Ethnic restaurants operating in New Zealand have a choice: either they can be true (or as true as possible) to the cuisine of their country of origin, or they can “Kiwi-ise” their food so it is more acceptable to local tastes.
Rockyard, the Vietnamese restaurant in Allen Street in Wellington, takes the first option and suffers for it, even though it seems temporarily popular. It’s an unfortunate choice because Vietnamese food is not so strange or so chilli hot that it needs to be blanded down, unlike Thai or Indian food arguably needs to be.
Personally I am a believer in and advocate for the ‘keep it authentic’ approach, but some modifications can be either necessary or popular. In Auckland I once had a tom yum soup for lunch which was rated as medium on the restaurant’s scale but was so blisteringly mouth numbingly hot that my palate was out of action for the rest of the day. Some Indian restaurants dare diners to eat their hottest curries at their own risk.
Those rare instances aside I firmly believe Kiwis are now sufficiently travelled and sophisticated enough in their tastes that they can handle almost any national cuisine presented in an authentic way.
A group of us ate at the Rockyard on Friday night. Pleasant spot, nice people, good service, bland food. A pity really. I started with spare ribs – which turned out to be one rib, but with plenty of meat on it on a bed of finely chopped lettuce with bean sprouts and a Vietnamese dressing. The meat was nicely cooked and came off the bite sized piece of bone easily, but there was no sauce dripping off the meat, and the meat itself was only slightly flavoured. Pleasant but unremarkable, though a generous serve.
My main was the pancake, a feature dish, and several of the group had this too. The pancake was not soft or able to be picked up by hand. It was large and the topside was crisp enough that it fragmented when cut, which made putting mouthfuls or larger portions into the dipping sauce impossible.
It was described as beef with prawns, which led me (and others in our group) to expect beef and prawns minced together and put into the pancake with the promised lettuce and beans sprouts. No. This was a rather dry mince with several whole prawns scattered about. Again a generous serving – in fact almost too much, but devoid of any real identifiable flavour.
The onions and bean sprout mixture had been cooked into the mince so there was no fresh crunch, and I resorted to pouring the dipping sauce over the open pancake to inject some flavor. Soft lettuce leaves accompanying the dish had some Vietnamese mint and basil, but these added little to the texture or flavour. Overall a disappointing dish. I was told that the Pho was good, and the meat curry was very acceptable. On the plus side the meal was cheap and the servings generous. However that doesn’t quite seem to be enough.
In contrast lunch at Loretta the next day was a delight. I ordered that old stable of French cafés, the croque madam and was rewarded with two nicely toasted slices of bread with plenty of ham and melted gruyere between them, with the fried eye on top, already sprinkled with salt and black pepper.
It is not a work of genius to get this right, but it was tasty, well rendered and a very good lunch. It also contrasted with two other croques I had tried on earlier occasions. One from the Café Paris in Newtown I took away only to find that it was still cold (in fact icy in parts) in the middle. The second was at the Le Meridien Hotel in Noumea where two eggs were buried inside the slices of bread and the ham was sparse. Loretta’s version was superior to both and gratifyingly authentic, my gastronomical French friend Antoinette assured me. The egg inside, she harrumphed. “Never.” Some traditions are best honoured wherever the food is served.