Lady Norwood Rose Garden, Wellington Botanic Garden, Glenmore St, Thorndon
Opens 8.30am daily; closes 4pm
Muesli $15; Supreme coffee; t-leaf-T tea
Picnic Café is in a glasshouse at one end of the Botanic Garden Begonia House. It has light-filtering shading so it doesn’t get glasshouse hot when sunny and there is heating for chilly days. You can also sit outside. It is popular with tourists, Wellingtonians on a weekend outing and, I am told, ladies on their morning walk (or jog) from the neighbouring affluent suburbs of Kelburn and Thorndon. So a mixed crowd, and some with high standards.
I had been putting off going here because the granola (muesli really) menu listing includes ingredients of chocolate chip and banana chips. Banana chips are characteristic of the cheapest muesli/granolas, so are not a good sign. And, while I like dark chocolate as much as anyone, there is a place for it, and I don’t think it is in muesli, unless it is there to keep children happy (of which the same might be said of the banana).
I found I was right to be concerned. Picnic serves what at heart is a very good toasted muesli and then ruins it with banana and chocolate chips. So the good things: quite a lot of nuts, including whole macadamias and the usual sunflower and pumpkin seeds and almonds. And coconut shred. The oat grains are nicely roasted. It says with maple syrup and honey on the menu, but thankfully they don’t seem to have used too much, as there was not a lot of residual sweetness in the milk at the bottom of the bowl when I had finished.
You get a decent amount of fresh fruit on the top and a sprinkling of dried cranberries. I appreciated the cranberries being on top as I could scoop the damned things off. Better than being mixed in the muesli, forcing you to eat them. They do add an attractive flourish with the fresh fruit too. There was some dried apricot actually mixed in the muesli, but it was a small quantity. The nicely tangy yoghurt was served in a pot, so this gives you the choice of when and with what bit of the dish you are going to eat it.
Now for the negatives: nothing more needs saying about the banana chips. The chocolate doesn’t really add anything and indeed just undermines the whole muesli (and even granola) concept in my view. My other major complaint is that the bowl was way too small. You are forced to eat the fruit and dried cranberries and then the muesli in that order. There is no room to play with your food to mix it how you like (the exception being able to remove the cranberries and add yoghurt as you go). I just scooped most of the fruit off the bowl and added it back as I went. Fine at home, but it doesn’t look so good when you have to do it in public.
As you can see, I had tea. It was fine and at just the right strength for me. The pot only served about one and a bit cups but it wasn’t a dribbler. The tea is served in the cursedly ubiquitous coffee cup.
I spied cheese scones at the counter as I went to pay. I could see cheese oozing inside one of them, so just had to come back a few days later. I was fairly rewarded for my effort. If Nikau’s scones are ten out of ten these might be an eight, which is a bit better than some others who are claimants to the best cheese scone title in Wellington, such as Pravda and Floriditas (who I would give a seven).
I had the scone with an Americano coffee, which was served with a jug of hot water (thanks). The coffee was fine, but confirmed for me that the correct accompaniment with a scone is a cup of tea. It is not only tradition; the astringency of the tea is also a good foil to the gluggyness of scone dough and the fat of cheese.
The café was fairly sparse on a weekday morning, but was well patronised around 1pm when I came back on a Saturday. There was pleasant jazz music in the background on my morning visit. I would advise not sitting near any of the doors to the outside serving area though – staff were streaming backwards and forwards setting up and serving, and a cold breeze came through each time. Watch out for sparrows stealing your food too, both inside and outside.
One of the best things about Picnic is the setting of course. I’m not a big fan of roses, but the Botanic Garden in general is one of Wellington’s jewels. Just look at the lovely path through Salamanca Garden above Picnic Café:
Very pleasant surroundings. Great scones. Muesli has some good aspects (fresh fruit, ample nuts, well toasted) but is compromised by things which should not be found in a muesli for adults: banana and chocolate chips. And by a too-small bowl that makes for an attractive presentation but prevents a good eating experience.
Reviewed May 2020.
Menus, ingredients and opening hours may change. Check with eatery before you visit.