Lauraine Jacobs

Food Writer and Author of Delicious Books


1 March 2014


It is not often I can say I’ve fallen in love with a café. This one is on K Rd, and is a café where both the atmosphere and the food are highly original. We’ve seen most things in this almost predictable culinary world, and there are far too many restaurants and cafés following the same old threads with their menus. So it is utterly refreshing to stumble across a cook who is totally innovative and dares to be different. And it’s even better when the focus is on healthy delicious food, catering for vegetarians, meat eaters and vegans alike.

The new favourite is Verona. “The old Verona on K Rd?” I can hear readers asking puzzledly. Yes. The very same place that was one of the ‘in’ places to go a decade ago, but which lost its way about five years ago after the legendary Hilary Ord sold up and moved on. The hip bohemian atmosphere vanished making Verona a shabby shadow of its former self, with only that sparkly sign out front to remind us of the faded glory. K Rd is, of course, the place that is currently where the happening cutting-edge young and arty stuff is; almost like Ponsonby Rd of a decade or two ago. (That grumpy raver in last month’s PN take note: K Rd is where you may be able to relive your memories of old – with not a pony-tailed-lycra-wearing-young-mum in sight!)

When Annabelle Guinness and Phil Randle bought Verona just over a year ago they had to work hard, long hours to restore the cool, the chic and the fun that regulars came to Verona for. They’ve really achieved that, stamping a new identity on the place. They’d successfully started the legendary Sawmill in Leigh in the nineties and there’s no doubt they have brought a touch of that with them back to the city. Verona’s walls are now softly decorated with silver, adorned with the magical art work of Annabelle’s sister, Nicola Guinness who runs the nearby Front Room where she crafts extraordinary furnishings and fabrics.

There’s even a distinct taste of the Matakana region on Annie Guinness’s menu. She sources free-range organic eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, and even the wonderfully unique Salumeria Fontana sausages (are they the country’s best sausage?) from that region, where the couple have lived for years. In recent years she was known in the Matakana farmers market for her wonderful small plates of food; food that had been inspired by overseas travels. No trip to the market on Saturday morning was complete for me without Annie’s breakfast polenta with freshly poached seasonal fruit, local honey, some lovely thick runny cream and the added touch of freshly picked mint.

Now at Verona, Annie not only offers fresh fare, she has one of the most originally laid out menus in town. If you’re headed there for breakfast (the kitchen opens at 7am and runs throughout the day till 9pm) the menu kicks off with a ‘Rise and Shine’ selection that includes that soft warm polenta. Or take your choice of two hot pressed sandwiches; croque monsieur or a tasty vegetarian version. The star morning dishes for me however, are the ‘Juliet’ and the ‘Romeo’. Both dishes have a beautifully poached free range egg with hollandaise sitting on a base of mash and fresh Matakana watercress: Juliet is garnished with grilled haloumi while Romeo is served with a pork and fennel sausage. Witty and appropriately named?

Other sections of the menu offer ‘Comfort’ dishes that include smoked fish pie with silverbeet and kumara, tender slow cooked venison with fig cavolo nero, mushroom stroganoff and a superb vegan tamarind flavoured three bean ratatouille with rosemary polenta chips and egg free mayo. ‘Raw & Healthy’ delivers terrific salads that are leafy green, Waldorf, and a lovely dish called Miso Pretty that turns out to be slaw of cabbage, kale, hijiki seaweed and avocado with miso dressing.

There are great snacks to share over a drink, including several superb tortillas wrapped around choices of clalmari and chorizo, coffee marinated bbef rump and the three bean ratatouille. I recommend everyone tries Annabelle Guinness’ lovely ‘Whisper’ before they die. For $4 you get this amazing soft ball of smooth kumara and herbs with a buffalo haloumi centre and an outer crisp coating of sesame seeds. I bet you order another one or two!

When Annabelle had her market stall she started a range of soups that were light years ahead of any other packaged fresh soups on the market. Luckily for Verona customers, she still makes her amazing shiitake tea soup, the most heart and body warming plate of soup I have ever eaten; it is savoury and sweet and is such comfort fare that I have been known to drive across town mid afternoon for a cup of it on a chilly day.

It’s advisable to eat early in the evening if you want dinner at Verona. Not just because the kitchen closes at 9pm, but also because as the evening progresses the music is turned up and young hip types come to linger over drinks and live entertainment. It’s almost like the Sawmill has come to the city. But all is not lost as the chilled cabinet out front is filled with more Annabelle magic. Choose from a selection of little ‘Verona Jars’ – free range sloe gin and chicken liver parfait, some pickled mussels, preserved bocconcini with olives and sundried tomatoes, pickled mussels or a very tasty garlicky herby hummus. They are all served with toasted bread. Or indulge in lovely desserts like winter fruit crumble, honey and kaffir lime pannacotta chocolate mouse or baklava.

Nothing is too expensive here with dishes mostly under $20. There’s a fully stocked bar with cocktails, beers including Sawmill, of course, a well selected wine list. Health loving foodies should not miss the two “revitalising Remedies’ a red juice with beetroot, carrot, celery, fresh turmeric and ginger, and the green which is a mixture of kale, sorrel, honey, banana and lime. Verona may be the only place on K Rd where you are going to walk out a tad healthier than you arrived. 169 Karangahape Rd, ph 09 307 0508

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