Restaurant review: Rita may be small, but she's a good 'un
It's often said a restaurant needs 40 seats to be viable, yet the newly opened Rita seats just 28.
One solution is to ensure every table is turned at least once each evening, and to this end the owners have instituted a regimen of two sittings, one from 5.30pm, the other from 7.30pm. So you probably need to book.
Rita's other distinguishing feature is its tiny set menu which, like the staggered sittings, may also seem like a colonial hangover, yet is totally in line with an international trend toward simplicity: Flat Iron, currently the toast of London, offers just one steak, five sides and one dessert.
Co-owner and chef Kelda Hains, already known to Wellington's entire corporate lunching community from her other restaurant Nikau, here allows her creativity even fuller rein. The menu being so small, she is able to change it constantly according to what's seasonal and best. Somewhat frustratingly, they don't even supply a written menu.
Like any good cerebral chef, Kelda embeds a story within her dishes. She's inspired here both by her historic Aro Valley setting (what has now been converted into a bijoux dolls house began life in 1910 as a workers cottage) and by the Kiwiana cooking of her grandmother Rita, a large graphic quote from whom ("This heavenly place") forms the sole artwork over these graceful sage green walls.
In many cases the Kiwiana references are oblique, and in some dishes – such as raw mackerel marinated in buttermilk with beetroot and red cabbage – they are totally absent.
FOH and co-owner Paul Schrader (also widely known from Nikau) had to prompt me to recognise Maggi onion soup powder and sour cream dip in the appetiser we ordered as a $3 supplement – a parsnip croquette filled with smoked onion and Mount Eliza unpasteurised cheddar, served on Dijon mustard crème fraiche.
But when two steaming soup bowls were placed before us, the main course that had simply been described as "pork" straightaway revealed itself as quite the poshest boil-up I've ever experienced.
The broth had morphed into a heavily reduced consommé, while the pork was now offered both lightly poached and heavily roasted, yielding nuggets of crackling. These doughboys had been revved up slightly with horseradish and the watercress here, naturally enough, was emerald green. And never before have I fished fresh shiitake mushrooms from a boil-up.
The clue to dessert was a dash of DYC Malt Vinegar added to the Italian meringue, a blob of which topped a marvellously dense but smooth plinth of kiwifruit sorbet. To the side was a dollop of whipped vanilla cream. Yes, you guessed it: pavlova!
Given the lack of storage space in a dolls house, a Lilliputian wine list almost seems inevitable. But never mind, this tiny jewel box, crammed with dazzling names like Felton Road, Te Mata, Seresin, Mountford, Black Estate and Francis Ford Coppola, blinds the diner to the restricted choice. A glass ($15) of the Mountford Chardonnay from 2010 meant we were practically drinking library stock, still brimming with fruit and oak but now overlaid with mealy complexity.
Replacing space-greedy waiters' stations is a nifty innovation: little pull-out drawers at the side of each table, from which you select your own cutlery of choice.
The big drawback of a small set menu revealed itself early in the piece, when my guest recoiled at the prospect of mackerel.
But from her conjurer's hat our server drew a vegetarian option which pleased everyone: fresh young endive leaves, Jerusalem artichoke slices roasted until crisp, hazelnuts and the mildest, smoothest, least goaty chevre you could imagine.
89 Aro St
Ph: (04) 385 4555
Open for dinner only, Tues-Sat.
Price of three-course set menu: $65 per person
Cost: $144 for two (excluding wine)
Wine list: ★★★★