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At Mokau, an hour north of New Plymouth, they do a good whitebait fritter at the Whitebait Inn. It costs $17 but it's as big as a side plate and densely packed with inanga.
I thought about it when the West Coast Whitebait Two Ways landed on my table at Table. It was billed as "whitebait fritter and crispy whitebait" and the fancy trimmings included salmon caviar (which I would call roe, but I suppose I'm a bit vulgar). But here's the thing: the fritter was the diameter of a coaster and the crispy whitebait on top of it numbered a dozen. It cost a dollar more than that Whitebait Inn feed.
I should have expected as much. On a visit to NP to see the Len Lye Centre, I asked around about good eating and a couple of lunching office workers pointed me towards Table at the Nice Hotel ("Table" and "Nice" are pronounced in the English, not the French, manner, by the way). "It's fine dining," one of the women said, pausing before "fine", as if trying to make up her mind whether to say "bloody pricey".
Table isn't extraordinarily pricey (we paid $85 a head without drinks), but it's getting up there. And it's not fine dining either, though it dresses up like it: the decor is plush in an English country hotel sort of way. Diamond-patterned upholstery competes with striped carpet and Chinese lanterns with chandeliers; serviettes bloom from the wine glasses. It's all of a piece with the visual busyness of the exterior, which looks like the work of someone with ADHD.
The locals, some in their best windbreakers, packed the place, and conversed in undertones appropriate to the occasion. And the food is ... nice.
I don't mean that as a compliment but it's not an insult, either. It has the feel of expense-account luxe-lite, aimed at travelling salesmen rather than serious diners.
If you make the whitebait fritter small enough, they'll think it's wonderful. Are those really morello cherries in a duck risotto? Calamari ripieni may sound better than stuffed squid, but with a bland filling of prawn and salmon they flatter to deceive.
Bypassing the substantial grill selection (beef, venison, lamb), I took the fish, hefty slabs of snapper that had done too much hard time in the heat and came with a risotto that the menu, though not my palate, assured me was paua.
Goat-cheese and spinach dumplings were flamboyant ravioli, I suppose, though basil alone will not sustain a sauce; this seemed like a work in progress.
The Eton Mess was not very messy at all, its tiny meringues as prim as a ballerina's dress, but it was delicious. However, billing a summer fruit salad in December is foolhardy; what they should have said was "strawberries".
It's a cheap shot to sneer at the provinces, I know, and it's not my intention. I am sure there is excellent food in New Plymouth, but it's not at Table.
Entrees $18; mains $39; desserts $18.
Verdict: Nice. No, really.