20 August 2009

Oh hi Logan Brown!

I've been absent from the blog for a while, mostly because I've been away on holiday in beautiful Tonga. The only downside to the trip was that whilst swimming with whales I managed to destroy my camera... in any other circumstances I would have been pretty sad, but the whales (2 males and 1 female humpback) were so breathtaking that the loss of a camera seemed fairly minor. Until I find a replacement I'll be trying to use E's camera for reviews, which I'm not so confident about... we'll see.

Before we left, we were lucky enough to have lunch with friends at Logan Brown. Lured in by the promise of a $35 set lunch as part of the Wellington on a Plate festival, we had narrowed it down to the White House, Martin Bosley's, and Logan Brown, and eventually settled on the latter: its central location fit our time constraints better. And, the day of our lunch we learned that Logan Brown had been named Supreme Winner & Best Smart Dining Metropolitan in Cuisine Magazine's Restaurant of the Year Awards - their review here.

The Wellington on a Plate lunch menu, as far as I can tell, is the same as Logan Brown's regular bistro menu ($39.50, available for tables vacated before 7:30), with a glass of Palliser Estate Riesling. Of course, the bistro menu is likely to change, but here's what we had:

For the entree, there was a choice of a Spanish onion tart with chevre, beets and chorizo or a smoked fish cake with gribiche and prawn beignet (pictured).

The fish cake was soft, almost creamy, and the gribiche sauce pleasant, but the real standout in this one was the prawn beignet: a succulent prawn encased in a thin layer of deep-fried dough.

For the main course, there was a choice of wild venison osso buco with parsnip puree, cavolo nero and gremolata and the pancetta wrapped monkfish with soft organic polenta and tomato fondue.

E had the venison, and I managed to sneak a bite of the tender braised meat (and E most generously donated most of the cavolo nero to me as it's one of my favourite greens). Definitely rustic comfort food, this one - and I wouldn't be surprised if a less elegantly presented version came out of my kitchen on a blustery spring day sometime soon.

I had the monkfish, which had a firm, meaty texture offset by the creamy polenta and green beans. If you're a fan of flakier fish species then the monkfish may not be for you, but I quite enjoyed it. The tomato topping had a couple of capers lurking in there - as you might be able to tell from the photo.

The mains were both pretty tasty but R pointed out that they tasted a bit undersalted. I agreed - perhaps a bit more levels of flavour could have been brought out by a tad more salt, but then again, my tastebuds are probably skewed because I tend to use a lot of salt in my cooking (maybe I need to pare this down a bit!). We thought it would have been nice to have a bit of salt and pepper available on the table, though this raised a discussion of whether this would be changing the essence of the chef's creation - this post from Becks and Posh sums it up quite well.

By contrast, the truffled fries with reggiano parmesan ($11 lg/$8 sm) we ordered additionally to the set menu were quite generously salted and topped with a heap of freshly shaved parmesan.

Ordering the fries was a good call on R's part because we were all hungry that day, and of course fine dining establishments tend to practice "quality over quantity." (Strangely, though, after 3 courses, bread, wine and coffee I was more full than I normally am upon leaving a restaurant)

Back to the set menu: for dessert the options were the baked organic vanilla custard with cherry compote and almond sable and churros con chocolate.

I had the custard, and it was probably my favourite part of the meal: smooth and creamy, reminiscent of the interior of a creme brulee but thicker and more decadent, yet not stiflingly rich.

The cherry topping provided a juicy, tart contrast to all the creaminess and in my mind it couldn't have been better.

I have a fond place in my heart for churros - as a kid in Chicago I used to get the crunchy, sugar-coated fried dough sticks at theme parks, baseball games, and anywhere I could lay my hands on them. There, they were almost always filled with chocolate or some variation of a vibrant-red artificial strawberry filling and left in the glass-fronted warmer until they got kind of dried out, which I liked because it made them extra crunchy. Logan Brown's version is perhaps more true to the Spanish variety, served with a rich shot of hot chocolate for dunking. These were light and airy, the interior toeing the fine line that separates "soft" and "mushy" (maybe a little too close to mushy for me?).

