A few days before I dine at Pomelo Kitchen & Bar, I bump into a Singaporean friend who lives near Oriental Bay. I mention my planned visit to the latest addition to her neighbourhood and she shakes her head. “Oh, that place,” she sighs. “It’s Asian food for white people. And it’s expensive. It may as well still be The White House!”
Suitably chastened, I make my way to the former site of one of Wellington’s most iconic fine-dining establishments with some trepidation. Like its predecessor, Pomelo sits on the first floor, which gives it exceptional views of Oriental Bay’s golden sands but removes it from the buzz of the street. It retains The White House logo sandblasted into a glass door pane, but a thoughtful refurb has swept away any ghosts of restaurants past. The thick carpets have gone and the kitchen has been made smaller to allow for an attractive bar area. We score a prime table in the window where we watch amateur athletes punish themselves on land and sea in some kind of horror duathlon. Mercifully, the inviting menu provides ample distraction.
Pomelo offers a pan-asian spread of dishes, which means it runs the gamut from beef tataki and satay chicken skewers through to various curries and braises, divided into plates large and small. The waiter helpfully advises that while the small plates are designed for sharing, the larger ones can be shared or eaten selfishly as the diners decide. Rice and roti appear as sides, along with chips made from both lotus root and kūmara. Pan-asian menus are often derided but I think that’s a weird kind of racism – few European-style restaurants are mocked for including French, Spanish, Italian and British influences on their menus, are they?
The restaurant is nicely busy and buzzy and it feels like the holidays, so we start with a glass of Collet Champagne from a very reasonably priced wine list, a plateful of free-range pork dumplings and a dish of caramelised eggplant.
The dumplings are plump and meaty, with a pleasantly sharp black vinegar dipping sauce. The eggplant, somewhat surprisingly, comes in a light, ubercrisp and bubbly batter. It meets all the criteria for deep-fried excellence, in that the crunchy batter conceals a melting interior, but I would have liked a little more of the sweet-sour tamarind sauce and a punchier dose of Sichuan pepper.
Next up, we decide to share the red curry of duck with lychees, cherry tomatoes and basil, and the tiger prawn salad. The curry is full of punchy yet balanced flavours. It’s not overpoweringly hot (at a recent panglobal restaurant elsewhere in the city, the chef had gone such gangbusters with the chilli and Sichuan pepper I nearly asked for milk), but bright with lime and galangal. The duck is tender with crisp skin, and the lychees and tomatoes are juicy bursts of goodness.
The tiger prawns, of course, have come from a freezer, but they are enlivened by lots of zingy Vietnamese mint and a spicy lemon dressing. Julienned melon and pineapple add sweetness, pine nuts and mung bean sprouts add crunch. A bowl of jasmine rice is perfect, as expected, but the roti is not a highlight.
Greed, coupled with a reviewer’s duty to eat through the menu, compel us to try dessert. Both are exceptionally pretty – a voluptuously wobbly panna cotta with toy-sized meringues and raspberry compote, and a poached pear in a pool of coconut custard dotted with edible blooms and caramelised almonds. The panna cotta wins the day with its lightness and delicate vanilla flavour. The spiced pear is nicely done, but the custard is a touch grainy and so any velvety contrast is lost.
Service is charming, friendly and well-judged, neatly walking the fine line between discretion and attentiveness. We’re initially told that we may have to give up our prime window seat for a prior booking, but this is done so apologetically that I find myself offering to eat faster if it makes their life easier. In the end, we don’t have to move at all as another table comes free, and this is communicated very sweetly.
I enjoyed dining at Pomelo, even though as a white person (albeit one who has eaten a lot of Asian food in various places around the globe), my opinion probably doesn’t count for much. But I can tell you that the ethnically diverse crowd dining at Pomelo on the night of my visit all seemed extremely happy. In fact, a group of elderly Chinese New Zealanders all but cheered when their main dishes were delivered.
Pomelo might not dish up the same kind of “authenticity” found in that little shack you ate at in Vietnam, but it provides a fairly well-rounded dining experience. Yes, it does cost a little more than many of its competitors, but not outrageously so. Portions are generous and the elegant location obviously comes at a premium. Overall, chefowners (and sisters) Laili and Lily Chin have done the Bay a great service by bringing their take on Asian cuisine’s classic hits to this grand old building. With a few tweaks here and there, they could be on to a very good thing.