Amberley lies about a 50-minute drive north of where we live in Christchurch. Our destination was the iconic Nor'Wester Cafe for a family meal out.
We arrived a little rattled - the trip was anything but relaxed thanks to multiple blurred 70, 50 and 100 speed zones and the at least three police cars we spotted working those edges like sharks in the surf line.
Hanging in the sky was a vast multi-columned nor'wester arch of cloud, managing the trick of appearing both dazzling and doom-laden. But suddenly Amberley was around us and the sanctuary of the Nor'wester Cafe loomed.
Nor'Wester Cafe is a place we have heard about and everyone else seems to know, so this was our first time.
It is a converted bungalow on the main street with a fantastic outdoor eating/seating area, modern colours, warm wooden furniture and friendly staff.
Both the cafe menu and the evening menu were available, which was a bonus, because it meant the kids could be safely sidelined with fries and a ham, cheese and pineapple pizza.
The prices ($19.50 entrees, $37 mains) made it clear this wasn't a country stop cafe. The sophistication of the dish descriptions and suggested wine matchings also gave the impression of a daytime cafe that could go up a gear at night.
I'd spent the morning at the Waimakariri mouth watching whitebaiters filling punnets from a good run, so the night's special - a West Coast whitebait omelette with asparagus salad - called loudly, but it didn't seem a true enough test of the kitchen.
Instead, we went for chicken and lamb mains from a list that included groper, venison and beef.
But first came the entrees, and what an opening act. The seared scallops, which came with glazed pork belly with an apple and pickled pineapple salsa, were superb. The scallops were juicy and perfectly caramelised, but the pork stole the show. It was shredded, coated in sweet-spicy Asian flavours and mixed with crunchy crackling, providing a wonderful contrast to the tangy finely diced pineapple and apple matchsticks.
Smoked duck, served on a large white rectangular plate, looked spectacular. Slices of smoked duck with pink meat and white fat perched on crumbed warm parmesan "croutons". Scattered over the plate was fennel salad with pear and almonds. And the whole thing was tied together with an intense chunky sour cherry sauce.
After such an exciting start the mains - both big hearty servings - seemed a little flat.
The chicken breast came with an excellent wheat, pea and pinenut salad that was the highlight on the plate. There was kumara on the side, with cubes of feta and some dried tomato pieces, but as a whole the dish failed to excite. The chicken was juicy and cooked perfectly, but it needed a punchy flavour.
The lamb rump was tender, its accompaniment a muted salsa verde. A pasta side of orecchiette, prosciutto and feta tossed in a minted pea pesto was a solid effort but, again, everything seemed to be awaiting the arrival of a star.
The stars arrived, though, with the desserts. A lemon posset, an old English take on creme brulee, came in a quirky square glass jar with a dollop of cream on the lid, and two sticks of poppyseed shortcake. The lemon zing was paradise for lemon lovers - and we had a table full of them who scraped out every last bit.
The American Cream Pie was like a big oozing sandwich. Two squares of biscuit held the chocolate mousse. On top of the top biscuit sat a pile of sour cream foam. Sprinkled on top, to the kids' delight, were those popping candy crumbs that fizz on your tongue - a lot of fun.
Our wines were a fabulous sauvignon blanc from Fiddlers Green and a huge creamy Main Divide chardonnay, both from Waipara just up the road. Just the one each, of course, for the drive home under the now golden-edged nor'wester arch.
95 Main North Rd, Amberley. Ph 314 9411
When: Open daily from 9am. Evening menu from 6pm.
Cost: Entrees, $19.50; mains, $35 - $38; desserts, $14.50.
Upside: Sophisticated dishes, quality ingredients.
Downside: Inconsistent wow.
Go again: Yes, have already worked out the dishes to try next time.
- The Press