It's easy to see why Logan Brown wowed the Cuisine Magazine judges: the dishes seemed well thought-out, the plating artfully done, and service impeccable. The interior of the restaurant, in an old Bank of New Zealand building, is at once classic and contemporary (and I would LOVE to have dinner one day in the upstairs private dining area). But I can't really say it's the best restaurant I've ever been to - maybe it was the salt thing, or maybe it was something about the atmosphere - ambient jazz just feels a bit too cliche for a contemporary metropolitan setting, perhaps? In any case, I'm glad I went, and enjoyed the lunch thoroughly.


Logan Brown
192 Cuba St (Corner of Cuba & Vivian)
(04) 801-5114
Open 7 nights for dinner, Mon-Fri from 12pm for lunch

15 August 2009

Round and Round and Round... Wasabi Sushi

Wasabi Sushi is a kaitenzushi (or sushi train) restaurant on Cuba St, run by the same people who own the Kazu restaurant on Tory St and Kazu Yakitori & Sake Bar on Courtenay Place. I had been there once or twice under its former management (though I can't remember much from those visits), but was pleasantly surprised when I returned from a stint overseas and came across the post-facelift Wasabi.

Although I can't remember the old Wasabi too well, the new one feels a lot brighter, more energetic. The walls are now painted white and ample lighting allows a clear view of the dishes on the conveyor belt which circles around the long-narrow bar. No mood lighting here, but it suits the atmosphere - somewhat fast-paced (though not hurried), lively, fun.

E and I often come here when we need something quick, but don't want junk food. And this is about as fast as it gets: you're seated, drink orders taken, and off you go, pulling food off the conveyor belt as soon as you like.

The sushi, while perhaps not at the standard of a high-grade sushi restaurant in Tokyo, definitely gives a solid performance. On this occasion we started with the salmon nigiri ($2.80) and a small plate of edamame ($2.80), which we nibbled at whilst we gazed at the constant parade of food passing by and waited for our opportunity to pounce.

That opportunity came soon after with a plate of seaweed salad ($3.50), one of my favourites. As an exchange student in Japan during high school, my host mother tried to force me to eat this semi-slimy salad, and I hated it. But, as time went by, I started to actually enjoy the salty, toothsome bite of the seaweed, the hint of savoury sesame. Wasabi's version didn't disappoint, and it was gone in no time.

A lot of the items passing around on the conveyor belt seem to be pretty standard: the same old salmon nigiri, the avocado rolls, and so on. Often (especially when the place is not so full) they are the same old dishes, making their way around twice, three times, and more. Which is fine, but when something interesting pops up, I'm the first to grab it. On this occasion I spotted an eyecatching seared rare beef nigiri ($3.50) .

Although I generally like my meat cooked medium rare or more (stemming from an incident whereby I unwittingly ate raw horse sashimi in Japan), this was actually quite good - there was a hint of soy and sesame - could it have been the flavour of the marinade?

There are a lot of creative-looking sushi rolls making the rounds at Wasabi, such as the spicy roll ($3.50) (I'm unsure what the official name of this creation is) below. Though I'm usually more of a sushi purist (why does everything have to be covered in some crazy sauce?!), they are still quite enjoyable.

Inari-zushi ($2.80), or as we used to call them as kids, o-inari-san ("Mr Honourable Inari"), are about as simple as you can get: a sweet-soy flavoured fried tofu skin, stuffed full of plain sushi rice.

I was a little disappointed that the ones I got yesterday were a little, um... deflated. . I mean, it's great that they're in the cheapest price bracket, and maybe I'm being too picky, but leaving out that extra bit of rice to get the tofu skins filled nice and plump, right to the edges without having to fold up the wrapper, can't possibly be saving that much money? Or maybe it can, there is a recession on after all. (NB: Just Hungry has a great photo of how inari-zushi should look, plus a recipe.) I have no complaints as to taste, though.

A couple of non-sushi dishes that sometimes pop up (unfortunately, I didn't see any on this visit) which are worth snatching off the line include ebi-furai (crumbed prawn), kara-age (Japanese fried chicken) and more. Miso soup and udon noodles are also available if you need something to warm you up, and sushi can be made to order, which is great if you've been staring at the dishes rolling by, waiting for your favourite tempura shrimp roll, which inevitably always seems to get snapped up by the couple sitting closest to the chef.

