Never short of bars to repair to after a hard day at the beach, Nelson saw a whole new rash of openings late last year, just in time for the long, lovely summer season.
Local notable Daniel Monopoli (the Boat Shed Café) launched Parts and Service, selling beer and honest hunks of meat by weight, while Matt Bouterey (from the Urban Oyster Bar) has converted the landmark Harry’s Bar into Harry’s Hawker House, an instantly popular pan-Asian eatery placating the young with loud live bands and the usual line-up of bang bangs and crying tigers.
But for cocktails or wine and really well-presented, sophisticated tapas in an equally genteel courtyard, Nelson foodies now clearly favour a third newcomer, Arden.
Elegant, newly laid flagstones snuggle up unselfconsciously against the neighbour’s corrugated-iron fence, whose anarchic grape vine flops over. The trunks of two heavily pollarded silver birch trees punctuate the space like pillars.
Arden is named for an ancestor of co-owner Lisa Penketh, who with her partner Logan Ursell has resettled in Nelson after a decade in Melbourne.
Ursell’s crossover menu is very Melbourne, in that it assumes a level of culinary sophistication most certainly not manifest in every Nelsonian bent on steak and wedges. Fillets of anchovy appear in two dishes of Arden’s somewhat abbreviated menu, while goat’s cheese pops up three times.
The anchovy atop the croute, we established, was the marinated white variety, relatively mild, which is actually acceptable to mainstream palates. “Not the hairy, greasy sort,” our pleasant young Nordic tourist-waiter quipped.
But underneath the grilled red capsicum, an exhilarating joltarama lay in wait – a rust-coloured cream absolutely humming with ground-up essence of the hairy one. Served on house sourdough, it’s perfect with a glass of Arden’s Californian chardonnay (Land of Saints) or better still, their minerally, deliciously oily viognier from Millton.
As a hater of goat’s cheese, my guest understandably spurned my offer of a gorgeously crunchy and creamy fresh goat’s cheese gougère, made with faultless choux pastry and circled with full-on aromatic honey and house-grown thyme.
My guest, having ordered the beef toasted sandwich on the assumption that since the menu didn’t mention goat’s cheese, there would be none, found to her chagrin that there, unannounced, were slices of the most gloriously pongy goat’s cheese of all – a washed rind number from Kaikoura. I meticulously scraped off every last atom and devoured it with relish.
But we readily concurred on the whole florets of broccoli, roasted until still crunchy and subtly flavoured with miso, sesame seed and slivers of pickled chilli.
Equally delightful were squares of tuna sashimi served over oyster cream and scattered with matchsticks of green apple.
You can’t go much wrong with a bowl of steamed mussels, but these were a bit different – smaller, hand-pickled babies, their tenderness in stark contrast to the rubber bands of many a fully grown mussel. Immaculately fresh, these green-shells were gussied up nicely with grilled wedges of fennel, aromatic fresh dill and a grilled half lemon to make it easier to squeeze the juice over.
A boneless beef short rib was, to be honest, a little on the stringy-floor-mop side, but there was everything to love about beetroot, walnuts and herbs squidging in among miniature white clouds of fresh cow’s curds, with nary a goat’s bleat on the horizon.
Once my palate had recovered from a flame-throwing of chilli, I settled in to appreciate the complexity of pulled duck confit, harissa-spiced and with pomegranate, almond and yoghurt.
The meal ended as it began, with textbook-perfect choux pastry, this time a pair of passionfruit-filled profiteroles. These were presented on yet another stunning pottery plate. Assuming it to be the usual faux-pottery you see everywhere these days, I flipped the duck-egg blue plate to read the manufacturer’s mark on the bottom, but was astounded to find none. It transpires that all of Arden’s crockery has been house-made by Lisa Penketh, who has previously supplied tableware to top Melbourne restaurants such as Hell of the North and Henry Sugar.
Thus, is Arden unique as New Zealand’s new café-bar, completely self-sufficient in renewable hand-made tableware?