Dining at Colenso Cafe

It’s not often that a restaurant or cafe retains an excellent reputation for over 30 years. But in all that time the popularity of the Colenso cafe at Whenuakite has never dimmed.

Garden tables set up in the shade of old plum trees

About 28 years ago I first discovered its charms on a cycling trip along the winding road between Tairua and Whitianga.

Back then it was being developed by citrus orchardists, Ruth and Andy Pettit, who added to their income by building a cafe in the garden they’d created around their home.

It was memorable even then, and for a while became my go-to place when I was anywhere near Whitianga. Over the years they expanded the gardens and added a gift shop and playground. 

Five years ago, I heard it had been sold and, being a devotee of the way it was, I churlishly didn’t go back in case it had changed. Then last month I got over myself and pulled into the car park at lunchtime, this time in the motorhome.

The cafe garden is set in an amphitheatre of tall pine and eucalyptus trees 

The place proved as delightful as ever. The new owners Judy and Gary Inglis have a background in hospitality and whatever changes they’ve made are all for the better.

From the carpark I walked towards the cafe along the pathway that leads through the citrus, fig and feijoa tree orchard. Nothing had ripened yet but the trees were full of promise.

The gardens were charming, a mosaic of raised vegetable beds, trimmed bushes, and herb and flower gardens centred around a vine-covered pergola.

Outside tables and chairs, fuzzed with lichen that attests to the cafe’s long life, were placed in the dappled shade beneath the branches of spreading plum trees. I bagged the last table.

Over the years the garden has been expanded, and a playground added

The others were occupied and, in the way that gardens bring people together, the atmosphere was gregarious and relaxed. If the weather had demanded it, we’d have been on the deck warmed by overhead heating or inside in the cosy interior.

As alluring as the physical surrounds at Colenso are, they are surpassed by the exceptional food. The head chef is the owner’s daughter, Emily Thomas, who is something of a food hero.

Over 11 years she worked with Sydney celebrity chef, Bill Granger, and then at the River Café in London. She learned to make goat’s cheese in Italy, and worked as a chef on several superyachts in the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

On the verandah tables catch the sun

It’s really no surprise that in 2018, Colenso won an award for the best rural cafe for the upper North Island. The offerings on the menu here are exciting, seasonal and constantly changing. 

Emily is passionate about using local ingredients, some from Colenso’s fruit trees and vegetable patches, and everything is prepared and cooked in the small kitchen at the back of the restaurant.

There were new twists on old favourites, such as bran muffins filled with orange or apple and fig, and exotic recipes adapted from the food she enjoyed on her travels, like the Sri Lankan spicy tomato and coconut soup.

In season mandarins from the orchard are on sale

But I ordered a locally sourced antipasto platter to share with my friend. Made up of Clevedon Valley buffalo curd, raw zucchini and pesto salad, Hodge Road tomatoes and roasted eggplant, with sourdough bread straight from the oven, it was particularly good.

I enjoy great food but I’m no foodie. I eat it, I enjoy it and then usually forget it. But some of the combinations here are not only ground-breaking; they’re memorable even for me.

Next to the kitchen is a small shop selling gifts and Colenso products

As soon as I’d ordered, I spotted at the next table a salad of fresh pear, pickled pear and roasted pear with Colenso garden leaves, honey-roasted walnuts, gorgonzola piccante, and house duck ham.

It looked irresistible and I hope it’s still on the menu next time I’m there. Meanwhile, I have my memory and a small memento in the jar of plum jam I bought at the gift shop on the way out.

Win lunch at Colenso Cafe (valued at $70)


Be in to win a voucher to enjoy lunch at Colenso Cafe to the value of $70.

Enter here before May 31, 2019

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