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Address: 224 Victoria Street
Phone: (07) 839 4329
We pride ourselves in New Zealand on our informality and lack of stuffiness. Nevertheless, in general, there are certain assumptions about eating out at the top end of the range: table cloths, linen napkins, a bit of upholstery, water glasses with a logo.
Chim-Choo-Ree subverts that blueprint. The tables are bare, the napkins paper and the chairs bentwood kitchen jobs. The artwork is an assembly that could have come from an op shop, a David Shepherd elephant print, a Dutch town scene and what looks like a Canadian landscape. The dining room is tiny, with a small bar along one side.
None of this is to suggest it is uncomfortable. It isn't and the place positively bounces with a cheerful, noisy buzz. The reason for the good cheer becomes evident with the food.
Our first intimation of the quality came with the seared tuna amuse bouche and the level was maintained. The menu is simple - six entrées, six mains and six desserts, none from the fantasy and foam school but each intelligently designed and, judging from our choices and those around us that we could see, well executed.
We all bang on these days about the importance of local produce and I am a well-established boring championship contender on the unrivalled merits of New Zealand scallops. So it was with considerable reservations that I decided that as I wanted the smoked eel first course, I would take a chance on the Canadian scallops that came with it. They were superbly fat, sweet and with a melting texture that had survived their travel miraculously. The eel was an astute complement and the hint of freshness with the salad rounded out a pleasing dish.
Having had the seared tuna intro, it might have been that the tuna tartare for our first course was a mistake but the tuna, blended with a miso mayo and a hint of wasabi, was sufficiently different - and very good.
Time to move on from the sea, although the roasted bluenose with smoked prawn risotto and sorrel caused some hesitation. So, to roast eye fillet. Here we were offered two choices, their regular and presumably local supplier, and aged, grain-fed beef from Canterbury. If we can do Canadian scallops, we can do South Island beef. It was marbled and as tender as recommended. Steak knives were definitely redundant. You needed to like beetroot to appreciate the accompanying purée and baby beets and fortunately we do. The gently flavoured mash provided a relief from the symphony of red.
If the beef had been only briefly introduced to the shock of heat, slow cooking was the secret of my wonderful pressed lamb shoulder, with sweet little pickled radishes, celeriac purée and a goat's curd cigar.
What was particularly distinctive about these dishes was that there was no suspicion of there being one element too many, except perhaps that white chocolate was a frill in the balance of the chilled vanilla rice pudding and rhubarb sorbet dessert.
I finished with the pecan and salted caramel tart, which although excellent was probably a step too far.
The service is exemplary and helpful with the front man picking up a conversation of ours about an unfamiliar wine and providing useful and accurate advice. My only regret is that I don't live a little nearer to Chim-Choo-Ree.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $211 for two first courses, two mains, two desserts and five glasses of wine.
Wine list: Good list, with the whites dominated by New Zealand and overseas entrants well represented in the reds.
Verdict: Quality food served excellently in lively, intimate surroundings.