In which I return to my old stomping ground of Wellington, and review Rita, the city’s hottest new restaurant.
One of the charming aspects about life in Wellington is that it’s so small that the opening of a new restaurant is major news. During a three-day stopover in town, I had at least six invitations to eat at Rita, a new eatery in the damp but fashionable Aro Valley, brought to you by the merry pranksters who run Wellington Art Gallery café Nikau. For generations of Wellingtonians, Nikau has assumed almost religious significance. Sleek, spotlessly white and understated, it’s been serving flat whites and New York-style brunch to morning commuters, art world fashionistas and tourists lost on their way to Te Papa for over twenty years. The menu is simple and unfussy – comfort food with an urban flourish, and interesting variations on brunch classics. The smoked haddock kedgeree is so legendary that it has its own commemorative teatowel, and could quite happily be my final Death Row meal.
Given the impeccable pedigree of the Nikau brand, it’s exciting to see owners Paul Schrader, Kelda Hains and Matt Hawkes branching into fine dining. Rita certainly feels like the grown-up city cousin who means business: an evening restaurant that takes bookings, two dinner timeslots seating around 30 people each, and an intriguing three-course set menu that changes regularly. Small, intimate, and vaguely mysterious – no wonder Wellingtonians were clamouring to get in the door.
After sifting through the application forms, I selected Phil, a native Wellingtonian and Aro Valley resident who never saw a martini glass he didn’t like, and off we went for Friday night dinner. It was a cold, rainy Wellington night, like something from a Ken Loach film, with tourists’ umbrellas inverting all along Willis Street.
Rita was a quiet, beautifully lit haven from the grim outside, set in the ground floor of an old weatherboard villa on Aro Street. Following Kiwi tradition, the front door is kept locked and you enter via the back door, to be greeted by Paul, small but perfectly formed and with a beard that seems to resist the ageing process. There are around eight tables, set in formations of two and four, giving it the cosy feel of a family dinner in Nana’s front room. (In keeping with the family ambience, Rita is named for co-owner Kelda Hains’ grandmother).
The custom-made tables look vaguely like school desks, with polished corkboard tops and nifty sliding drawers that store cutlery and pepper grinders. Like Nikau, the décor is cool and minimalist – white painted wooden walls with the occasional framed prints of abstract pastels. We were seated in the front bay window, as befitting Phil’s status as Queen of Aro Valley. The other Queen of Aro, Radio NZ newsreader Catriona McLeod, glides about as maître d’, refilling wine glasses and telling slouchy patrons to eat up their vegetables.
Our relentlessly cheerful server crouched down by our table and explained the order of service, scribbling the menu on a pad like a short-order waitress in Mildred Pierce. There would be three courses, with an optional cheese course served French-style before the dessert. The food was, she assured us, local and seasonal, with much of the produce sourced from their rear-section garden. I’m not a drinker, though Phil more than made up for both of us, knocking back two glasses of a Malborough Pinot Gris in quick succession. The wine list was, he slurred, excellent.
We started with asparagus soup, a dense and satisfyingly creamy concoction, garnished with fresh asparagus heads, chervil and a swirl of lemon crème fraiche and served with a side of warm cornbread. Though the ingredients suggested spring, the experience was more winter comfort food, perfect for a cold and rainy night. Through the window, we watched locals walking home in the rain, clutching their Friday night fish and chips under their coats, and toasted our good fortune at being inside and dry.
After this most auspicious beginning, there was rather a long wait for our main. “You must use the loo while you’re here,” Phil said. In the grand tradition of slap-up Kiwi architecture, the toilet is at the back of the building, accessed via a back door and an open-air wooden walkway (which might be better with a roof, given Wellington’s frequent rainy nights). Inside it was 80s nightclub meets Vivian Street brothel: neon green lighting, palm fronds, Talking Heads blaring on an invisible sound system, and a giant R sculpture facing the wall in reverse. As I struggled to find the hand towels (it’s not easy being green), the chefs made satisfying banging and walloping sounds on the other side of the wall.
I returned to find our mains laid out: a perfectly cooked fillet of snapper, nestling on a sliver of celeriac mash, and garnished with a caramelised onion reduction (in layman’s terms, “gravy”) which was divine. A bed of wilted fennel, celery and turnips was pleasant, if somewhat underpowered, though a couple of mussels added a salty bite. A side dish of radishes, sautéed in butter and served with the fronds still attached, looked amazing, but tasted dull and muddy, with none of the piquant sharpness that spring vegetables should provide. But the fish was heavenly, and so we ate it up, discussing whether to hide the radishes in the cutlery drawer so as not to incur Catriona’s disapproval.
The cheese course followed – a delicious blue sheep’s milk cheese, hovering somewhere between a creamy Roquefort and the sharpness of a Stilton, and a serviceable if unremarkable French Camembert that Phil described as “a bit bummy”. I will now never be able to face a piece of Camembert without a very graphic image springing to mind.
The dessert course was served soon after, to a chorus of Oohing and Aahing from the other tables. Rita’s dessert menu, our waitress explained, is inspired by Edmonds Cookbook classics – custard square, Apple Charlotte, Queen of Puddings – with most of the fruit sourced from the back garden. Tonight was the first outing for another slightly kitsch classic – Spanish Cream, served with preserved Black Doris plums, home-made peach wine, and two little walnut pastries. Out came the Spanish Cream on its ceremonial plate, wobbling like a giant breast implant, so delicate that it started to split around the sides before we even cut into it. Phil broke down immediately and started reminiscing about his Aunty Geraldine who used to make Spanish Cream in the late 1970s and bring it to family gatherings still nestling in its metal jelly mould.
I was rather less impressed, partially because our waitress had built it up as “the Best Dessert Ever!”, but more because Spanish Cream is, ultimately, a posh form of baby food – warming and comforting, to be sure, but devoid of much flavour and reliant on the stewed fruit and boozy sauce to give it some kick. It’s the kind of dessert that’s perfect for eating alone in bed when you’ve just caught your boyfriend sending naked photos to an 18-year-old on Tinder. But as the piece-de-resistance for a three-course meal, it was, sadly, a bit underwhelming. Dessert is the one course where no one really minds if chefs show off a bit. I’d have liked to see Rita’s kitchen serve something with a bolder flavour and texture, making diners go out on a high with a splash of culinary razzle-dazzle. But, as Phil’s response proved, sometimes it’s the old faithfuls that pierce your heart and make you fall in love for life.
Such is the charm of Rita, which seems to understand the emotional appeal of keeping things small, intimate and comforting, with “nothing fancy” as my Nana used to say. It fulfils the fantasy that many displaced urbanites have – of finding a true neighbourhood diner with the warmth and welcome of a family kitchen table, and where everyone knows your name. I have no doubt that it’ll be a huge success, and I look forward to returning to try the custard square.