25 June 2009

The Teriyaki Blues - Kazu [restaurant]

I'm very picky about Japanese food. I think it might have something to do with my part-Japanese upbringing as well as time spent living in Japan (eating rice and miso soup for breakfast or dinner more often than not). Whatever the reason, I'm a stickler for authenticity.

The Kazu group of eateries, made up of the restaurant on lower Tory St, the yakitori/sake bar on Courtenay Place, and the new kaiten-zushi (sushi train) restaurant on Cuba St, have proved to be authentic both in atmosphere and cuisine. After all, what first brought my attention to Kazu (restarant) on Tory St some years ago was the presence of ochazuke on the menu. I was thrilled to see this - it's more of a home-style dish, something you'd eat as a snack, pouring hot water or green tea over rice with some seasonings like leftover salmon and spring onion, or pickled plum and seaweed. Definitely not something teriyaki-chicken-accustomed Westerners would expect, or order. And on one of my first visits to the restaurant, I had saba no shioyaki - simple grilled mackerel, seasoned with salt, with a lemon wedge and a mound of daikon-oroshi (grated daikon radish) on the side. It was exquisite: unadulterated, fresh, absolutely delicious.

But perhaps a simple slab of fish, served with rice and miso soup, doesn't fit the Kiwi idea of Japanese food. And perhaps neither does a bowl of rice in a steaming savoury broth with salmon, wasabi, bonito flakes, a bit of seaweed. Because on a recent visit, I noticed the menu has changed dramatically from that first visit over 2 years ago.

Gone are the ochazuke, the simple grilled fish, those things that made Kazu stand out from the other Japanese restaurants in Wellington. While there is still a decent selection of sushi and sashimi, the menu seems to be now centred entirely on teriyaki chicken and other dishes doused in sauce: teriyaki tofu, teriyaki salmon, teriyaki chicken noodle soup, chicken with wasabi sauce. I was more than a little bit saddened by this change; it seems to me like pandering to Western tastes instead of giving us those unique choices that give a feel of authenticity.

So I ordered the unagi-don (aka unadon) ($21), grilled eel coated in a sweet, soy-based sauce, served over a bowl of rice.

Luckily, the quality of the cooking survived the Westernisation of the menu: I can still say it was authentic, the sauce subtly sweet, not overpowering, the mild flavour of the eel coming through. It came with a bowl of miso soup and a few pieces of tsukemono (Japanese pickles) on the side, which were both acceptable.

E ordered - what else - the teriyaki chicken set ($26). Though it was the last thing I felt like eating after staring at a menu full of teriyaki, I had a few bites and can give my stamp of approval, as it was juicy, and not overly smothered in sauce.

The set was beautifully presented, and came with crumbed prawn, fatty salmon sashimi, 2 pieces of sushi (salmon and tuna), rice, miso soup, and some edamame.

It was good to see that Kazu still offers genmaicha (green tea with toasted brown rice which gives it a nice roasty aroma) in addition to the normal green tea, though we didn't partake this time as it was BYO Sunday ($5 corkage)

For dessert, too, I was happy to see that they still offered black sesame ice cream ($6), which is as innately Japanese, though lesser-known, than green tea ice cream.

It has a unique, nutty flavour that is a must-try for those unacquainted with it (and please order it so that it too doesn't disappear off the menu!)

So, while I lament the dramatic menu changes, we still managed to have an enjoyable meal. Service was impeccable (though I do think this was partly due to us dining late on a Sunday night), the atmosphere still unmistakably Japanese, and fans of sushi and teriyaki-flavoured meat will have lots to choose from. Just remember, though, that there's more to Japanese cuisine than teriyaki chicken.


(though the food was delicious, I'm super bummed about the "dumbing-down" of the menu. Bring back the grilled saba!)

KAZU [restaurant]
13 Tory St
(04) 802 5298

Dinner, Tuesdays-Sundays from 5:30pm

21 June 2009

A Visit to the City Market

I had no excuse not to go, really. Deadlines, due dates, and overall busy craziness have all but halted my usual hedonistic pattern of eating out whenever E and I are too lazy to cook, too tired to do the dishes, or just want to try something new. In fact, all I could really muster for nearly 2 weeks in a row was either toast and jam or Artisano's "The Godfather" Minestrone (quite an acceptable substitute for homemade, by the way). And when the City Market opened up last Sunday, I was too busy to go check it out on its opening day.

But I really had no excuse - after all, I only live 5 minutes' walk away, I was already at the outdoor markets in the Te Papa parking lot (buying/tasting delicious sausages, veges, pizza by the slice, macadamia nut butter - oh my God...). So ever since I got home that day I was kicking myself for not going, and waiting impatiently for this Sunday to roll around.

