I love Riccarton House Bistro's logo. Under the deer head and name, you find: "Est. 1856."
That's taking a big chunk of historical licence - the idea that the bistro goes back to the Deans' arrival because it's in the old family homestead - but it's a bold, fun wink.
When we arrived it was a teeth-chattering minus-something outside, but inside the huge open areas were surprisingly toasty thanks to underfloor heating installed as part of the big post-quakes upgrade.
This was our first visit, and the walls lined with deer heads shot by various Deans nearly 100 years ago explained the deer head motif.
The bistro is part of a growing food empire that includes the big weekend farmers' market operation around the homestead, and two dining outlets elsewhere - Town Tonic and Passengers and Co. Those market vendors supply the bistro and this is a key plank behind the concept.
The menu was tight with three each of starters, mains and desserts. A slip of photocopied paper filled on both sides with the drinks menu was delivered to the table with an apology, indicating a wine list in progress. But I liked how you could have your wine poured in three sizes; 75ml, 125ml and 250ml.
Our waitress was pleasant but struggled when asked about ingredients and cooking techniques. Partly an English second language issue, partly she didn't know the dishes well enough.
A cured salmon starter featured lovely textured salmon, an innocuous avocado sauce, a decently seasoned cauliflower puree and some tiny cauliflower florets.
Another starter had three types of pickled cabbage, with variations on treatment, including an almond and apple vinaigrette, according to the menu. Star anise was tasted on the red cabbage. It was innovative and exciting - but $21 for cabbage?
A gurnard main was excellent. The fish was served twisted and contorted, but despite the risk that brings of overcooking it landed just right. Creamy leeks, a carrot and cumin puree and polenta cubes made good accompaniments.
Our waitress assured me the rib-eye steak on the "angus platter" should be cooked medium to get the meat tender "because of the fat content". It would be too chewy cooked medium-rare, she said. I bowed to the kitchen.
One half ended up medium and the other almost well done, and while the crust was excellent, it was actually chewy at the well- done end. The platter also had a rich serving of pulled oxtail and some slices of braised tongue, both fine. However, it was the charred brussels sprouts and a decently gutsy beef jus that were the highlight. Potatoes were carved into a box shape (echoing the polenta) but offered nothing more than carbohydrate.
Dessert brought more innovation - a walnut creme brulee with "port wine poached pear", and a chocolate fondant with parsnip ice cream and tamarillo jam. The brulee's caramelised sugar crust was ice-sheet thick and the dish was dramatically over-sweet. A garnish of a little fan sliced pear had been visited by some cinnamon, but not port wine as the menu promised.
I admired the boldness but couldn't find a common ground among the mix of sweet fondant, parsnip and sourish tamarillo.
So much potential lies here. Celebrating local products feels right. It's an exciting, atmospheric venue at night and you feel you have left the city and the world behind when you slip through the doors. All that's needed is for the kitchen to find its form.
RICCARTON HOUSE BISTRO
Where: 16 Kahu Rd, Christchurch
Phone: 03 348 6190
When: Dinner Wed to Sat from 5pm
Cost: Entrees up to $24, mains to $39, desserts up to $18
Upside: Warm, grand, atmosphere
Go again: Yes
- The Press