Restaurant review: Victoria Street Cafe
The Victoria Street Cafe these days feels cosy and lived-in, just as you'd expect. The wooden floors bear the patina of 16 years' wear, but the magnificent centrepiece - sculptor Dennis Berdinner's stone and steel water fountain - now works better than ever, thanks to a new tap.
The customers here (many are regulars who book tables) also seem cosy and comfortable in their own lived-in skin: Boomers, Gen X office workers, city council executives, visiting Aussie cruise ship passengers, retirees leisurely reading the paper. As is to be expected for a place no longer even trying to be cool, young people are mostly here on account of their parents.
The older generation will appreciate the loose leaf tea served in proper pots, and the cafe is especially recommended to the hard of hearing: there's no loud music and although the place can fill up at lunchtime, patrons behave with polite restraint and good manners.
But if the interior seems sedate and orderly, then the incessant lunch-hour foot traffic on the footpath outside is wildly entertaining. Like the Lido over the way, this cafe's floor-to-ceiling windows follow the curvature of the room around the corner into Victoria Street, making it possible to track the progress of an interesting-looking pedestrian over a 180-degree arc.
The lunchtime fare is conventionally pan-European - tasty, competent and unchallenging. Chicken Noodle Broth is fashionably garnished with fresh coriander, but the broth itself is a traditional, labour-intensive French consomme, unsullied with fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar or chilli. Properly clarified and translucently golden, it tasted pure and natural. The accompanying egg tagliatelle and sliced chicken breast were faultless. Granted, the dressing for the Grilled Beef Salad with cashews and crispy noodles does include the afore-mentioned Thai seasonings in its dressing, but none in such quantities as to overpower a glass of Pencarrow Pinot Noir, which in structure is not that far off its top-tier sister, Palliser Estate. Although the wine list here is minuscule (choice of five) it's worth looking at on account of the generous pour, measured to a high-tide mark on each glass. I ordered Halloumi, Pea and Mint Fritters for old time's sake, since this (or something near enough to it) was Chef Ady Verberne's signature dish, which stayed on the menu at Trade Kitchen for years. This rendition was up to the old standard – spongy, light fritters, pleasantly studded with the promised green peas and nuggets of halloumi. The richness was nicely balanced with a dollop of sharp salsa verde and a salad of semi-roasted tomatoes, sweet and juicy.
Since a great deal of the trade here is with baked items and salad bowls from the counter cabinet, the service has evolved into a happy, efficient hybrid between numbered flags and convivial table service. The Vic Cafe's ultimate recommendation is its longevity: you don't last for 16 years unless you are doing something right.
ONE THING TO TRY
I suspect many of Wellington's dining public have never tasted the original poached gnocchi, which makes these little pillows as ethereally light as clouds, quite the opposite of the baked or fried gnocchi which have become the industry norm. Chefs must realise that fried or baked gnocchi are heavy and inferior, but persist with them because they are so much easier than having to poach the wretched little beggars, which all too easily fall apart upon boiling and lead to overflowing tempers amidst the stress of service. The beauty of the Vic Cafe's poached gnocchi lies in its dramatic contrast to the rich mushroom and gruyere sauce.
VICTORIA ST CAFE
Cnr Victoria & Bond Sts
Ph: (04) 470 7752
Open: Breakfast and lunch: 6.30am-4pm Mon-Fri; 8.30am-4pm Sat-Sun.
Price range of mains: $17-$20
Cost: $60 for two (excluding drinks)
Ambience: ★★★ 1/2
Wine list: ★★★ 1/2