Spoiler alert: This Far North restaurant delights in the unexpected, writes reviewer Kim Knight.
Is this egg free range?
Is this fish line caught?
Where, exactly, was this steak farmed?
The modern waitperson must be patient and knowledgeable as they dispense cutlery, water and small, reassuring facts about organically grown carrots and locally harvested honey.
It is a polite dance of predictable questions, answers and zero shock revelations - unless you're dining in Paihia.
Me: "Where do you get your oysters?"
Her: "If you were local, I'd say they were from near the nudist beach and you'd know exactly where I meant."
It was the most surprising of responses, and it set the scene for the rest of the evening. An amuse bouche? I wasn't expecting that. Petit four to finish? Also entirely unforeseen.
You're out of town, on work, on holiday, visiting family. You're done with mince and cheese pies and motel microwaves. There is, it turns out, a limit to how much gastropub pizza you can consume and nobody wants to cook. Where to for dinner tonight?
Terra Restaurant, on Paihia's pretty beachfront drag, delivers the tangible semiotics of fine dining without demanding you iron your shirt or don a flash frock. The aesthetic is smart casual. In summer - and it's nearly always summer up here - grab a table at the elevated outdoor terrace and be fully distracted by the beach view (no, not THAT beach).
It's a rare small-town restaurant that isn't eventually forced to add a burger to its survival plan. Terra is a notable exception, making its intentions very clear with that first koha from the kitchen, a puffy chewy pao de queijo (aka Brazilian cheese bread) and a swirl of creamy, lemony, artichoke dip.
We said yes to the raw Orongo bay oysters ($20 for six) and they arrived on a plate of ice draped with shiny seaweed. There was too much going on in the mignonette dressing for me - lemon, more seaweed, horopito and wait, there's also Jerez sherry - but, overall, this was a very attractive and extremely fresh plate of shellfish.
The menu helpfully stated the $20 farmhouse terrine's free-range chook credentials. It might have been more flavoursome served slightly closer to room temperature, but I liked the texture and I loved, loved, loved the pickled chamomile cherries on the side. In the 1980s, I considered chicken and apricot to be as dreamy as Torvill and Dean and would argue that, in the 1990s, cranberry sauce was more influential than Kurt Cobain. In short, if a kitchen pairs fruit with meat, I will order it.
Across the table, octopus ($20). Sticky and sweet with gochujang chilli caramel, it's one of those dishes best ordered only if you really like heady, fermenty food and peanuts in your slaw (we did). Terra's multiplicity of flavours can be overwhelming. Faced with a side salad of fennel, pomegranate, goat cheese, rock melon and almonds ($10), my palate was a wobbly compass struggling to settle in a single direction. This is an observation, not a complaint. Mostly, I just admired the ambition.
Little things added to a big experience. The salt was poured into a bowl only touched by our table; when my second glass of wine failed to appear the "oh no, I forgot" was so honest, I couldn't be annoyed. I'd truly recommend the $3 mid-course "refresher" which started pineapple, finished basil and was excellent preparation for a fatty, crunchy, strip of belly pork. The latter cost $38, was perfectly cooked and sat alongside the many interesting additions that are a hallmark of Terra's busy menu - almond skordalia, puy lentils, a black pudding crumb and (okay, I'm biased) a divine fig chutney.
I initially wondered why the menu said cauliflower AND cheese ($36) but it quickly became evident each would be treated with equal weight. Crumbed and fried vege "drums" surrounded a rich, heavy twice-baked goat cheese souffle. It was like a super-cheesy bread and butter pudding that very definitely negated the need for proper pudding.
The $3 dark chocolate and orange truffles would have been the perfect end to a very pleasant evening but then Terra went one better with a sweet little gratis biscuity-coconutty treat. The sun was down and the moon was rising and it was still swimmingly warm on that outdoor deck. Terra makes a real effort to satisfy and I absolutely was.
Terra Restaurant, 76 Marsden Rd, Paihia, ph 09 945 8376. We spent: $212 for two.