Thursday, November 30, 2006

New Zealand: Eating & Food Shopping - Wellington

It may take less time to fly to Wellington than it does to many Australian destinations, and we may recognise many similarities between ourselves and the Kiwis, but the differences are just as entrancing. Speed humps are judder bars, supermarket trolleys are trundlers, thongs are jandles, small or little is wee, and you can still buy and set off your own firecrackers. Left: Oriental Bay, photo courtesy Jeremy Ginsberg

Guy Fawkes night is celebrated on November 5th and children can gaily attempt to blow off their extremities with impunity, instead of being subjected to the nanny state restrictions we increasingly endure in Australia. Rather than being herded into venues to watch someone else have all the fun of lighting the fuse, parents can gather the pets inside and watch their progeny in the back yard develop the arsonistic tendencies we all enjoyed as children by igniting multiple bungers. Gunpowder, treason and plot indeed. Brings a tear to the eye.

Supermarkets sell beer and wine at by far the cheapest prices compared to liquor outlets, Pharmacies sell lottery tickets, and you can scan your own groceries with a hand scanner rather than queuing up at the checkout. A parking space in the CBD can still be got for under $10 per day. But they don’t call it Windy Wells for nothing (sorry, Wundy Wills). If you have long hair like I do you will need to factor in an extra 15 minutes a day just to get the knots out of your hair, which will become irreversibly hedgehog-like as the days progress. The weather is temperamental, or more appropriately, just mental. It’s said you get four seasons in one day but New Zealand has actually manufactured an extra four seasons, giving you eight in one day with an earthquake thrown in for good measure. This meteorological terrorism ensures that eveyone is obsessed with the weather and when to hang the washing out, and all tourists return home with both a tan and a head cold.

Left: Margarita slushies on the sunny back deck.

Because of fickle weather, Wellingtonians take utmost advantage of the sun. Plenty of inclement days allow for indoor sports and cable TV. When the sun peeks from behind the clouds, immediately the buzz of lawnmowers fills the air, the BBQ's are dragged out, and sunglasses and singlet tops are donned. For the first few days of my visit with G and Burger Man this was the situation. So off we went to forage around the city and suburbs to find material for grazing plates and outdoor food before the good weather disappeared.

Petone (pronounced pet-OWN-ee, or “pet-1” as we perversely preferred to call it) is a little seaside suburb about 10 or so minutes from the city and is becoming known for delis, spice shops and purveyors of cheese. Ontrays (8 Fitzherbert St, website not yet active) was originally little more than a cheese shop, with a smattering of South African treats from owners Steven and Valda Sheckter’s homeland. It is now a rag-tag, piled high emporium of things from all sorts of places around the world. You’re greeted with a bright hello and a complementary coffee of your choice as you browse, trying not to knock anything off the narrow isles with your handbag. Ortiz anchovies and other Spanish and Portuguese delights, Greg Malouf’s Middle Eastern Spice range, canned and bottled preserves from Europe, sweets and chocolates, and a blinding array of cheese. We make off with the Ortiz which I must say are half the price we pay for them in Australia (Simon Johnson, I’m talking to you) Dukkah to rub on a lamb rack, and goat cheese covered olives.

Not far away La Bella Italia (10 Nevis St) is like walking into a pocket of Italy. Groceries and Italian wines and liqueurs down one side, fresh and dried pasta at the back, an osteria (cafe restaurant) through the middle, and a salumeria, cheese section and gelato bar flank the third side. Somewhat narcissistically the walls are laden with blown up pictures of owner Antonio Cacace’s childhood, but whatever – they’re evocative of the vibe in the place. Loaded up with lovely imported proscuitto, sopressa salami, fresh basil and buffala mozzarella: I can see pizza in my future.