Now if you have never been to a kaitenzushi restaurant before, you might be wondering how the prices are calculated. Simple! The plates are colour coded, with each plate representing a different price bracket. Everything that passes by in front of you is priced between $2.80 and $5.50. When you're done eating, you go to the counter, and someone will count up the plates stacked up at your place and your bill is calculated accordingly. When finished, you'll end up with something like this...

Wasabi is a fun place to go for a quick bite, but beware of going there on a totally empty stomach: although each dish might be cheap, it adds up quickly! Due to the layout, it's probably not somewhere you'd want to go for group conversation: everyone sits in a line along the conveyor belt bar, so it's really only easy to talk to the person sitting next to you. Even though the concept of a sushi train restaurant is self-service, staff were prompt, attentive and courteous (this seems to be standard among the Kazu group of restaurants). Although Wasabi isn't perfect, it is definitely among my favourite sushi spots in Wellington. Recommended.


Wasabi Sushi
173 Cuba St

Open Tues-Sun for lunch and dinner (fully licenced)

12 August 2009

The Bean Scene: Deluxe

I've been meaning to write about Deluxe ever since the inception of this blog. I mean, I live right around the corner and I'm there nearly every day (addicted to their flat whites and date, orange & vanilla scones), so according to conventional wisdom it would be the first place for me to review.

But it's way harder than it seems. For starters, I've had such a hard time remembering to take in my camera when I pop over for my usual coffee and baked treat. Even when I do, I'm usually alone, and when I'm alone I get stuck with the thoughts in my head, and then I start to worry about silly things like what the other people in the cafe or the baristas I interact with on a daily basis are going to think about me suddenly whipping out a camera and photographing the gorgeous baked goods behind the counter, the eclectic decor, the collections of constantly rotating, reasonably priced artwork for sale...

I know, my mother always told me I shouldn't care what other people think. And when I'm with someone else, or in a bigger space, it's a lot easier to get the camera out and snap away. But in this tiny, intimate space on Kent Terrace - which somehow feels like my tiny, intimate space - I'm suddenly shy, and just order my coffee and bury my nose in the paper and push all blogging intentions aside. A sign of weakness? Maybe.

And then there's the question of what to write about. Imagine having only a few paragraphs to write about your dad, your best friend, your crazy wackjob cousin. Sure, you could describe their appearance, their personality, perhaps even throw in an anecdote or two. But you know there's so much more to them than you could ever possibly write, unless you turn it into a novel or a feature-length film.

It's much the same with my favourite cafe. I'm not going to pretend to be unbiased here: I love Deluxe. But I can't think of the first place to start. In fact, this has taken me so long that I can no longer remember the exact filling of the filo parcel ($6) pictured below (though I think it had pine nuts in it).

But I can tell you that it was good. Pretty much everything Deluxe serves up is good (well, everything that I've tried so far, and I admit I stick to what I know).

Your choice is limited to what's on offer behind the counter - not that that's much of a limitation: an ever-changing array of salads, sandwiches, filo parcels, "savoury balls", pizza slices, as well as a myriad of baked sweets are there for the picking. Most of the savoury food is pretty vegetable-focused. Though you see the occasional salami on sandwiches, vegetarians are spoilt for choice here and they seem to always have some vegan and gluten-free options available.

The main reason I keep coming back, though, is I'm addicted to their coffee. Deluxe uses Havana beans (a fair trade blend) and creates perfect espresso-based coffee. Their flat whites are just the right texture, velvety, yet not too creamy or frothy; and the flavour is spot on - neither watery nor too bitter.

Everything is reasonably priced between about $3.50-$4 for a muffin or slice, to $5.50 for cakes and tarts (like the lemon ricotta tart to the right), to $6-$7.50ish for filos, salads and sandwiches.

The only downsides are its overwhelming popularity - lines are inevitable, and a table can be sometimes hard to come by. Plus, it's such a tiny space that the tables and chairs are understandably tiny too - not necessarily optimal for lounging about. And if you get there late at night (they're usually open till at least 11) the food selection may have diminished somewhat.

