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Kwik Kiwi

Unexpected fare at New Zealand Cafe

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By all rights, one would expect a place called New Zealand Cafe to serve New Zealand Mussels, New Zealand Spring Lamb, and Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, since these are what we've come to love of this island (or islands) nation.

Admittedly, my knowledge of Middle Earth is limited, even though I receive daily e-mails about the cost of the Charlotte to Auckland roundtrip ticket (thank you, Travelocity), and I made my family sit through Whale Rider twice. I have eaten an occasional pavlova, which is a meringue named for a long-dead ballerina; hokey pokey, as in do it and turn around; and gingernuts, which are rock hard biscottis.

So when New Zealand Cafe Seafood Grill & Sushi Bar, located in a non-descript small strip shopping center off Sardis Road North, opened last April, I popped right in to see what they had. But they were not offering pavlovas nor mussels. Instead, they had Japanese tempura, sweet and sour Chinese dishes, and sushi. Undoubtedly, as the world becomes ever smaller, the cultural distinctions of cuisines will be as melded as the people. According to the 2001 New Zealand census, the Asian population is expected to double by 2016 and more than one third of the residents of Auckland will be Asian. New Zealand fare is a variation and adaptation of the foods from the various ethnic groups that make up the population -- hence the menu.

New Zealand's co-owner is Hong Kong native Jackie Chen, who said his spot is a franchised concept owned by David Zhou of New Zealand and is similar to the Queenstown Bistro in Columbia, SC, and another Cafe in Auckland, New Zealand. The South Carolina bistro, however, is a full service restaurant with live music and higher menu prices.

New Zealand is a small, 40-seat cafe with an even smaller four-seat sushi bar area to the rear of the dining room. On one side, the faux-finished walls sport sconces, and the other side has a television and large beach painting. A dropped wooden arbor with creeping plastic greenery extends across the ceiling. Tall round bar tables are gathered toward the sides while a few dining-sized tables fill the middle. Servers breeze in and out of the kitchen delivering dishes as they're prepared rather than for the table as a whole.

The menus, which remain the same all day, are heavily influenced with Japanese items. A sushi list contains 30 or so rolls. Another menu offers dishes from New Zealand. Was it Gollum who talked about the juicy-sweet fish? If so, he probably meant the Chilean sea bass, which is totally submerged in a too thick and cloyingly sweet ginger soy sauce. The taste of the fish had been perfectly eclipsed. Another New Zealand choice is the fried pork chop, which is sliced and also overdosed with a sweet sauce. The New Zealand chicken turned out to be small battered chunks of white meat, again set in a sea of sweet, but this time flecked with heat. If you're an aficionado of sweet and sour, these dishes are up your alley.

Better was the pristine, thinly sliced, rare ahi tuna appetizer with a mound of wasabi. The New Zealand barbecue rib appetizer, however, was slightly fossilized. The bento box was a precarious triumph with delicate vegetable tempura offerings, scallops and shrimp in a refreshing emulsion, and a California roll studded with flavor. The extras were good, as well: fried popcorn shrimp or a chicken skewer, a crisp green salad with a sweet vinaigrette, fried wontons stuffed with cream cheese, and a choice of garlicky lo mein noodles or simple steamed white rice.

Alas, no pavlova for dessert, only restrained Japanese Ice Cream.

While many of New Zealand Cafe's dishes seem to revisit the candy land realm -- which should not be a problem given the number of sweet tea and Krispy Kreme lovers here -- the prices are a real find. The pork chop costs $6.25 and comes with three sides and a salad. In fact, all menu entrees are less than 10 bucks and the bento boxes are only slightly more -- up to $10.25. New Zealand recently received its beer and wine license and plans to expand the wine list, which currently contains only a handful of bottles, a few of these from New Zealand.

The owners of this small cafe got it right by emphasizing takeout -- especially if they're playing to the locals, whose numbers are staggering due to the highest apartment concentrations in the entire city of Charlotte. Each time I've visited, takeout meals were snuggled beside one another on the back counter.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com

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