The Nelson area has a lot of eateries, including one frequently-lauded establishment a few steps from our front door. But the locals Iíd consulted had arrived at near-universal agreement: Flax (Mapua Wharf, Mapua) is the best of the bunch. And so, we choose it for our final restaurant meal in New Zealand.
Some choices one might like back.
When Flax is good, itís quite good. The atmosphere is fun and casual, the room is littered with regulars, and the food is the sort of high-quality, simply-prepared, ingredient-focused fare that, properly cooked, never goes out of style or taste. The problems are all off the menu, with a staff thatís a little too numerous and pushy for the room, and that brusquely rushes us through our meal with a very un-Kiwi coldness and rapidity. A scant 35 minutes after our arrival, weíre a few crumbs from being done with our main courses. This is no way to run a restaurant.
Perhaps thereís someone wielding a whip in the kitchen, but the hurry and bustle seems to unbalance our waitress, who tosses food in front of us, turns, and knocks over every single one of our neighboring tableís wine glasses. (I note, with concern, that she replaces neither their glasses nor their wine, and surreptitiously hold onto both or ours whenever she returns.) The prevailing impression here is that one must eat quickly or suffer the consequences; everything possible is done to move us in and out as rapidly as possible. Yet other tables seem to enjoy nearly an hour of profit-free postprandial lingering. Maybe one has to be a regular? Itís all baffling, and highly irritating.
I start with a delicious mushroom and oyster soup, taken in an unusual direction with the inclusion of dill and lots of piquant local olive oil (I donít inquire as to the source, unfortunately). It takes me a few minutes to warm to the combination, but Iím eventually won over; the flavors just need time to meld. That they donít until Iím at the end of the bowl suggests, yet again, some sort of rush in the kitchen. Soups, as every cook knows, cohere with age. Whatís the hurry?
Jenny Wheeler of Greenhough stops by the table to say hello, and seems much friendlier than she was at our previous encounter. Though it probably doesnít hurt that Iíve got one of her wines on the table. Her partner Andrew, who seems even more casual, has an insiderís connection here: his brother owns the restaurant. Iím tempted to ask if I can take away his brotherís watch, but restrain myself.
Pork belly in a tomato-based sauce, accompanied by kumara and grilled bok choy, isnít a dish that the fat-fearful would want to contemplate, but I love it. The pork, especially, is delicious, and flawlessly brought to that perfectly-poised point between decadent juiciness and artery-preserving rendering. The skin isnít crisped Ė a technique Iíll come to expect in later years Ė but the dish suffers not a whit for the lack.
For dessert, Iím served house-made ice creams that are rather melted by the time they arrive at our table. Whatís the matter, couldnít they get them out fast enough? (Sorry, sarcasm has gotten the better of me.) A rather dismal flat white Ė a drink that requires patience, so itís no surprise that Flax canít execute it Ė follows, both overly foamy and under-flavored.
As Iíve noted, Flax has good qualities, and I wouldnít want to discourage anyone from dining here, but despite its reputation it must be treated as a cafť that serves food, rather than the restaurant it has ambitions of being. (Adding to this feeling: one pays at the counter, rather than at tablesideÖa bit of info that isnít made clear to us as we linger, post-coffee, wondering if the check will ever arrive. That could explain the permanently-occupied tables, though.) There is, however, one unquestioned positive aspect to Flax: itís sinfully inexpensive given the quality of the food and the wine. If only the service met the same standard. (3/05)
Note: Apparently, Flax has closed.
Copyright © Thor Iverson