Exploring Upper Riccarton

PATTIE PEGLER
Last updated 09:40 29/08/2012

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From a Chinese bakery to a Dutch café, Upper Riccarton is a great melting pot.

World on a plate

Driving into Upper Riccarton from Yaldhurst Rd, the last thing you probably think of is a culinary adventure.
But tucked away behind the slightly unloved shop fronts at the top end of Riccarton Rd are some surprising spots offering delicious and unusual edibles from all corners of the world, so instead of driving on, take a left and park behind the Church Corner Mall. While the footpaths along Riccarton Rd might seem empty, back here there's a whole different vibe. The car park is bustling, people are out shopping and this hidden-away area is thriving. When you start to look around, it's not difficult to see why.

People head here for Asian specialities from shops such as the Red Bean Chinese Bakery, just behind the Church Corner Mall. The bakery has been here for 3½ years and the woman behind the counter says that while they do get some Kiwi customers, most of their clientele are Asians longing for a taste of home. Cream and custard rolls are among their best sellers and there are plenty of other sweet treats, from cute little bags of delicate green-tea biscuits to coconut loaves. For those with savoury tastes, there's an impressive looking "pork floss roll" made with shredded pork and herbs.

A couple of doors along, the China Town Market is a great one-stop shop for anyone who likes to try their hand at Asian cooking. It's stuffed full of exotic ingredients, some of them slightly baffling and difficult to identify, but that's part of the fun. This is authentic stuff and you're unlikely to find most of it in your suburban supermarket.

Inside Church Corner Mall, it's more about eating than shopping. Foodsing Chinese restaurant has been around for eight years, but has recently been taken over by new owners, Naomi Liu and Art Zhao Zi Tao. Originally from China, they've both lived in Christchurch for several years.

Naomi says there is a good community feel among the Upper Riccarton business owners. She believes Church Corner is a very good location. "People that come here can choose from many places."

On the weekday lunchtime that Avenues visits, Foodsing looks surprisingly busy with diners lured by an exhaustive menu. Popular dishes include whole crispy fish with sweet chilli sauce and the crispy hot duck, Art says. Their customers are about 80 per cent Kiwis and, like many of the businesses around here, they're open seven days a week.

Just opposite is another longstanding Chinese restaurant, Yummy. A couple of doors further down, a smart-looking Japanese restaurant, Sakura, is hidden behind dark, wooden doors. There's always something slightly daunting about entering a restaurant when you can't see inside, as if you might be about to walk into a private family party, but push open the doors to Sakura and friendly staff immediately make you feel welcome.

The restaurant itself is small - just one room with tables down either side, but they've resisted the temptation to cram in too many people and the minimalist decor gives a spacious feel. We pop in for a quick lunch. Everyone has told me to book in advance, so I do, and arrive to find an empty restaurant at 12.15pm. But half an hour later, it's nearly full with mostly Japanese diners, so the booking advice is worth heeding.

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From a set menu, we opt for vegetable tempura and chicken yakitori. Both dishes come beautifully presented on flat black plates, accompanied by tiny bowls of rice and miso soup. The chicken yakitori is delicious - tender pieces of chicken skewered with delicately cut vegetables, while the vegetable tempura is crispy and light. The service is quick, the food superb and it's reasonably priced, with lunch dishes costing $12 to $15.

The dinner menu is more extensive and more expensive, including sushi, sashimi and other Japanese delicacies. The chef at Sakura previously worked at upmarket Japanese restaurant Sala Sala on Oxford Tce, which was badly damaged in the earthquakes. So, if it's authentic Japanese cuisine you're after, this is the place.

On the other side of the mall is one of Church Corner's long-term residents, Shih-Yen Chen, of specialist tea shop and café Tea'sme. Originally from Taiwan, Shih-Yen is passionate and hugely knowledgeable about teas. Not only is the shop full of some of the world's finest teas, but you will be offered tips on how to brew them perfectly.

There are black teas, white teas, green teas and different blends of fruit teas. More unusual options include oolong teas such as Iron Goddess, a semi-fermented tea, but for something really unusual try a bubble tea. A traditional Taiwanese tea-based drink, it can be made with a variety of options, warm or cold, with green or black tea, with tapioca or coconut jelly. Shih-Yen makes me a cold, green tea-based drink and it's absolutely delicious and refreshing, with a hint of sweetness.

