Let's eat: Where dining is a waiting game

By Peter Calder

Olaf's
1 Stokes Rd, Mt Eden
Ph: (09) 638 7593
olafs.co.nz

Deconstructed Apple Strudel, Bagna Cauda and Crispy Pork. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Deconstructed Apple Strudel, Bagna Cauda and Crispy Pork. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Years ago, I travelled with the Fleet Street contingent on a lesser royal tour and was impressed by the largesse they displayed in the house bar.

"Sometimes," a conspicuously hung-over hack explained as we boarded the bus one morning, "the credit card statement reads like a Beach Boys song." No, I didn't get it either, until he sang it: "Accommodation, dry cleaning, bar, bar, bar, bar, bar, bar, bar." If you still don't get it, ask your mum and dad.

The Professor, who has an office in Mt Eden, is a bit the same. On her credit card statement most of the entries say "Olaf's". It doesn't make a singable refrain, though it probably makes Olaf sing.

She swears she always has a salad and a cup of tea but when she and her workmate dragged their menfolk off to Olaf's, there was a lot of talk about brioches and tarts. Just saying.

Olaf's, half artisan bakery and half cafe, has recently started opening in the evening, and the Professor suggested - well, it was more an instruction, really - it was time we invited her friend to dinner.

Long experience has taught me to take the Professor's suggestions. Life is easier that way. So off we went.

Proprietors of daytime places who decide to open at night often just serve lunch dishes in bigger portions. But Olaf's evening performance was very different from the matinee and well worth applause.

I'll get two grumbles out of the way. First, the waitress, initially impatient to take our orders, sauntered off and became so deep in conversation with a colleague that it was impossible to attract her attention until the Professor deployed the semaphore she learned as a Girl Guide.

Second, the food took ages to arrive: almost an hour for bread and dips. We were warned a table of eight had just ordered, but the place has seating for several dozen and if a (presumably reserved) group can cause such disruption, there's something wrong with planning.

But what arrived, when it arrived, was bloody good. Bagna cauda, that wicked anchovy-and-garlic dip of Piedmontese origin, was rustically chunky rather than whipped smooth and given an extra twist with preserved lemon. It was served with the house's excellent sourdough rather than the more traditional raw vegetables.

Hints of citrus gave a lovely lift to some grilled king prawns, too, lemon and lime juice adding to the contrasting flavours of aioli and chilli butter.

Salmon crostini, the toast curled like a Vespa chassis, were too fussy, though the cold-smoked salmon was superb and the accompaniments - kumara crisps and saffron cream cheese - worked well.

Passing with regret over Basque-style ribs, we enjoyed a barley risotto, wonderfully creamy with porcini mushrooms and lent extra texture by pine nuts. Assyrian lamb was casseroled chunks, rich with garlic and coriander seeds and came with a very fine couscous laced with pistachio.

As a final touch, a thin-crust pizza with tomato, mozzarella and slices of prosciutto was a study in tasty simplicity.

Desserts - or Why We're Here, as the Professor calls them - were sweetly miraculous. A deconstructed apple strudel avoided Teutonic stodginess by piling silky creme anglaise on chunks of poached apple (the pastry came as wafers); a pear tarte tatin with caramel cream was as good as I've ever tried; and a chocolate mousse with warm berry compote was state of the art.

I had to concede I could see what all the fuss was about. I just hope that the Professor will invite me to lunch some time soon.

• Plates $8 to $24; pizzas $22; desserts $17

Verdict: Smarter than your average cafe.

Bar radar

If you fancy a drink before heading to Olaf's - or afterwards - try Scarlett Slimms and Lucky, which is set to open tomorrow. Formerly the Eden Cloak Room, this new-look space will open until 1am, and provide a menu that extends beyond bar snacks. "It's a gin bar predominantly, but we'll also do shrubs," says part-owner Kirsten Dovey. Shrubs are fruit-based preserves used as mixers in alcoholic cocktails. Sweet-and-sour tasting shrubs have their origins before the days of home refrigeration, when berries and other fruit were preserved in vinegar.

• Scarlett Slimms and Lucky, 476 Mt Eden Rd, Mt Eden, slimms.co.nz

An old-time favourite Mt Eden pub is De Post Belgian Beef Cafe which, as its name suggests, is housed in the old Post Office building in the middle of the village.

• De Post, 466 Mt Eden Rd, Mt Eden, depost.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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