Words Denise Irvine, Images Ashlee DeCaires
Friday night at Mr Pickles and a couple of us are in for the duck ramen special, made by sous chef Harriet Boucher. The bowls are brimming with aromatic broth, tender duck meat, noodles, fresh chilli, sprouts and chopped spring onions. It is deeply rich, delicious and comforting, sharpened by the zesty Asian flavours and textures.
Harriet has been working for some time on the duck master stock that underpins this dish, and tonight she’s trialling it with customers. It gets a top review from our table; it is a must for the menu, we say.
This is one of the pleasures of Mr Pickles Bar & Eatery, the happy place on Hamilton’s Riverbank Lane. Staff are always experimenting and inventing, the menu keeps changing. You never know what you’ll find, from one visit to the next. We get lucky on this visit with a test run of duck ramen.
Mr Pickles is up to its ninth menu in just over a year since opening, and the only dish that’s stayed constant is the hugely popular sticky chicken. This, to quote the description, is made with Szechuan pepper, Kewpie mayo, and “love, lots of love”. The chicken is clearly a keeper, although co-owner Mat Pedley reckons they’ll take it off sometime soon. His business partner Maurice Montero, the Dutch-trained head chef, will neither confirm nor deny this.
One year into Mr Pickles, Maurice and Mat still relish the independence of their owner-operated business where they make the rules and are not beholden to anyone. This is their opportunity to shine in their own show and have fun while they’re about it.
The time it wasn’t much fun was Mother’s Day last year, just a few weeks after opening, when they were booked solidly from 8am to 8pm, turning the tables at one-and-half-hour intervals. Calamity struck twice: their chiller died the night before and food supplies were lost. Then a fire alarm went off at 1pm on the big day, the building was evacuated and the carefully timed bookings began to look like a sunken soufflé.
Says Mat: “It was a nightmare service for everyone. We’ll never do another a la carte Mother’s Day, it’s a set menu and we know what’s coming.”
There have been many highlights to blot out the memory, starting with their magic location at the end of Riverbank Lane, in the heart of the CBD. They did a clever fit-out with a big, bold bar, some terrazzo-topped tables and bench seats, blonde plywood panelling, and—the bonus—a generous, sunny deck overlooking Waikato River. They say they had the perfect landlord, Hamilton property developer Matt Stark, to work with them on the project.
Then there’s food: fresh, flavoursome and seasonal. Mr Pickles’ menu defies labels, the dishes and beverages are what the owners themselves like to eat and drink. Many ingredients—including cheeses, bread, butter, fruit, vegetables and meat—are sourced locally.
Mr Pickles’ entry in the recent Meyer Cheese Melt Challenge to find the Waikato’s best cheese toastie brought together several local products to excellent effect. Their golden, crunchy toastie was made with Volare San Francisco sourdough, Clevedon buffalo oaxaca, Meyer vintage aged gouda and massadam, and Old Yella habanero mustard (developed for Auckland chef Al Brown’s restaurants by Waikato firm Wild Country).
Their relationships with suppliers are important, and Mat and Maurice praise specialty produce company Bidfresh Hamilton for its consistent and innovative range. Maurice is currently exploring menu ideas using South American fruits and vegetables, and he’s talking to Bidfresh about what could be sourced or grown locally.
Mr Pickles also backs Waikato Food Inc, the region’s food and hospitality promotion group, with Mat currently chairing the organisation. He says the “better together” approach helps support the Waikato’s excellent producers and share their unique stories.
He and Mat enjoy collaborating with hospitality colleagues on special events and menus. And many of their guests have become friends, repeat customers who park themselves at the well-stocked bar or at a table and work through the latest menu.
Mat and Maurice reckon they’re borderline excessive about their eatery. They love coming to work, only it doesn’t actually feel like work. They rate their staff “family” highly and appreciate their ability to deliver consistently good food and service. “We don’t micro-manage our staff,” says Maurice. “They need to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. We encourage and support them; we have full confidence in them. They have the skills to run this place without us.”
Recently, Maurice and Mat have added an off-shoot to the business in the form of The Bearded Weasel, a pop-up on the south side of Mr Pickles. It does fried chicken, and it may be used to test new ideas and ingredients with customers.
Like we said at the beginning, you never know what you’ll find here, from one visit to the next.
Riverbank Mall, Victoria St, Hamilton