When Shih-Yen first moved his business into the mall in 2007, things were different and there were fewer Asian businesses. The Japanese restaurant was a beauty salon; there were a couple of pharmacies, a bakery and a wool shop.  "It was more European ... but now it's more multicultural," he says. Business has been good for Shih-Yen, particularly since the quakes, as shoppers have moved away from the central city.  
But he would like to see the area "tidied up a little bit", including cleaner pavements. With a lot of different landlords involved in the mall, getting agreement on communal issues can be difficult, he says. However, he's fully committed to Church Corner and believes there's a lot of potential for the future. "It gets better and better every year. People and businesses are thriving around here."

Next door, an Asian grocery displays crate upon crate of pak choi. In stark contrast, the next shop is an elegant little Japanese bakery, Patisserie Yahagi. Owner Eri Yahagi moved to Christchurch with her family nearly seven years ago. She originally trained as a patissier in Tokyo, but also did a one-year pastry course at CPIT. Eri opened her patisserie in 2009 and the following year won two gold medals in the Bakery of the Year competition.

Not only do her delicate creations look and taste good, they're also a little lighter on calories than many of her competitors' offerings. The Japanese influence on her baking has Eri finding ways to make her treats lighter and less sweet than traditional Western baking. Milk might be substituted for cream, oil might be used instead of butter and fresh fruit might replace heavy icing as decoration. The "tarte au poir" is superb and a slice of orange pound cake tastes so light and fresh it seems positively healthy.

Heading out of the mall on to Riccarton Rd, there is a distinctive purple and orange House and Garden shop. Tucked away inside is the hidden oasis of café Seven. The interior is surprisingly spacious and there's an outdoor seating area, covered with a marquee and fully heated in winter. From here, you can look out overthe mini jungle of plants for sale.

Serving counter food, à la carte dishes and blackboard specials, Seven attracts a mixed bunch of customers from students to business people and shoppers, manager Di Richardson says.  It caters for them all with good, home-style food. "There are no muffin mixes in this café," one of the owners, Margaret Tate, says.
When Seven opened its doors in 2006, the area was a lot quieter. "Back then, there was nothing between Riccarton Mall and Hornby," Margaret says. Since then, she has seen the area become increasingly food-focused.

Across the road in the Bush Inn Centre, Dutch café Van Dam's is hard to miss, with its orange signage and display of wooden clogs. "We've never tried to pretend we're one of these flash, modern cafés and people quite like it, as it's a bit different; it's quirky," manager AJ Van Dam says.

When the café opened 12 years ago, customers were mostly from Christchurch's Dutch community. Now, says AJ: "It's second and third- generation Dutch and we have a good mixture of Kiwis and other nationalities.  A lot of people are becoming a little bit more adventurous about what they eat and more ready to try new things."

Previously located on Riccarton Rd near the Church Corner Mall, the café moved over to the Bush Inn Centre in 2008. "We've seen some changes. It was a good café at Church Corner, but we found that the whole area ... there wasn't a lot of money put into it by landlords. In our café, we had issues with the roof leaks and so on."

So when a place came up in the Bush Inn Centre, the business moved and it's worked out well. Trade has been brisk and there's been a further upsurge since the earthquakes.

Much of the food in this family business is imported from the Netherlands. AJ's father, Kees Van Dam, started the import business first and then a café, which took off. Now, the café also houses a deli section full of Dutch specialities, including almond cakes, liquorice and big round cheeses.

If you've never tried Dutch food before, AJ suggests the Dutch croquettes.  Crumbed on the outside, and filled with beef, chicken, spicy beef or salmon, they are served hot, with bread and mustard.

A sweet option is a Dutch doughnut - the batter is made with apple and sultanas, then deep fried and served hot with a dusting of icing sugar. "It's very healthy," AJ jokes.

There are also three-layered toasted sandwiches, Dutch pea soup, milkshakes and hot chips with mayonnaise. Dutch food seems to be all about delicious ways to stoke up on cold days.

Whether you're looking for a quick bowl of noodles or a full-on three-course dinner, one thing's for sure. You are spoilt for choice in Upper Riccarton. From Japanese to Thai, from Kiwi to Dutch - this is one foodie area that's on the way up.

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