Well, it was fantastic. Held in the sunlit Chaffers Dock Atrium, next to Herd St Brasserie and the Movenpick stall, there are a select group of vendors selling all sorts of speciality goods: from pâté to sourdough loaves to free range eggs and cheese. I didn't get to try everything (and ran out of cash before I could go nuts and blow all my savings on gourmet products) but here is just a small selection of what was there:

The lovely stallholders from Horowhenua Produce had on display a gorgeous array of fresh veg. I got a flawless-looking head of broccoli which I'm very excited to cook up this week! Their stand was so beautifully laid out that I couldn't resist taking heaps of photos:

Just recently there was an item in the news about a Navy captain who banned brussels sprouts from his boat. Now I'm not a fan of brussels sprouts myself, but the ones above actually make me want to buy them - so plump and green and... healthy-looking? Hmm. I digress...

And those carrots - so knobbly and quaint. Okay, I'm going a little too gaga over veggies.

I've never been to Le Marché Français in Thorndon, but they had an impeccably presented selection of French cheeses

I usually am a big fan of NZ cheeses - something in the "Buy NZ Made" campaigns or locavorism must have gotten to me - but these were great quality AND surprisingly inexpensive too! I came back for a second tasting (whoops, hope they didn't notice me sneaking around twice) and ended up taking home a quarter of the soft, gooey, Brie-like Coulommier. Only $6 - a bargain!

Okay, here is another one that I am just raving about still: Loukoumi Turkish Delights. Now, I'm not a regular eater of these gelatinous sweets but look at how many flavours - !!!

There were so many - from the traditional rose flavour to lime, grapefruit, honey & fig, hazelnut - oh my!! It was really delightful and I'm happy to report that they had little 4-piece baggies for sale, at only $2 a bag. I really love when vendors do this, as I won't buy a larger box (unless for a gift) as I usually don't have the willpower not to eat the whole thing in one go, and it makes the coin go so much further when you're buying more from different stalls, albeit in smaller portions. Go the small sizes! End of rant.

We got a one of those rustic-looking sourdough loaves (bottom right corner) and a couple of mini baguettes from The French Baker. (by the way, I was loving the number of French people out and about today - was it because of the rugby last night?)

I usually buy my jam from the outdoor markets next door, but there were several jam-makers sampling their wares which made me happy... I picked up a jar of Martinborough Manner's Raspberry and Citrus Jam to take to my grandma.

There was a lot more that we tried that I didn't take photos of - Tuatara beers were being sampled - they have a new lager called Helles (so new it's not even up on their website!) which I really enjoyed, more than the Pilsener, I think - though whether it will replace the extra-strength Ardennes as my favourite is yet to be seen. And there was olive oil, lemon curd, terrines and smoked salmon pâté and a spectacular-looking fish and oyster display.

I topped it off with a spiced tarakihi wrap from Martin Bosley's stand - there was a table set up where they were dishing up this fresh, juicy fish, lightly spiced, with yoghurt and cucumber dressing and a bit of fresh greens, wrapped in corn tortillas. I was thrilled to get this as I've never been to Martin Bosley's restaurant and had heard that he was one of the driving forces behind this new market.

Yup - it was pretty darn good... though the corn tortilla did fall apart a bit at the end. I would have maybe preferred a bit more spice, but the flavour of the fish itself really shone through. A fitting end to a gastronomic Sunday morning.

(kudos to those who scrolled down this far. I promise to keep my posts shorter and sweeter in coming days but was so excited by this morning's shop. Oh, and there are expected to be new vendors at the market each week, so this may not be the last post! --millie)

City Market: Highly recommended (especially pre- or post-outdoor markets near Te Papa)

Chaffers Dock Atrium (the ground floor of that big tall building right by Waitangi Park)
1 Herd St
Every Sunday Morning

04 June 2009

Calypso Cafe, or How to Get Warm on a Cold Night

Back in 2006, I spent a short summer in Belize. While there's a lot to like about the tiny, laid-back country, the best part by far was the food. You see, Belize, like many other countries in the region, is a melting-pot for cultures. It's got Hispanic and Indian influences from its Central American location, African influences from the Garifuna communities on the coast, and Caribbean flavours from its position flanking the western Caribbean sea. I ate a lot of rice and beans, arguably Belize's national dish (and damn good too for such a simple food) - cooked with coconut milk, eaten with pepper (Belizean hot pepper sauce... watch out!), and maybe a stewed chicken leg or two. Then there were the fresh flour tortillas my host mother, Lily, used to make: hot, fluffy and chewy, they were more like naan bread than the flat, cardboard-like tortillas I was used to at home. Every morning, Lily would get out the balls of dough rolled the night before, flatten them out, and toss them on a hot plate until they were just puffy and browned enough, then put them in a plastic bowl covered with a towel. I shouldn't forget to mention the obvious here: the spirit of choice in the Caribbean is rum (think pirates) and a LOT of rum was consumed during that summer, most treasuredly in the form of sweet, fruity rum punch.

When I got back to Wellington, of course, I tried to replicate my Belizean favourites. My attempt at home-made tortillas was a flop... the hard little discs, burnt on one side, were not even remotely close to Lily's perfected pillows of chewy bread. My attempt at rice and beans... well, let's just say the only reason why it didn't set off the smoke alarm was because, at the time, my flat didn't have a smoke alarm. So it was with dejected sadness that I resigned myself to not eating Caribbean food anytime soon... until one tired Sunday morning...

