk Crate, in Ghuznee Street).
Do you know what I think sets a really good café apart from those that are just okay? One word - confidence. I reckon to do good, smart café-style food, it is the quality that makes you feel most at ease. Relaxed, confident, capable service that doesn't make you feel edgy or pressured, that lets you know that everything is going to be just fine for the next 45 minutes that you will be in their hands. That gives you every confidence that the food is going to be good, because the wait staff already know that it is going to be!
Also, I think the best possible combination for running a café efficiently is owner-operators who know their business, one of whom runs the kitchen and the other the front-of-house - think Jacob and Sarah at The Larder, or, at Nikau, chef-owner Kelda Hains and her front-of-house business partner Paul Schrader (whose name I like to sing to the tune of Paul McCartney's Jet, thus; "ah mater - Paul Schrader...") Everything here is very professional, because they are very professional, and this comes through in everything they do.
The food - ah yes, the food. The place is pitched just slightly higher than your average "coffee and a muffin" joint - it feels more like going out for a meal, less like grabbing something on the hop. It feels like a treat, and a bit special.
So I feel I owe it to myself to eat something a bit special. PJ opts for the classic Nikau lunch dish, the kedgeree - light, perfectly seasoned and delicately flavoured, with house smoked fish (courtesy of Yellow Brick Road), it is pretty well perfect. I order a salad (and you thought all I ever ate was burgers and curries!), but this is no ordinary salad - it is a persimmon and radicchio salad, with oozing taleggio (one of my favourite cheeses!) on crostini, with toasted hazelnuts. It is meticulously flavourful, and fresh and vibrant, and is an ingenious use of a fruit (the persimmon) that I always struggle to know what to do with. It is light and fresh with oozy luxury from the cheesy crostini, and (mental note) much more like what I should be having for lunch.
We wash it down with a zingy house-made old-fashioned lemonade, then decide a bite of something sweet is in order - an impeccable apple tartlet, with a blob of freshly whipped cream.
A superb lunch, then - as good as lunch could (and should) be, delivered with fresh, seasonal ingredients and classy service in a pleasing environment. We bump into Paul on the way out ("JET - WOOOOOO, OOOOHOOO OOOHOOO...") and thank him for a great meal - he isn't actually working, just grabbing a coffee, and I think it is a real testament to him that the café still runs like a well-oiled machine, even when he isn't at the wheel.
One of the finest cafes in the city, easily, effortlessly, I reckon. Top drawer, and no messin'.
Where is your favourite "treat" lunch café? Been to Nikau? Your verdict? And - what do you reckon separates a good café from a great one?
Please join The Omnivore on Facebook