When the bar snacks are sweetbreads and the pudding is shiny with salt and olive oil, you're in no ordinary bistro, writes Canvas restaurant reviewer, Kim Knight
146 Karangahape Rd
WE SPENT: $203 for two
WE THOUGHT: 18 - Outstanding
We got there early and it was just as well, because by the time we left, every table for two had three people at it.
Bar Celeste is not for the claustrophobic. It is, however, for people who like good food, wine and times.
"I would cross continents," said James, swooning slightly. I am only slightly certain he was talking about the primitivo that was not available by-the-glass but had been opened anyway. "It's a Saturday night. I'm sure I'll sell it," said the sommelier, waving her hand in the manner of a woman who could sell ice to Invercargillians if her current employment didn't work out.
Bar Celeste has been labelled a "neo-bistro". This is not just pretty word play. In Paris, it is a food phenomenon spawning much academic analysis.
For decades, a French bistro had to look a certain way and serve certain foods (pot-au-feu, cassoulet, etc). The neo-bistro or "bistronomie" movement twisted the classics and was not scared to reinvent. Paul Hyman tracks the changes in the Petits Propos Culinaires journal, noting the 1987 appearance of "macaroni au gratin" (AKA mac 'n' cheese) and, in 1993, skate served with roasted onions instead of (brace yourself) beurre noir.
"A new generation of chefs strove to combine the old with the new," wrote Hyman. "Rice pudding might be served with espelette chilli peppers!"
And so here we are at Bar Celeste ordering ota ika ($20), which is raw fish salad but not as the poisson cru-ing French know it. This dish is an homage to co-owner Emma Ogilvie's Tongan heritage. Snapper can be stringy and kahawai too dense but trevally is just right - and so was this dish. Soft heat, silken fish, velvety coconut and tiny crunchy cubes of capsicum - summer felt another inch closer.
We mopped up the juices with Fort Greene sourdough ($9) that did double duty on a beurre blanc-drenched asparagus ($14). No messing with the original here. That sauce was really, really yellow. I think it really, really contained a lot of butter.
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The menu is smallish and will change regularly. What you eat (and drink) the first time may not be there the next time, though I hope a piquant dish of sliced tomatoes and thyme vinaigrette on a sharp labneh ($14) will just get sweeter as the days get longer.
Bar Celeste (from the duo behind the La Peche Project pop-ups) is on the late afternoon sun trap side of Karangahape Rd, in the old Revel Cafe. The footpath tables are made for wine and snacks. Sophisticated snacks - like veal sweetbreads.
I once ordered these at a very expensive restaurant. They were like chewing on a meaty bouncy castle. Bar Celeste has (almost) convinced me that, prepared properly, the thymus gland can be quite tasty. There was still a little stomach-turning layer of resistance between the creamy centre and the crispy coating but mostly it was all about a subtle, metallic, oystery taste ($20 to possibly have my mind changed forever).
Price is the main indicator of plate size here. I could see the whole flounder ($35) next to us was perfectly cooked (those tables put you family-dinner close together to your neighbour) but we'd put our money on the roast beef. The meat, served cold, was juicy and pink ($29) with a bright, clean basil salad. It would have been amazing in a sandwich, even if I did want more fishy funk in the anchoiade sauce.
If the pommes paillasson ($12) is on, get it. Duck fat. Shredded potatoes. Sour cream. Oh my. If you're wondering where the rest of this review is, you will find me at a little neo-bistro on K Rd, ordering spuds …
In 1979, Joseph Wechsberg (journalist, musician and gourmet) attempted to pin down a definition of the evolving French bistro. Some had begun to take telephone reservations and type their menus but at others it was still handwritten, "with ordinary dishes in violet ink and special dishes in red ink and very special things written upside down, so you cannot possibly miss them".
If I owned Bar Celeste, I would definitely list that potato cake upside down, alongside the quenelle of Valrhona chocolate ganache ($10), which sounds totally regular bistro until you realise it comes with flaky sea salt and a glug of olive oil - less of a pudding and more of a small, chocolatey bridge between how we used to eat and how we'd like to eat now. Vive neo-bistro.