Phone: (09) 402 8296
Cost: $214.50 for two
Rating out of 10: Food: 8 Service: 8 Value: 8 Ambience: 8
A sodden sky has rendered the view from the end of Paihia wharf obsolete. Russell has disappeared in the rain. My hair, clothes and feet are wet, but it is 21 degrees at dinnertime and some of that could be sweat. It is too humid to eat, way too hot to be nice to people.
I guess that might help.
On a work trip to the winterless north, Charlotte's Kitchen was a bright spot on a drenched waterfront. Book ahead, because it gets busy. Tonight's crowd includes families, tourists and a group of locals celebrating a birthday. They have an all-day menu, a wood-fired pizza oven and a drinks list that includes Bay of Island wines and locally brewed McLeods beer. All of this is very nice, but if you like pork, consider pre-ordering your piggiest dreams — the knuckle comes as a minimum 1kg serve.
It's the house speciality, explained our cheerful waitperson, and availability is limited. (She also recommended the free-range rotisserie chicken, but the restaurant is practically floating on the ocean. If we couldn't swim in it, we were definitely eating from it.)
Our Waikare Inlet oysters (from $20 for a half dozen) came raw with a white balsamic that would have your malt-loving grandmother turn in her grave (but I kind of liked its mellow sweetness) and tempura battered, with a "fire dragon mayo".
Perhaps the dragon was feeling the weather. The promised heat was a damp squib, but a deep-fried oyster is such a perverse luxury these days it didn't matter.
The "taste of islands fish" ($34) was hapuku. These are big, meaty fish — the kind you can cut steaks from — but on our shared pizza board platter, the servings were more refined. There was an excellent sesame and soy poké, and a chunky smoked spread on bruschetta, which I'm hoping used the less glam cheek-wing-etc bits of this gorgeous creature. A te ika mata was too chewy and, to my taste buds, needed more citrus cure to cut the syrupy-stale coconut base.
The humidity had totally killed an accompanying handful of crisps to the extent that I couldn't tell whether they were kumara, taro or cardboard, but we loved the little dish of kimchi-style pickles.
I stayed with the ocean-going theme with a grilled game fish main ($35). There's a particular culinary camp that says fish and cheese should never be mixed, to which I say: anchovies on pizza, salmon on a cream cheese bagel, and thanks to Charlotte's, yellow fin tuna and mozzarella.
The tuna was the best I've had — huge and sublimely cooked with bitter char lines and a raw centre. The cheese was milky fresh against wilted rocket (or "roquette" to exactly cite the menu) and tomatoes. Salad, but not as I'd normally know it, and completely perfect for the climatic conditions.
Across the table — and, also, in the middle of the table — was the pork. More accurately, the porks. You get two crunchy-skinned, melting-meaty knuckles for your $40, with an extra-sharp knife and tongs for hacking, and an extra plate to hold the, well, extra. It came with a pile of radish and apple (too salty), buttery mashed spuds and a Bavarian kraut that was sweeter than your normal sauer. The latter was, incredulously, studded with bacon. Stupendous, but Greg reckoned the meat sweats lasted until Sunday and dessert was out of the question.
Charlotte's Kitchen is named for Charlotte Badger, one of the first Pakeha women known to have lived in New Zealand. She arrived here via a mutiny. The restaurant iconography imagines her in a piratical corset, but history books describe her as "stout" and "very corpulent". I suspect she, too, would have loved that pork.