Despite fresh jungle-themed wallpaper and new lampshades that look like swollen eel traps, Pico Bar + Eatery is still easily recognisable as the old Zibibbo. But the significant change is that this Wellington institution is no longer so much a restaurant as a bar with good food.
It’s still part-owned by Zibibbo’s Adam and Nicola Newell, but nowadays they are silent partners, in conjunction with their former chef, Ariki Rei. During his 20 years in the kitchen, Rei has done the hard yards at high-end places such as Shed Five and this shows in his beautifully garnished plates. Yet at heart Rei’s tastes remain colloquial, as seen in the menu section headed Kiwi Classics which, rather amusingly, includes mince on toast. However, this beef is prime Angus, you understand, while the toast is ciabatta, the egg is free range and the dish comes with Worcestershire butter. Another delightful compound butter, this time mixed with truffle mash, accompanies the complimentary bread served on arrival.
At the heart of the menu are 10 wellconceived tapas. Tokyo fried chicken, in particular, is emerging as Rei’s signature dish: chicken pieces are marinated in citrussy-soy ponzu, rolled in cornflour, deep-fried and then glazed in a pan with more ponzu, before being served with edamame beans, pickled daikon, intensely scented coriander microherbs and Japanese kewpie mayonnaise.
Safety concerns about leaving an egg emulsion mayonnaise out on a bench all afternoon have driven Rei’s decision to use kewpie, which also pops up unannounced with the cauliflower fritters – battered florets pre-cooked with mild curry seasoning. Rather cleverly, the accompanying drunken sherry raisins and caper popcorn are also minced together to form an enticing sweet-sour relish.
Crab and sweetcorn empanadas with tomato salsa and fresh lime combine the flavours in wellmeasured proportion, with the sweetcorn complementing rather than overpowering the sweet delicacy of the crab. Essentially these empanadas are little pies and as such are designed to appear comfortingly familiar to parents and especially to children.
Both the north and south wings of the dining room can now be closed off with newly installed sliding doors, so parents need not feel self-conscious about their noisy kids – an important consideration when you realise that Pico finds itself at the centre of Wellington’s newly emergent Silicon Valley. With both Xero’s and Trade Me’s headquarters just down the road, childless hipsters comprise an important part of Pico’s customer base.
There’s much in the drinks list to perk the interest: the wine list may be merely adequate, but the cocktail list is very good and the locally focussed craft beer list even better. Above all, Pico offers one of the best craft gin lists in Wellington. The idea is that you choose your gin, then your herb or sliced cucumber and finally a specialist tonic water or other mixer to go with it. Hendricks, with its hints of rose and cucumber, suggested a slice of fresh cucumber, a sprig of mint and a mixer of Fentimans premium Indian tonic. Classic!
Zibibbo had one of the earliest woodfired ovens in Wellington and it’s still in use today. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Ariki Rei and his team only use it for overnight braising. Having cooked pizza in both the woodfired oven and his electric oven, Rei compared the two and decided the electric gave a more consistent result, with accurately controlled heat coming from both top and bottom. I often wonder how many New Zealanders truly appreciate the floppy nature of an authentic woodfired Naples-style pizza, and certainly the crispness of Pico’s pizza base better fits the popular Kiwi notion of how a pizza ought to be. You can play it safe with a Margherita or pork, apple, onion and sage, but the third gloriously decadent topping, oozing with gorgonzola, pickled porcini, sage, salsa verde and truffle oil, should satisfy even the most ardent culinary adventurer.