The Coffee Club, Taupo

Before the long weekend (spent with family and a great time) I had the worst cup of coffee I can remember (thank goodness for small mercies). We went to Taupo where Barbara had appointments. The Coffee Club is convenient and prominent on the main road opposite the lake. Location, location, location.

We stopped at The Coffee Club, it was a beautiful spring morning with the remains of last night’s wind driven waves making the lake look more like a sheltered seaside bay. Barbara’s soy cappuccino was horribly expensive, though she said it was “fine, quite OK”. My “long black” came in a huge mug, filled almost to the brim with scalding hot water used to dilute the bitter taste of some coffee made from second hand grounds, or possibly they just let the hot water run through the single shot head until the giant mug was full. I have had better instant coffee, when occasionally I have made the mistake of thinking a church was serving proper french-press coffee, but they had really used instant.

I can not recommend strongly enough that (if you actually like coffee) you stay away from The Coffee Club, Taupo. Though I guess if you don’t like coffee the food and tea might be wonderful ;)

Mikano (Degustation Menu)

We bought a degustation menu at, Auckland restaurant, Mikano from Grabone, and enjoyed the meal on Sunday. 

Mikano has a brilliant setting over the helipads on Tamaki Drive with a stunning view of the harbour to Rangitoto and Waiheke. Our sense of occasion was heightened by having booked for an early sitting and so getting a window table, and even more by realising that the friendly and courtly gentleman who preceded us up the stairs and held the door for Barbara and me was the grand old man of NZ theatre (and accomplished film actor) Ian Mune. When we realised who he was we wished we’d said “Thank you for introducing our children to Shakespeare.” But although the Munes were just two tables away the moment had passed.

Degustation menus are a great way for a restaurant to showcase their work, and for customers to enjoy a fine meal at a reasonable cost. Since a number of customers eat the same sequence of dishes, though each individual requires more courses, overall less different dishes are prepared, and ingredients are also more standardised than an a la carte menu.

Mikano’s degustation menu was uncompromising. Each item was a simple unadorned classic:

  • French Onion Soup with gruyere crouton
  • Smoked Snapper with leek, potato, & parsley cream
  • Wild Mushroom Risotto with crispy pancetta
  • Beef Bourguignon Pie with thyme roasted baby carrots & horseradish
  • Lamb Shoulder Tagine with Moroccan spices, tomato, olives & cumin, parsnip puree
  • Sticky Date Pudding with toffee sauce & hokey pokey ice cream

The main menu is more traditionally restaurant fare, the first starter listed is: “Wild mushroom & proscuitto minestrone with char-grilled garlic bruschetta”.

The onion soup was superb, a balanced contrast of sweet onion with savoury meaty stock, simple but brilliant.

The smoked snapper was tasty and set off nicely by the vegetables and ‘cream’. Perhaps the smokiness of the fish disguised the tang of parsley, because the ‘cream’ was a striking deep green that visually contrasted with the deep colour of the fish.

Barbara really enjoyed the risotto (though I am not sure telling the Maitre d’ afterwards that it was as good as mine was really a compliment to a fine restaurant ;)  For me this was the least successful dish, the strong stock seemed to overpower the mushrooms, but I may have been biased by too much pepper in the first bite (for the other dishes, as you would expect, the seasoning was perfect).

The beef pie was well done, a tiny (this is a degustation menu :) pastry parcel of tender beef and gravy, the baby carrots were roasted enough to be sweet, and the horseradish finely balanced with enough ‘kick’ but not aggressive.

The lamb tagine with its powerful spices, olives and spiced parsnip was a strong tasting finish, making the sticky date pudding something of an anticlimax, though the vanilla ice cream was superb. (I’m not a fan of hard chunks of partially caramelised sugar in ice cream so I won’t comment on the choice of a Kiwi-classic in place of plain vanilla.)

