Address: 149 Pt Chevalier Rd, Pt Chevalier
Phone: (09) 845 2235
Verdict: Small is beautiful
I was never cool enough to be a bFM listener - the music they played didn't have quite as much by way of a tune as I like - but I was a big fan of a bumper sticker they put out in the 1990s: "bFM," it said, "You lucky little bastards".
I suppose they trademarked the phrase, but it would make a great marketing slogan for this new eatery. It would be an entirely justifiable announcement to the neighbourhood that something quite special had arrived.
The idea of a cafe on the corner, where you might enjoy a main course and a glass of wine, is alien to this city, where car culture tends to obliterate the idea of neighbourhoods. Twisted Tomato reinvents it, serving food with more than a touch of class in a friendly and casual environment.
It seems an odd name for a restaurant if you ask me (though it's not unique; there are identically named pizza joints in British Columbia and Virginia) but the name on the outside isn't as important as what happens once you step through the doors, and the night we ate there they didn't put a foot wrong.
The premises were home for eight years to a good-hearted and unpretentious Italian place, which had by all accounts, fallen off in recent months. The minimal refit has included stripping one wall back to bare bricks on which hang some cute and whimsical paintings (in one, a zebra's newly laundered stripes are being hung out to dry while the animal stands blankly by) and mounting polythene piping, roughly painted in pastel colours, on the front of the counter, which gives the place a funky cabana-style feel.
It is the first venture as owners by Tamara Wright, a gracious presence in the front of house, and chef Thomas Walden, who have worked together at Grano in Eden Terrace and separately at Merediths and TriBeCa respectively. And it offers a thoughtful menu full of familiar, even homely, dishes delivered with flair and imagination.
There's a long(ish) wine list and a short menu, a balance I have always thought just right. You can tell a lot about a restaurant by the length of its menu: I'm sure there are exceptions, but if a kitchen is offering 40 dishes, the chances are that none of them is much good. Walden presents you with five entrees and five mains, with a special at each level. A good sign.
Even with that small selection, choosing is a challenge. A nibbles list includes kahawai croquettes, which are highly spoken of. Entrees start with rabbit leg, crumbed and deep-fried, and a very attractive-sounding gnocchi dish that includes globe artichoke, romanesco (that triffid-like broccoli variant) and aubergine.
For this time, though, the Professor and I reverted to type: she made a beeline for the scallops and I for the steak tartare. The former were the north Atlantic variety, which may seem odd so early in the local season but Walden points out that they hold together under cooking and the supply of fresh scallops can be unreliable.
The pairing of scallops and chorizo is nothing new, but this was special: the sausage was appropriately mild and a pea puree sang of summer. Each scallop was topped with a delicate coconut gel of agar-agar, and the whole thing worked superbly.
Likewise the tartare - the raw beef agreeably tangy from the Worcester sauce - was topped with grated hardboiled egg and served alongside a pile of courgette pickle with superb sourdough toast.
There is no straining for effect here, though the use of ingredients is striking. Mainly, it's simple food impeccably prepared in extremely generous portions and presented with style.
The same applied to our main courses: thick chunks of pan-fried snapper had a roasted flavour about them, though they were superbly moist and an accompanying creamy potato dip called skordalia was a lovely touch. My mushroom risotto, though perhaps a shade too salty, was so rich and hearty, I had to ask for half of it to be boxed up to take home.
The Professor, who is very hard to impress, virtually swooned over a lemon mousse.
With mains all under $30 apart from a scotch fillet, this is very reasonably priced local dining, pitched at attracting return customers. It deserves plenty of them. I can think of two off the top of my head.