Let's Eat: Little bistro on the corner

By Peter Calder

Address: Cnr Beach and Castor, Bay Rds, Castor Bay
Ph: (09) 410 4488
www.saltcastorbay.co.nz
Stars: 3.5/5

There's nothing pretentious about Castor Bay's Salt restaurant. Photo / Doug Sherring
There's nothing pretentious about Castor Bay's Salt restaurant. Photo / Doug Sherring

A colleague, who wishes to be identified only as the Grinch Who Stole Pudding, is pestering me to lead a campaign against share plates. He hates them and he hates even more the fact that they have become so cool that "every restaurant that opens now thinks they need to have them".

"If you don't buy into the idea," he writes, "you feel like a killjoy ruining everyone's evening, so you find yourself picking at a goat curry you'd never have chosen, and sighing as you agree that, 'yes, it is surprisingly tender'."

I have some sympathy for him: offering all main dishes in entree size is a good idea, but small plates often seem to me like a way of serving one-third of a main course for two-thirds of a main-course price. Sometimes you just want your dinner. That's what you get at Salt.

What you don't get at Salt is pepper. Well, not your own anyway. Instead, the waiter brings your order and immediately scurries off to fetch a pepper grinder the size of a baseball bat and offers to put pepper all over the food.

He is probably still wondering why we burst out laughing at him (the answer may be found at bit.ly/1iobgPe). But I wish every restaurant would carve into the counter next to the corporate pepper grinder, "We don't know whether we want pepper yet because we haven't tasted the food yet". The "small plates" infestation is dwarfed by the "would you like some pepper?" plague.

Somebody suggested to me that the restaurants that don't supply grinders are scared diners will nick them. Can they be serious? What's next? Magnetic alarms on the crockery? Counting glasses the way scrub nurses count forceps? Shackling chairs to the floor? I know a decent pepper grinder costs a few bob, but treating your diners as though you don't trust them not to nick your stuff is a bad look.

Salt, on a corner only a few steps from the charming little beach at Castor Bay, has two manifestations: a gourmet fish and chips and burgers outfit called Little Salt, whose menu alone makes me salivate, and the main eatery, which bills itself as an "upmarket, bistro-style restaurant". To the French, who invented the term, a bistro is a place that serves modest home-style cooking (in contrast to the more upmarket brasserie) and Salt is a place without airs and graces. Kids play on the patch of grass outside and couples walking the dog chat to friends enjoying a drink at a pavement table.

The food is to match: when I say that it is not exceptional, I don't mean to damn it. It would serve very well - and plainly does, judging by the clientele - as a place to have a quiet and tasty dinner without breaking the bank.

The floor, of sanded concrete, does bounce the noise a bit - it would be a bit hard to hear yourself think when it was full, I fancy - but the ambient music is not so loud as to inhibit conversation.

We started with some Parua Bay oysters, which came with a glutinous dipping sauce that whiffed of Thai sweet chilli and is best avoided, in my view. Bruschette, smoky and agreeably burned from the grill, were served with a chevre of heavenly creaminess and a fig compote that was a perfectly judged blend of sweet and savoury.

A piece of lamb rump was slightly chewier than I would have liked - this cut is popular because of its leanness but in my experience it does not lend itself to some of the speedy cooking techniques that kitchens apply to it. Still, it was very tasty and it came on a sort of ratatouille of chickpea and cubed mild chorizo, which was very agreeable.

A whole baked flounder was superbly moist, though the accompanying risotto (of pumpkin and goat's curd) was a bit gluggy and traces of the promised chilli that might have lent it some interest were hard to detect. A side of green beans had been hyperheated in the microwave and burned our mouths.

The piece de resistance, though, was a dessert of ice cream that riffed on the old Eskimo Pie: thin hazelnut wafers sandwiched a generous slab of sensationally tart apple ice cream. It alone made the trip worthwhile to a jolly nice little suburban eatery.

Verdict: Neighbourhood charmer

- Herald on Sunday

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