Overall did the menu ‘work’? As a really enjoyable meal, yes. Every dish (except perhaps the risotto) was really well done, the combination and movement through the meal worked very well, as the tastes complemented and enhanced each other excellently. But, as a display menu from a fine restaurant, not so well, the dishes individually lacked that touch that lifts a dish from “really good” to “excellent” – the star quality of the setting (or our fellow diners ;)

Mamma Mia: delicious degustation at the Mount

We bought a GrabOne voucher for a five course degustation menu at Mamma Mia an Italian restaurant at the Mount.

Unprepossessing exterior of Mamma Mia (ex-Vivo)

Mamma Mia Ristorante Italiano
14B Pacific Ave
Mt Maunganui

07 575 8245

It doesn’t look like much and has recently changed hands (and name), but the degustation menu looked interesting. The regular menu does not look exciting but contains some gems.

We had:

Thin slices of orange with toasted fennel seeds, watercress and an olive oil dressing. The orange and fennel worked beautifully. The sprig of watercress added a nice peppery bite. (Barbara loved the olive oil dressing, I’d have liked to add some vinegary sharpness.)  [From regular menu.]

Carpaccio with incredibly thinly sliced eye fillet1 seasoned with lemon juice, olive oil topped with capers and parmesan, then served with wild rocket and fried bread.2 This was just delicious and beautifully presented, the meat so thin and tender.

Gnocchi “Mare”: Homemade Gnocchi with garlic, fresh tomato, chilli, prawns, shrimps
& herbs topped with Pecorino cheese. The gnocchi were beautiful, tender but firm, and the sauce (in which the chilli was barely noticeable but added just a touch of warmth) was simple but worked well with the seafood and the gnocchi. This was one of the highlights of a delightful meal. (From regular menu.)

Another highlight followed (not from the regular menu) dried salted catfish poached in milk and wine on mash with a lightly creamy sauce and a cherry tomato. The flavours blended beautifully and the use of salted dried fish, and the tasty sauce, lifted this way above “poached white fish and mash”!

For dessert we had iced zabbaglione, a slice of rice pudding flavoured with coconut and a “Soupa Inglezi” concoction of custard3 sponge, chocolate and fruit flavours with desert wine softening the sponge. Each was delicious, but together they almost persuaded two diners who usually pass on desserts that they were the best course of a superb meal.

I have dined as well (or even better?) in France, Thailand, at a few of the best restaurants in Auckland, but this was by far the best meal, and several of the best dishes, we’ve had in the Bay of Plenty.

Definitely one to recommend. And both the chef who helped a busy service by bringing some dishes to the table, and waitress, used a charming mix of Italian and English :)

  1. The chef must have superb knife skills as the meat was really paper thin! []
  2. The “fried bread” was also wafer thin and crisp. []
  3. Yes, real egg custard :) []

Kaimai Cheese Factory Cafe, Waharoa

My lunch yesterday was not Vegan, I was breaking the journey down to Tauranga, and eating out Vegan is seldom a rewarding experience (except at Cosset, and even there it is mainly the baking rather than a hearty meal that I expect).

I stopped at Waharoa, at the Kaimai Cheese Factory shop and cafe (thinking to combine buying nice cheese with a pleasant lunch). I chose the “cheese-lovers’ platter” thinking that a cheese factory platter should be superb – a chance to display their products at their peak.

The cafe is in the front part of one of the factory buildings with viewing windows into the factory. The space is pleasant, spacious and airy. The platter was a series of disappointments. It was presented crowded onto a small board, Cheddar, Brie (or was it Camembert?), a washed rind and some blue, also on the board were slices of bread and a few crackers, and a little bowl with pickled onions and some marinated Feta, and another with chutney. Nice, but overcrowded.

The cheddar was a pleasant enough young cheese. The Brie or Camembert was so young and hard that I was not only unsure which cheese it was meant to resemble (when it grew up) but wondered if the cheddar was softer. It did get better, the washed rind had begun to develop some flavour (what a shame I did not come a few days later, and what a pity the cold of the fridge tried to mask what flavour was developing) and the blue was soft and sharp. The pickled onions were lovely, and the Feta fine… but overall what a disappointment! I almost did not stop to buy cheese for home, but remembered that I could ripen that and allow the flavour to develop before eating.