Enough of my gushing adoration for this stalwart of Wellington's cafe scene. Go there yourself. Make up your mind. And if you see a lone, shifty-eyed person trying to sneak a photo whilst drinking a flat white and reading the World section of the Dom Post, feel free to say hello.

RATING: 4.5/5

Deluxe Cafe
10 Kent Tce
04 801 5455

09 August 2009

Cheap n' Tasty: Mekong Cafe

I always walk past Mekong Cafe, the dingy little Vietnamese noodle house on Vivian St, yet I had never been inside until last week. I had heard good things about their pho bo, though, and was curious to find out for myself. Plus, the table settings, complete with the tray full of various condiments and a box of tissues, was straight out of a scene in Southeast Asia.

Upon examining their menu, the item that excited me the most was not one of their various pho soups, nor the fresh and fried spring rolls available. On the back page, a list of beverages, specifically milkshakes that screamed tropical Asia: jackfruit, durian, avocado... While unconventional for New Zealand, avocado milkshakes were one of my favourite drinks while living in Singapore. Sweet, milky, with a hint of cooling avocado flavour - of course I immediately ordered one.

It arrived true to form, with that pale-green tinge so reminiscent of travels in a much warmer place. And it didn't disappoint - though slightly heavy on the condensed milk flavour, it was just as refreshing as I remembered. Nevermind that it's still winter here..

Since we were pretty hungry we had Mekong's special spring rolls ($6) as an entree. I'm not sure what makes these different from their regular spring rolls, as they tasted pretty standard to me, and a little over-fried, though still quite good.

I had the combination rare & cooked beef pho ($10), which was served with a plate of bean sprouts, coriander and a lemon wedge, which I immediately dumped atop the plentiful rice noodles and sliced beef swimming in the broth. It was pretty satisfying, though I thought the broth was a little lacking in complexity (possibly because it only had a few little bits of green floating around as opposed to the more generous herbaceousness I'm used to?). This wasn't too big of a problem once the tableside condiments worked their wonder (especially the homemade chilli paste/sauce). I thought that the rare beef to cooked beef ratio was pretty low, though this is understandable for a $10 dish, and the slices of rare beef that I did find were at the perfect tenderness. All up, though, it's a great value at $10 (I could only finish half, electing to take the rest home for the next day's breakfast), and definitely tasty.

I think the real star of the show, though, was E's be bung ($10), a bowl of rice noodles, stir-fried beef, meatballs, cut up spring rolls, and shredded carrot, flavoured with fresh mint leaves, a bit of chilli, and ground peanuts.

With a few additions from the condiment tray, E mixed the whole thing together and the result was delightful. The noodles were toothsome, the flavour full of umami and the fresh mint added that unmistakable Vietnamese flair. Next time this is what I'll be ordering, no doubt.

Although we were stuffed, I insisted on ordering dessert. The backlit plastic signboard on the wall advertised a curious-looking dish labelled simply as "hot mung bean" ($3) and I had to know what it was.

Two gooey rice dumplings arrived, floating in sweetened coconut milk and topped with ground peanuts. I wondered what the "mung bean" part was all about, until I bit into one of the dumplings which was filled with a yellow bean paste. This dessert was pretty enjoyable, similar to the Japanese daifuku (sweet rice dumplings filled with red bean paste) I loved eating in Japan. I'm not sure if most people would like it, though - E found the textures a bit strange - but at $3, anyone can afford to be adventuresome!

Although the ambience isn't spectacular (glaring fluorescent lights leave little to the imagination) and it looks kind of dodgy, Mekong Cafe far exceeded my expectations. Service was friendly, and food was delivered quickly, even as they negotiated several takeaway orders during our time there. Plus, for 2 people at dinnertime our bill came to $33 - including both entree and dessert! That's pretty hard to beat.