I first discovered Calypso Cafe at the old Wakefield market. My then-flatmates and I used to go to the food court there on Sunday mornings. It was a crazy old place with strange, colourful old murals (of chicken drumsticks and baskets of fruit, if I remember correctly) , and an assortment of small, independently-run food stalls of all varieties: Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, Indian, Pasta, etc... and then there was Calypso, the Caribbean stall. I knew I was onto something when I ordered my first plate of jerk chicken: while not quite Belizean (jerk, a spicy seasoning rubbed onto meats before grilling, isn't so common in Belize as in the islands), this was closer than I had ever expected to get in Wellington, with a huge plate piled with tender, spicy chicken, an assortment of tropical vegetables, rice and beans (again, while not quite like the Belizean version, delicious), and a couple carefully placed sweets: rockmelon, mango, sugarcane. There was care being put into the food, I could tell... it was more than a sloppy plate of greasy noodles, that's for sure. I was hooked.

Later, when the stall shut for several weekends in a row (a sign said something about a family illness), and then the Wakefield Market shut down altogether (to make way for an apartment development that seems to be stalled indefinitely), I gave up hope of ever tasting Calypso's offerings again. Then in late 2007 I passed the second incarnation while driving in Karori: Calypso Jerkshack, a takeaway shop. Delighted, I immediately changed my dinner plans and picked up a couple orders of jerk pork and calypso chicken (stewed in coconut milk and lime juice). Ava, the owner, is from Barbados, and was very happy to chat with me, and we swapped comparisons of Barbados and Belize. I never made it back there, though, as I didn't usually have a car and Karori was much too far for my lazy ass to walk.

Fast forward to 2009. I've returned from another tropical expedition, this time in Singapore, and, in longing for laksa and roti prata, have nearly forgotten about the joys of Caribbean cuisine. That is, until I start passing Calypso's newest incarnation, Calypso Cafe on Taranaki St. Once again the desire for spicy stews and rice and beans hits, and it has been in the back of my mind ever since. And, on a particularly cold night last weekend, E and I needed all the warming up we could get.

The new restaurant is a lot bigger than the previous versions... I almost worried that it was too big, as we were the only customers when we arrived (I then looked at my watch and noticed we were insanely early for dinner; the place started to fill up as we were leaving). The colour scheme is a cheery blue and gold, which hasn't changed since my memory of the Jerkshack days, and there are some haphazardly hung photographs of Caribbean beaches on the walls. A little homely, but it works. But the best thing of all about Calypso's new location is its liquor licence. It is fully licenced (and E and I had had a hard week), so we both tried out the rum punch ($8).

Well, it's been a while since I've been in the Caribbean, but I was pretty impressed. True to authentic form, these had a sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg along with a mix of refreshing tropical fruit juices and just enough rum that it still had a kick. Even E, who doesn't normally like cocktails, loved it - enough that he ordered 2 more after slurping down the first. And at $8 they won't break the bank, either.

We ordered an entree of jerk pork ($8), which fired up our tastebuds right away with its vibrant spices - we devoured it before any photos could be taken. The pork was juicy, though some pieces were a bit fatty - it didn't detract from the overall experience.

Quite some time, and a couple more rum punches later (the food took a long time- I think everything is cooked to order) our attentive waitress came bearing our mains: lamb etouffee ($18) for E, and pepper pot ($18) for me. "Pepper pot" was one of the specials on the chalkboard that our waitress brought over to the table as we were perusing the menus. I was torn between it and the Calypso Chicken that I had so loved before, but I'm happy for my choice - it was the perfect dish for a cold night.

Chicken, so tender that it's practically falling apart, in a thick, hearty spicy sauce of gooey okra and beans, served in a clay pot atop rice, with an assortment of vegetables on the side. It's definitely not for you if you can't tolerate a bit of heat, since the spices do give it quite a kick, but I have a high spice tolerance and thus found it perfectly warming - comfort food. E didn't enjoy his etouffee quite so much, probably because having worked in a New Orleans restaurant for a year he's used to the hot n' spicy Cajun-style etouffees done there. Nevertheless, I tried it, and while definitely lacking in spice, it was a hearty, mildly-flavoured stew, served over rice, which would make it a good choice for a chilli-phobe wanting to warm their insides.

I must add that the obvious care for ingredients hasn't diminished at all since Calypso's early days at the Wakefield market. There is an assortment of vegetables that you would rarely find on other restaurant menus, such as yucca, okra, cassava, choko, the list could go on. Each dish is carefully garnished with a (seasonally?) changing variety of side veges, and we were also served a Caribbean hot sauce and a pineapple salsa to spoon onto our dishes as we pleased. And the little added touches, such as a slice of papaya or melon on the edge of the plate, were still just as I had remembered from the old days. A definite winner, this place. I only hope that its somewhat awkward location doesn't detract from business.


Calypso Cafe

117 Taranaki St (just off Vivian St, across from Briscoe's)
Te Aro

(04) 801-9333