Closer in to town a relative newcomer is La Cloche French Delicatessen (134 Hutt Road, Kaiwharawhara*) is the brianchild of the team who started the French Restaurant François in Thorndon (pictured left). Imported French delicacies, cheese, chacuterie and French wine are their stock in trade and the café section at the weekends is packed solid offering a plat du jour and staples like croque monsieur.

(* a note on pronunciation, if you didn’t already know: for Maori place names such as this one, the “wh” is pronounced “f” so this suburb is K’eye- fara- fara. Just so you don’t whuck it up).

Moore Wilson is a massive food, wine and kitchen equipment warehouse on the corner of Tory and College Streets in the city. Head here for fresh produce including seafood and live mussels, veggies and meat (where the selection runs to venison, wallaby and rabbit) cheeses, breads and other deli goods. And for that after dinner, before dinner or mid afternoon treat Schoc Chocolaterie and Espresso Bar, (11 Tory Street) is the city stockist the fantastic choccies from the Schoc mother store in Greytown, which I’ve written about previously.

There are some excellent top shelf eateries in Wellington like Logan Brown and Citron, to name just two, but we instead headed for some more middle of the road establishments. A few didn’t really bear up to anything review worthy, but here are three that we enjoyed.

Wellington is a major centre for Malaysian food and the landscape is pretty competitive, with 32 Malaysian restaurants vying for custom. One of the well regarded and extremely inexpensive choices is Roti Malaysian Espresso Café (149 Willis St). Run by Malay Indians, the menu (available online) covers a wealth of Malaysian treats and all their roti bread is handmade in the restaurant. It’s a bustling and cute hole in the wall in the middle of the CBD and by 12.30 was full to the brim on a Wednesdday lunchtime. No wonder, as a fabulous authentic and tasty meal for three cost NZ$46.50 plus wine.

Handmade flaky rotis
Roti Chani with chicken curry sauce $7.50

Chicken Bhaji $7.50

Chicken Satay $7.50

Beef Rendang $13.50

Mee Goreng $10.00 (looks messy, tastes great!)

Left: Poon's beef noodles: Braised beef with star anise seed, dark soy and rice wine, served with udon noodles $22.00

Following on an Asian fusion theme we headed further up the slopes of the city near Lambton Quay to Dojo (‘place of the way’) which has a distinctly Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese leaning. Manager and chef Ming creates healthy and innovative dishes in a stylish and funky room atop French Bar Beaujolais in fashionable Woodward St. Their website doesn’t seem to work, but the link above will take you to a sample menu from another site. The stand out dishes were probably the duck san choi bau and the brulee, but the clay pot noodles were filling, tasty and warming and the chicken noodles featured fresh edamame (soy beans). The roasted chilli paste was a welcome hit too.

Crispy squid rings with seven spices mayonnaise $13.00

Dojo: The upstairs interior of the very funky dining room

Duck san choi bau with lychee and Vietnamese mint crush $19.00.

Crispy chicken noodles: Japanese fried chicken served with
7 spices mayo and udon in a Tokyo soy broth $19.00

Lime leaf and coconut creme brulee $11.00

Good old upside down berries and lemon pudding with saffron custard $11.00

Left: Carpaccio of salmon in citrus dresssing $15.90

A Wellington Italian institution situated in elegant Thorndon, Maria Pia’s Trattoria (55 Mulgrave Street) serves traditional Puglian influenced food. The cute cottage is packed with a jumble of memorabilia and photos from the restaurant’s history and Maria often wafts around the dining room spreading cheer.

On the rainy windy day we blew in off the street the little open fire was welcoming and warming (yes, an open fire in late November, you read it correctly). We were a little disappointed with the truncated lunch menu, having set our hearts on some of the luscious dishes to be found in descriptions of the restaurant and in the full dinner menu. But in a show of flexible excellence they bent the rules a little for us and we were able to try items from the dinner menu that didn’t require too much preparation to get onto the table.

