When Wellington’s legendary Matterhorn closed last year it left a significant hole in the market for a venue which functions equally well as a casual eatery and a bar. Earlier this year two former Matterhorn employees returned from Melbourne with the intention of filling it.

Chef Alric Hansen and Ben Farrant in front-of-house – who previously owned Small Victories in Carlton North – have named their new Cuba Street venture Highwater, both in reference to Wellington’s 1843 high-tide mark and to their high aspirations for the place.

Formerly a nail salon, Highwater was refitted by Matterhorn architect Allistar Cox. The fit-out can’t have come cheap, especially in view of the air extraction system required by their prime toy – a Pira charcoal oven from Spain. Both a long, chunky bar and an equally extended banquette accentuate this long, thin, galley-like space – it’s bustling yet intimate, minimal yet welcoming.

Reading the fine print, we learn that their produce is predominantly organic and their meat is free-range and organically raised. The Poaka rare-breed salami is from acorn-fed pigs, raised in Canterbury. Their duck is not just free-range but, more importantly, it’s fresh rather than frozen (as is normally the case) and is hung in their kitchen for 10 to 14 days. This makes a palpable difference to their house-made duck and prune sausage – exceptionally juicy and tasty – served in a milk bun with crisp onion, pickle and sharp Gentleman’s relish.

The richness of a duck-liver parfait is beautifully offset by the refreshing crispness and slight bitterness of its raw endive (witloof) cup, and sweetened with a second layer of mandarin and gingerbread crumble.

The influences of multi-cultural Melbourne are obvious everywhere on the menu, but particularly in the ‘Advieh lamb shoulder, sirkanjabin ($70)’. Advieh is a Persian spice mix that typically contains saffron and ground rosebuds in addition to the usual curry spices. It’s rubbed over Highwater’s lamb shoulder and, as at Melbourne’s highly rated Rumi restaurant in Brunswick East, this advieh lamb is served with the mint-flavoured cordial, sirkanjabin, made into a sauce. As the price suggests, the portion of shoulder is large enough to feed two diners, if not three or four. You can mop up the juices with Highwater’s own excellent sourdough, crusty and holey, served with butter which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is house-churned.

Organic sprouting broccoli is dressed with dashi brown butter and deep-fried sage leaves over a snow-white bed of delicious almond whip.

Being an all-day café and a bar by night, Highwater has both a pet coffee roastery (Rich) and a favoured brewery (Parrot Dog), plus a well-selected wine list, international but leaning towards New Zealand and France. Fine, generously proportioned stemware did full justice to the billowing licorice aromas of Yann Chave Crozes-Hermitage 2016.

There are just two desserts: goat’s curd with feijoa, honey mead and bay caramel, plus a more familiar duo of chocolate ganaches – dark and white – with tart passionfruit pulp and a crunchy sesame wafer for the sake of contrast in both flavour and texture.

An all-French cheeseboard recalls Hansen’s early cooking career at two of Wellington’s most celebrated Gallic restaurants – Francois and the Roxburgh Bistro. No wonder Highwater has been so warmly welcomed by staff at Le Cordon Bleu New Zealand, situated right next door.