The Pavilion, Auckland Domain

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Rating: ****
Address: Domain Drive, Auckland Domain
Phone: (09) 303 0627
Website: relishgroup.com
Open: 10am till 3pm (3.30pm weekends). Closed Monday

The Pavilion serves food that's a cut or two above most Auckland cafes. Photo / Janna Dixon
The Pavilion serves food that's a cut or two above most Auckland cafes. Photo / Janna Dixon

When you look at what else happened around Auckland in the wrecking ball-happy 1980s, it is a miracle that nobody came up with the idea of running a bulldozer through the kiosk in the Auckland Domain and replacing it with a car park.

My Mum used to take her Mum there for Sunday afternoon tea. These were the days when tea was made with leaves, not bags, and they gave you a strainer and plonked a three-tiered cakestand in the middle of the table. While Mum and Nana talked about how kids today didn't know they were born, I sat there feeling disgruntled because I wasn't allowed Coca-Cola on the grounds that "it'll rot your teeth".

The kiosk now rejoices in the name The Wintergarden Pavilion, which seems a touch ostentatious for a modest if very handsome building. It was built in 1913 for the Auckland Industrial, Agricultural and Mining Exhibition, and was meant to represent the ideal New Zealand home. The stucco and terracotta-tile style was the idea of the Arts and Crafts Movement which was seeking to supplant fussy Victorianism – the big kindergarten in Myers Park on Queen St is another impressive example of the school.

Time has not been kind to the interior: bursts of haphazard refurbishment have created an incoherent space. To get to the toilets, for example, you have to walk through a conference room whose emptiness lends the place an air of abandonment. It's almost as if the cafe is an afterthought.

They still serve the high tea here, with the big cakestands, although the selection (at $21 a person; minimum two people) might have puzzled Nana since, apart from club sandwiches and cakes, it includes cheese and crackers, a selection I suspect she would have described as "foreign muck".

But the three of us had skipped breakfast and we were intent on something more substantial.

The Pavilion is one of the ventures of the Relish Group, long-time caterer to the stars, which took a bit of a pounding during the recession and has liquidators crawling all over its various establishments (Pontoon, Opium, Pinot). That's a measure of the fact that their regular clients became spending-shy, it seems to me, and certainly not of the quality of their work, because this was a fine lunch indeed.

Of the 10 items on the summer lunch menu, four are meat-free, which impressed the Professor while not giving me the kind of cold sweat that the threat of protein deficiency is inclined to bring on.

Feeling peckish, the three of us selected four meals: a quarter roast chicken on a bed of Israeli couscous with a fine citrus zing; a perfect classic Caesar salad; a large salad of warm roast vegetables (butternut, baby beet, artichokes; and grilled haloumi and eggplant on sourdough.

They were all very well discharged indeed, a cut or two above most of the cafes around town, and we finished off with some seriously gargantuan slabs of the excellent cakes in the cabinet.

Details irritate: the plates (platters really) are unsuitably big for the tables and the two efficient table staff were rushed off their feet. Plainly they weren't expecting so much custom, although the crowds who had come for the jazz concert at the band rotunda were presumably predictable.

But this is a pretty impressive operation and an asset to one of the city's great public spaces. Here's hoping it survives the group's present tough times.

The bill

Cost: $104 for three
Main dishes: $13-$22
Cakes: $4-$8
Ambience: Mixed
Vegetarians: Extremely well catered for
Watch out for: The nearby Wintergardens and fernery
Bottom line: A cut above

- Herald on Sunday

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