The food is rustic and the servings are huge, as they are in most NZ restaurants, so beware! By this stage I'd stopped bothering about entrees as the main course sizes precluded much else. I suppose the trend in Sydney is towards smaller servings and tasting plates, but this hasn't caught on here yet.

Maria Pia's dining room, complete with a fire in November.

Who needs flowers when you have fresh asparagus?

Veal scallopine with vincotto sauce, wilted spinach and braised lentils

Above and below: Homemade duck ravioli with
porcini mushroom sauce and parmesan: hearty!

I’m still amazed that everywhere we went for lunch we got a parking space a few steps from the restaurant.

One quirk in Wellington eating occurs on the weekends. Many middle range restaurants change their usual lunch menus to an all day breakfast menu, so if you front up expecting a reasonable range of choices you can unexpectedly be confronted with bacon and eggs or pancakes as the only options. You’re best advised to check in advance.

Wellington is a city where you can easily walk places as long as you don't mind the wind. To seek shelter you can walk around the fascinating Te Papa Museum (above) near the waterfront and take in their collection of natural history, maori culture and special exhibitions. Don't miss the gift shop which houses a spectacular range of New Zealand crafts, art, jewellery and souvenirs.

More to come:

Picton, Havelock and the Marlborough Sounds
Kaikoura and the Coast
Blenheim and the Wairau Valley Vineyards

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Anna at Morsels and Musings is creating a festive food fair and compiling posts about pre-Xmas yummy stuff. While this recipe is not necessarily Xmas-y, it is inspired by the season leading up to December here in the Southern Hemisphere. In addition to welcoming the first budburst of grapes in Spring, because that means the next wine vintage will approach post haste, I am always gagging for Dolmades as soon as I see the lacy green leaves unfurl in the sun. 'Dolma' comes from the Turkish word meaning "to stuff" and can be used to refer to many stuffed vegetable dishes. This recipe is in the Greek tradition, particularly if you serve it with lemon sauce.

In my opinion fresh leaves taste much better and are more tender then anything preserved in vinegar and they are at their best around late October and early November depending on the year and the climate. One Shiraz grape vine won’t send me into the dizzy realms of commercial wine production, but it’s darn handy for Dolamdes and Verjuice if I can get the unripe grapes before the birds do.

Pick lots of grape leaves – you need enough to line the pan and to roll the little parcels. Older larger leaves will do for lining and tender smaller ones for the Dolma. Blanch them for about 5 seconds in hot water then spread them out, underside up with the stem end towards you, ready for the filling. The filling is the same as the one I use for Cabbage Rolls

Mix together in a bowl:

500g lamb mince
1 large onion, finely chopped and fried ‘til golden in a little olive oil
½ cup of uncooked long grain rice (basmati is good for this)
3 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh mint
Ditto of dill
Ditto of flat leaf parsley
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ nutmeg, grated
1 large or 2 small Roma tomatoes, finely chopped
Lots of fresh ground black pepper
Pinch of salt

Line a large deep saucepan with large blanched leaves. To make the Dolma with the smaller leaves, take a dessert spoon full of mixture and lay it on the leaf about 1cm from the stem. Fold in the two sides and roll up into a cigar shape. Lay the cigar seam side down into the pan. Repeat the process packing the Dolma tightly around the base, then on top of these, making two or three layers. Lay the remaining large leaves over the top and cover with an upturned plate. This makes about 55-60 Dolma.

1 - 1 ½ litres of hot chicken stock
½ cup of white wine
50 g butter.
Pat the top of the rolls with small pieces of butter and pour over the wine. Pour on the stock to come to the top of where the rolls sit in the pan. Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid. Place over the heat and bring to the simmer, then simmer gently for 1 ½ - 2 hours. After cooking remove the plate and covering leaves and arrange on a serving plate and cover with a vinaigrette dressing or beat 2 eggs with an electric mixer until light and fluffy and slowly pour in the strained stock from the pan and the juice of one lemon while beating to make a light egg and lemon sauce.