Address: 149 Quay St, Viaduct Phone: (09) 365 2690 Online: www.lulas.co.nz Cost: Small $16.90-$23.50; pizzas $16.50-$26; mains $25.90-$39.90; desserts $10.50-$14
Take your eyes off the Viaduct for a minute and a new restaurant will open. Since I last looked, Lula Inn has replaced The Crew Club. The latter had lasted more than 2½ years - an epoch in the restaurant business - but here it is, after an expensive refit, still under the same ownership (of a group that owns a dozen places in the metro area) and with chef Sam Clark, a Cable Bay alumnus, in the kitchen as he was in The Crew Club's latter days.
The new place's name rhymes with "hula" (a Hawaiian dance), which may be meant to sustain its claim to be what it says is a "Sth. Pacific eatery and drinkery". If I was expecting ukuleles and grass skirts, it was because I had forgotten that New Zealand is a South Pacific nation. The only thing on the menu that suggests the winterless part of the Pacific is a kokoda, the Fijian take on ika mata. But the rest of the selections sound interesting - the burrata comes with a cabbage gazpacho; there's a pizza with confit duck and sour cherry.
Clark seems fond of carrots, too: there's carrot jerky with the pork chop, pickled carrot with the lamb ribs and if you're really in the carrot groove, there's a side of them roasted for 10 hours in embers. These are great, smoky and still slightly chewy, though setting them in a bed of the carrot puree was gilding the lily. Taking simple, even humble, ingredients and working with them like that is the sign of a chef with imagination.
The place was pretty quiet on a nasty night early in the week as the boats bounced and chafed at their moorings, although I remember the waterside deck being very pleasant in the Crew Club days. Indoors, the Professor and I enjoyed the undivided attention of a waitress from Birmingham who was a breezy conversationalist. From one of the elevated booths along the eastern wall, we found ourselves talking to her as a High Court judge talks to the court clerk (I suspect they work better for a group of six or eight).
As to the food: that kokoda was nice enough, with toasted rice and radish providing welcome sharp textures but a venison tartare consisted of small dice of meat in what looked like cold gravy. I would have had no idea what animal it came from without the menu's help and the lashings of horseradish cream were seriously out of proportion to the dish as a whole.
The Professor's ricotta dumplings were very bland, really: they were far larger than gnocchi, and accompaniments of kale and kumara puree made for nice plating, but, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there was no there there.
But I made a happy choice in the coal-roasted lamb shoulder, a generous serving of silky-rich meat, sliced thick and accompanied by a vinegary dressing foregrounding olives, which cut cleanly through any fattiness. They were just the ticket with a side of roast spuds that had been crushed before finishing off under a grill, I think, and were the best potatoes I've ever had.
That dish was almost good enough to make me forgive an "apple crumble" that the waitress had warned us was deconstructed.
I was up to the challenge: it was a catastrophe. A bowl of ginger icecream, really, with parings of tepid apple and cold nashi and a sprinkling of something crumbly.
It made me resolve never again to eat anything described as deconstructed. I want my dinner built up, not taken apart.