Built to a Prairie-influenced design in 1923 by noted architect Louis Hay, Napier’s old Central Fire Station served the city until 1969, when it was converted into offices. But late last year this art deco treasure entered its most glamorous phase yet, as an upscale bistro. Overall, the interior of the Central Fire Station Bistro seems not so much industrial as romantic: there are plush circular banquettes (à la Clooney), bold contemporary chandeliers, bright splashes of floral wallpaper and a chic bar, tiled in textured shades of turquoise.
The fire station’s most important historic features have been retained. The bell tower is now a plant-filled atrium in the dining room, and where fire engines formerly rushed out into the street beneath three giant arches, there are now huge picture windows affording views out over the towering palms of Memorial Square. A brass fireman’s pole serves no purpose except perhaps to tempt the blatent exhibitionists to show off.
Showing off, however, hardly describes the approach of owner- chef Sam Clark, even though as the former head chef at Clooney, ostentation lies well within his grasp. That said, there are a few witty flashes of molecular gastronomy, such as a visually perplexing transparent tomato gel, dotted throughout an inspired starter of raw snapper, horseradish, gooseberry, avocado and crispy shallots.
But on the whole, by Clark’s own admission, the food is a relatively simple blend of French with Italian; all the better to emphasise the quality of the local seafood, fruit and Mediterranean vegetables such as zucchini flowers – in this instance battered, deep-fried and stuffed with local sheep’s feta, full- flavoured but only moderately salty.
Beef sirloin, shiitake Bordelaise and potato gratin involves draping the sautéed mushrooms over the beef and then dressing them with sauce gribiche. The classical Bordelaise tasted exactly as it should – of reduced beef stock, red wine and caramelised shallots. The potato gratin was a classical dauphinoise, presented as a rectangular stack of the most thinly shaved potato imaginable.
Vanilla and buttermilk panna cotta with strawberries and cherries is suitably wobbly and subtly flavoured, the creation of the Argentinian-born pastry chef and co-owner Florencia Menehem.
As an alternative to dessert, you might continue along the Hawke’s Bay tasting trail with slices of sourdough and a thin half-moon of ripe Craggy Range Dairy sheep’s milk blue, pungent enough to satisfy the fussiest cheese spotter.
It’s worth visiting Central Fire Station for its locavore wine list alone. Of the 34 Hawke’s Bay labels listed, the vast majority are deliciously obscure.
Our efficient and friendly waitress, Scarlet, also displayed remarkable flair as a sommelier. Crucially, her suggestion of a Hawke’s Bay pinot did walk the talk: powerfully varietal, savoury rather than fruity, this wine by Osawa might easily be mistaken for one of Martinborough’s finest.
As promised, it proved the perfect match for the confit duck leg (moist, succulent and, again, not too salty), served over a bed of silky parsnip purée, with marinated beetroot, bright red radicchio, hazelnuts and fresh cherries to echo the same notes in the wine.
So, with well-developed European flavours to complement these fine wines, Central Fire Station Bistro presents a pleasingly unified expression of its local terroir. DAVID BURTON