Someone, at least if anyone who is a professional in this business reads this, is sure to say: But they are only giving customers what most want. Kiwis on the whole like their cheeses immature! If that was the case why not offer a choice Cheese-lovers’ Platter (Fresh or Mature). Then everyone could be happy!

If your experience differs plase let me know, as I have had other meals here and enjoyed them, and the coffee is not at all bad usually. (I did not have coffee yesterday as I was meeting someone over the hill for coffee a bit later.)

Web 2.0 and the profit motive

One of the local daily deal sites offered a $50 voucher for a restaurant in our city for $25. Sounded like a good deal, but we are new to the city, have no idea what the restaurant is like. So, I hit Google. The usual Web 2.0 users review the places sites came up. It really does sound like a great deal, all the top few reviews were excellent, saying things like: “All in all we had a fabulous evening. Next time we are around it’ll be our first stop. Fantastic service, fantastic fresh food and a fantastic atmosphere.”

There were three or four reviews in the same vein, and the next two sites were similar. Sounds a great deal, I wonder what such a popular restaurant gets out of it?

And then I spotted the fly in the ointment. None of these top reviewers had ever reviewed any other restaurant on the site. I looked further down the list. The next reviewer has reviewed a number of other places in the city, points out a number of failings, though is complimentary about the service, and sums up: “The overall food experience was poor!” The first few gave 5 or 4 stars, this guy gave one. But he’s the one that has actually written other reviews…

My conclusion? It looks to me as if the restauranteur has padded the “Web 2.0” collaborative review sites with puff pieces from their friends. Now, if the rev iew sites want me to come back they’ll need to start prioritising people who have done a number of reviews, and even more those with well liked reviews… as it is the sites are useless.

A country as small as NZ does not need half a dozen restaurant review sites. It needs one or two that actually attract real reviewers, till they get them its back to assiduously cultivating the grape vine in our new city…

Auckland Aero Club Cafe, Ardmore

There are lots of interesting things to watch at the Areo Club Cafe

When we went out to Ardmore on Thursday for me to enjoy my 30 minutes at the controls of a small trainer, we had a light lunch at the Cafe there.

The view from the Aero Club is great, not great scenery, but the people getting into their aricraft, doing the checks, then taxiing away to take off, or the reverse. Across the airfield fromk time to time there will be someone practicing flying a small helicopter in a straight line following a taxiway… In short there’s always something different to watch.

The coffee was not bad, not the very best, but average to good compared to cafes in our part of Auckland. Service was friendly and quick, even though the cafe was a busy place, nearly as busy as the aero club office next door ;)

The food menu was unadventurous, but also workmanlike. Barbara’s corn fritters were tasty but almost too corny and unusually came with the bacon cut up and mixed into the mixture.

Executive summary: come for the view, not the food, but worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood and want a cup of coffee or a light meal.

Cafe Review: Riverhaven Cafe, Huntley

River Haven Cafe is on SH1 entering Huntley from the N

The Riverhaven Cafe is set between State Highway One and the Waikato River, on the long straight as one enters Huntley from the north, where the road runs between the railway and the river. For many years it has offered restaurant and shopping facilities to tourists and coach parties.

The cafe sits behind the shop, so benefiting from views across the river to the power station, which is much more attractive than it sounds (see photo, right :) The cafe offers decent coffee. The food is unusually cheap and the portions are also generous. The quality overall seems somewhere between what one expects from a cafe and from a coach stop. It provides excellent value.

The coffee was fine, good but not excellent. We both had corn fritters, which (as seems often the case) would have been tastier with more corn and less batter, and could have benefited from more seasoning. The bacon was delicious and there was plenty of it :) It was also pleasant to have a small salad beside the fritters and bacon. A sharp salsa might have been a more interesting topping than the sour cream, though this also worked nicely.

View from the River Haven Cafe

Our neighbours were somewhat put out that the dishes from the coach party, which was still leaving as we arrived, had not been cleared quicker from  the prime tables by the windows. My take is that (if you avoid coach parties) the service is good. Their helping of scrambled eggs was huge, and we all enjoyed the views.

Coffee: Fine.
Food: Fine, excellent value.