Island Life by David Slack



When I’m in a disparaging mood, I describe Takapuna as Hamilton-on-Sea. Henderson is Hamilton-on-P. No disrespect to the fine people who live there, but Hamilton's a bit dull for me. Said the boy from Feilding.

Imagine, then, our excitement a year or so ago when we received the gift of two nights' accommodation in The Home of the Mighty V8s. Weeks and months went by. Somehow there never seemed to be a good time. Finally, last weekend, we acted.

Travel hopefully? We packed no expectation in our luggage, and the arrival was upon us all too soon. Karren collected the keys, I carried in the bags, Mary-Margaret saw the spa pool and got out her togs. As the steam swirled, we made plans. Zoo, museum, a walk along the river, somewhere to eat.

I did what any Jafa would do. I got on the Cuisine website. What’s good to eat around here? “Go to Palate” said Cuisine.

We made a booking and presented ourselves at 6.30, first guests of the evening, but lonely for only a minute or two. From the first moment to the last it was splendid. You should go to Hamilton; you should dine at Palate.

Moroccan quail with all manner of fruit. A mushroom soup with truffle-infused oil. The night’s special, hapuku poached in red wine, with macaroni cheese, sounded so improbable I had to try it. Remarkable. Cheese - that great rich delicacy; how I have missed it. This is the kind of menu that the likes of your Steve Braunias will lampoon you for, but mock all you like, lamington boy, I ate like a king.

This is where the Hamilton-on-Sea epithet comes undone. If you compare the Waikato restaurant with the one I have in mind, Takapuna is not worthy. Of course you might also say, with some validity, that Lone Star is not a ‘restaurant’. Nonetheless it has one thing in common with Palate. They both charge the same for the meals.

Lone Star is where Mary Margaret’s friends have lately been having birthday dinners with their friends. This was what Mary Margaret chose for hers.

At Palate they do it the old fashioned way. You ring them up, you ask if they have a table for three at 6.30, they say yes, they take your name and write it in a big book, and when you arrive they open up the big book and voila: there’s your name and here is your table and welcome. At Lone Star you ring to make a reservation and they tell you they don’t take reservations but you can put your name on a 'priority listing'. What does that mean? If you turn up at the specified time, you get a table but if you snooze, you lose.

We take a priority listing for 6.30. Karren will be arriving with the birthday girl and friends in tow once the movie is finished. It’s my job to be there at 6.30 and claim the table.

I am there on the dot. Lone Star does not have a big book. Nor do they have any record of our priority listing. Nor do they have any tables. It is a bizarre sensation to feel frustrated that you cannot get a table at a restaurant you do not want to eat in.

A hovering young woman notices some difficulty and dives in to help. She pulls out the list of names of priority guests which has been carefully compiled on a shopping jotter. She confirms that ours is not there. She assures me that she can sort it out because, she assures me, she does believe me. I have found myself in a suburban collision with the ‘Not a Problem’ culture. “Go upstairs and get a drink and we’ll find something for you,” she says, “It may take a while but you will get one.”

Great. I climb the stairs. The bartender is a study in North Shore cool. His hair is tied back in a bandana. It’s a cold ANZAC weekend night, but he’s still in shorts and T shirt and he affects the moves of every cool guy who’s ever poured the drinks on the big screen, talking like a Sydney dj.

I ask for scotch on the rocks. He says something that I think is intended to mean that they don’t have any. I tell him if he just tips that bottle of Johnny Walker into a glass I’ll drink whatever comes out. This is a novelty. I am never terse when I’m ordering a drink.

I slug my glass while he hustles around the bar shifting items about and swapping vacant banter with the passing staff. He judges it may be the moment to thaw me out. One of those days, huh? he asks. I break the habit of a lifetime of amiable banter over a bar and say, levelly, “no.”

These North Shore kids have boundless self confidence but they’re so preoccupied with broadcasting, there’s no capacity spare to do any receiving. The insincere chumminess and overfamiliarity leaves me cold. I’d rather they were rude.

Karren and the party girls arrive, and I explain the wrinkle in our plans. My well organised wife is nonplussed. At this opportune moment the young woman who is solving our problem happens to pass by. Who’s the manager? asks Karren, “I am,” she says.

Karren doesn’t raise her voice all that much when she gets stirred up, but you know what’s happening when she does it. She'll say that something’s not good enough, and then she’ll tell you why. Our hostess doesn’t let her get to the second part. She sets out to explain to our clearly addled minds what she is doing to remedy the situation. You’re not listening, she says. Oh yes we are, we tell her. We readily grasp, we explain, that she’s telling us about her proposed solution; what we’re complaining about is the ineptitude that brought about the problem.

But she aint listening. We wait. There is, eventually, a table. See, that wasn't so bad, was it? she says, with a rather more righteous and triumphant tone than Dale Carnegie would recommend.

And so to the meal. Mine was an okay steak. The girls got various pale things heaved out of a deep fryer and piled high on fries. They ate a little. Karren's was, she said, pretty mediocre.

I’d pay fifteen bucks for that steak and feel happy. At thirty, I feel like someone's having a laugh. I remember once, years ago, getting a haircut in Whangarei from a guy whose mind was clearly on other things. I walked out looking like Sonic the Hedgehog. Come Saturday I was at a wine festival. In the late afternoon, lined up at the latrines, the fellow reveller to my left looked alongside and said “Mate, I know you don’t I?” He was pissed and happy. I said: Yeah, you gave me this haircut. He began to snicker and it built steadily to mildly hysterical laughter. I use that as something of a yardstick for the way things go in the service culture.

I don’t want to be at a restaurant where the staff are servile.
Nor do I want someone to pretend to be my best buddy.
I just want to enjoy the mutual respect you can have when everyone enjoys the evening. You get that from the staff at Palate. They smile, they are warm, they enjoy that we enjoy their food, they take pride in their work.They are not cogs in a franchise.

There is plenty to like about Hamilton, it’s just a matter of where you look. I ran along the bank of their mighty river. It was tranquil, brooding, and, in the morning light, quite ethereal. The museum has its own distinct identity, with its marae leading visitors to the water. There was an exhibition on Italian immigrants to New Zealand which was precisely what I was in the mood to see. Not an hour earlier I had been reading a short story, in Tessa Duder’s new book, about an Italian widow’s miserable migration to New Zealand where no-one speaks her language and the food is rubbish. I wonder what she would have made of Lone Star.

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