Rating: 3.5/5

Mekong Cafe
138 Vivian St
Te Aro
(04) 801 8099

08 August 2009

Top Notch Toppy's

Escaping Wellington one weekend, M and I found ourselves at Toppy’s Bar & Cafe in Martinborough for a leisurely late lunch before meandering in Gertie (my cute green Citroen) to the south coast. Overwhelmed by the amount and gorgeousness of the eateries in Martinborough (and the wider Wairarapa for that matter), we chose Toppy’s just for its sunnyness – the historic building is situated on a corner site that captures the late afternoon rays. We just ate from the cabinet, but they had a great looking menu – homemade pizzas (I can personally vouch for the ‘Ngawi’ pizza, named after local fishing village), pies, gourmet burgers and the like. Today I had the soup of the day ($7.50), which lucky for me was the velvety cauliflower, blue cheese and smoky bacon soup. The soup was served in a huge bowl, and was absolutely delicious. The blue cheese did not overpower the delicate cauli flavour, just giving the dish a stunning creaminess and the bacon was shredded and had obviously come out of a bacon hock stock. The soup was so scrumptious that I was only slightly disappointed by the side of toasted standard-supermarket-bought bread. But really, in a town renowned for its artisanal fare, supermarket bought bread is not ok – there is a bakery up the way. M had a homemade venison pie, which I greedily stole a forkful of. I hope these guys enter the NZ pie competitions, because it was prizewinning – the pastry was buttery and light, not stodgy and heavy or too crunchy. The venison was tender and lovely (perhaps from Scotty’s Meats up the road?) and there was a good meat-to-gravy ratio. We chose coffee rather than the local wine (though they have a good selection on offer). I can’t recall what coffee they use, but it was good – flat white was strong and the cappuccino was milky-fluffy without compromising the coffee kick. Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos, as I was too ravenous and forgot to get my camera out of the car! A relaxing spot to sit on a sundrenched barstool with the newspaper, some good local fare and a hit of caffeine, without breaking the bank (as you often can do in this wee town).

1 Jellicoe St (The Square)
South Wairarapa
06-306 9270
No menu yet

06 August 2009

Upcoming Events: Wellington on a Plate

You might have already heard of this but there's a new food festival in Wellington this month. Unfortunately I'll be overseas for most of it, but it definitely seems worth checking out (go to wellingtononaplate.com or pick up one of the brochures that seem to be floating around town). There are plenty of events planned, like food tours, tasting sessions, special meals on at various restaurants - it seems as though the same people behind the Harbourside Market and the new City Market are involved. Prices vary from free or cheap (coffee tasting sessions (free), market tours ($15)) to prohibitively expensive ($399! for the Martinborough Chef's Tour which includes a helicopter flight, meals and accommodation at the Bolton Hotel - I guess it'd be worth it if you can afford it).

Glad to see Wellington embracing its culinary culture!

Watering Holes: The Pit Bar @ BATS

Last night I found out that one of my good friends (who just happens to be a talented musician) was going to be playing at the Pit Bar prior to the showing of Vienna Verona at BATS Theatre. "Why, that's just down the street from my house!" I thought. So, my plans of cooking an elaborate dinner flew out the window and E and I dashed down the road to the Pit.

Given its proximity to my house (and Courtenay Place), I'm actually pretty surprised that I hadn't been there before. Housed inside the BATS theatre building, it's a cosy little space, perfect for a pre-show drink or two.

The Pit isn't much bigger than my living room, and it has an adorably sashed window (where H, aka Tiny Ruins played), charming wicker chairs and locally-made artwork hung on the walls. For such a small space, they have a surprising number of bands and musicians playing, as the many posters near the doorway suggest. I'd love to see more gigs there, as it's such an intimate venue.

I didn't actually watch the play at BATS, though I may check it out later in the week(shortened versions of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and Romeo and Juliet, put on by Three Spoon Theatre), so while the Pit was a hive of activity beforehand, during the show it was understandably empty. That said, the bar staff were amiable and engaged us in friendly banter as we sipped our drinks and ate a handful of sweets sneakily snatched from BATS' foyer.

The Pit, while small, has decidedly good taste: their beer list includes the entire Tuatara range, as well as Emerson's and Mac's. If you're on a budget, their house wine is not to be missed at $6 (and of course there are more expensive varieties). And they seem to be pretty well-stocked in terms of spirits despite the tiny bar space. Hmm, perhaps I should make this place my local?

The Pit Bar
BATS Theatre
1 Kent Tce