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Address: 1 Solent St, Mechanics Bay
Phone: (09) 309 9514
Cuisine: Modern NZ - seafood focus
I gather couples of some longevity, who are trying to keep their romance alive, organise date nights. They always sound so grudging at having to do so. I feel like shouting at them. Try a date with someone you barely know, but want to, where awkwardness and nervousness make terrifying replacements for familiarity and complacency. I was on date number two with a very nice man and by the time I arrived, late, all I'd managed to do was park badly and spill toothpaste on my frock. I felt like Nina from the TV show Offspring.
At least I'd done well with my choice of restaurants. Mikano in Mechanics Bay sits adjacent to a heli pad and with a clear view of the working container wharf. Outside the floor to ceiling windows of the dining room, it's a hive of activity with choppers arriving and taking off and the giant lego-like cranes moving gracefully, seemingly in slow motion, in the background. As we settled in at our table by the window my lovely date immediately put me at ease by talking about my favourite obsession - food. The menu in front of us to be precise. It's almost old-fashioned, such is the ever-increasing trend for shared plates and tasting menus these days, but Mikano offers a simple format of starters, entrees and then main courses that are complete meals on a plate. It's quite a relief.
It had been more than two years since I'd last dined at Mikano but there are some dishes that are so good they linger on one's memory long after the meal is over. I'd always put the house-smoked fish at Mikano into that category so I didn't hesitate in recommending it to my dining friend. Alas, it wasn't as good as I remembered. The trevally was dry and the flavour not nearly as sublimely smoky as I'd hoped for. Never mind, my Waikanae crab lasagne created a whole new memory to feed off. A square of delicately thin layers of home-made pasta, interleaved with a soft filling of sweet crab and creamy ricotta. This tasty tile rested squarely on a pool of buttery lemon sauce and with every mouthful I wanted more. I tried to keep my manners to an acceptable second-date level of appropriateness but was horrified when I found myself absentmindedly dredging the plate with my finger for the last drops of the sauce. Alarmed, I looked up to see if I'd been caught out. I had. But luckily, despite his private school upbringing, he appreciates good food as much as I do so he merely grinned in understanding at my enthusiasm.
At the top of the list of mains it reads "4 FISH 5 WAYS". Genius. With the good fish guide recently published I felt virtuous in ordering the market fish - flounder. Oh the joy when it arrived - pan-fried with its steely grey skin, scored in criss-cross fashion, all caramelised and sticky, and the soft, delicate white flesh easily teased from the bones in neat, succulent cubes. I always think diners fall into two categories - those who like to work for their food and those for whom the hassle outweighs the pleasure. I am firmly the former. There's nothing I enjoy more than picking my way through a plate of globe artichokes, sucking on each sweet, musky petal, or attacking a pile of chilli crab, cracking each claw to extract the treasured morsels of crab meat. The accompanying fennel puree and watercress and pink grapefruit salad had been well-thought out in terms of the flavours favouring fish. This was a dish that screamed "New Zealand produce".
My dinner date's choice, the crispy-skinned duck breast, drew inspiration from Asian cuisines with steamed, tender baby bok choy and a tangy and well-balanced barbecue sauce. Completing the dish were crispy kumara miso dumplings that were a delightfully sweet mouthful and fresh summer sweet corn that had been creamed to a delicious puree.
We were feeling replete but the selection of desserts proved irresistible. A perfect piece of pavlova was served with deep red strawberries and nothing else, not even any whipped cream and we appreciated the gesture - it kept the focus on the heroes. A hazelnut meringue sandwich oozed raspberry cream and a scoop of cool, tart and vibrant raspberry sorbet topped it all off. Heavenly.
Now and again you come across an establishment that feels special. Mikano is such a place. It is stylish without being intimidating, in a setting that is stunning, and the food strikes the right balance between being impressive and surprising but strangely familiar and comforting too. Splendid really. Kind of like what you hope for in a second date.
From the menu: Waikanae crab lasagne $25, smoked trevally $20.50, flounder $34.50, duck breast $39.50, glazed carrots $8.50, pavlova $16, hazelnut meringue $16.
Drinks: Fully licensed, separate bar.By Nici Wickes