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St Heliers?" my friend squawked in disbelief when I told him that's where we were destined for dinner. "But it's so far away, should we book a motel or drive back the same night?"
Perception is everything. My friend lives in Grey Lynn but I grew up "around the bays", so it's nothing for me to head off around the semi-circles of beaches, though I have to admit my visits are more often for familial reasons as opposed to dining out.
In December last year, that all changed with the opening of the St Heliers Bay Cafe & Bistro. The all-day affair is part of the ever-expanding bevy from the Hip Group and in its inimitable style, it has lifted the bar and set a new standard for dining in the area. But how would my "committed to the inner-city friend" find it?
As we pull up outside and gaze in from the outside, the warm glow of the dining room shows a space already heaving with patrons despite that it's mid-week and early evening. At this sort of eatery - casual, no bookings, constantly busy with locals and newbies - the systems around the management of tables is what it's all about.
There's an art to ensuring that diners don't feel rushed through their meal, yet tables are kept moving so that wait times for a seat don't drag out. At St Heliers Cafe & Bistro, they've perfected the art and from the start we marvelled at how hard and fast the front of house team works, all the while looking relaxed and unhurried and caring for each table of diners as though it was their only concern.
We began with one of the most heroically simple eats I've eaten recently - a freshly baked flat bread covered in a colourful assortment of chopped sun-ripened heritage tomatoes, fluffy house-made ricotta, pungent fresh basil leaves, a drizzle of Number 29 olive oil, an oil produced on Waiheke Island, and a decent sprinkle of sea salt. This is eating at its best - bursting with flavour, comforting to eat and screaming of the season. We could almost have finished our drinks and left after this, feeling perfectly satisfied. But of course then we wouldn't have experienced the tuatuas, clumped together in a light crisp batter and served with a creamy bacon-spiked mayonnaise, or the outstanding eye fillet carpaccio with its dusting of parmesan and hint of truffle, the thin leaves of rare beef melting in our mouths.
Having frequented the bistro a few times over summer, I noticed the menu has been tweaked to follow seasonal changes, with the duck leg, which had been cooked with cherries for the summer, now being served with roasted figs and the rotisserie porchetta replaced with a baked poussin served with roasted garlic and a spritely zucchini salad. Marvellous, an eatery where the kitchen not only professes its commitment to the seasons but also follows through.
We settled for the poussin and the flat iron steak. The latter was served with a green herb salsa crammed full of mint, which somehow didn't seem quite right. Coriander yes, parsley yes, but mint was just too toothpaste for the beef. The poussin was seasoned much more successfully, with north African flavours abounding and the meat succulent and perfectly cooked. I adore picking away at bones so it was a great choice for me. Our sides of thick cut agria chips and a simple lettuce salad were typical bistro fare - hearty and not overworked or too fancy.
The dessert that everyone seemed to be mad for was the knickerbocker glory, a sundae of house-made vanilla and salted caramel gelato, marshmallow, hunks of honeycomb that were worryingly chewy, and its crowning glory, a long shard of caramel popcorn and chocolate the flavour of which took you straight to the movies. It wasn't sophisticated in any way, but we adored it. Our other, the rhubarb crumble, had the silkiest custard and, though I'm not a fan of deconstructing the classics, this version had me scraping the glass and licking the spoon to extract every last sweet mouthful.
The bistro's website reads: "No reservations required, we will look after you" and that's exactly what it does - with simple, well-thought-out food, a team of staff that is truly outstanding and pricing that means it can be an every-occasion restaurant. It's worth crossing town for.
From the menu: Hearth bread with tomatoes, ricotta & basil $14.50, Crispy tuatuas $12, Eye fillet carpaccio $16, Spiced poussin $26, Flat iron steak $25, Rhubarb & custard crumble $9.50, Knickerbocker glory $9.50
Drinks: Fully licensed
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