30 September 2009

Mixed reactions at Satay Village

Malaysian food is one of my favourites, but I rarely eat it anymore. Having returned to Wellington from Southeast Asia, I suppose I've been afraid of disappointment after gorging myself on so many creamy-spicy bowls of laksa and fluffy, chewy, cooked-to-order roti. But it's been almost a year since I flew home from Singapore and my warm memories of Malaysian food are starting turn into piercingly real hunger pangs. So last weekend I got off my high horse and into Satay Village on Ghuznee St.

Years ago, Satay Village was my Malaysian restaurant of choice. Cheap, fast, satisfyingly greasy (but not gut-wrenchingly so), and to my inexperienced palate, delicious. So, how would it hold up now that I've returned?

E and I were given menus and seated, and moments later two glasses of water appeared on our table. The menu doesn't go beyond the basics: laksa, mee goreng, roti chanai, beef rendang, and so on. The moment we decided what we were having, a waitress appeared magically at our table: "You ready to order?" Not overly friendly, but definitely efficient.

And not long after we ordered, our food started to arrive. We had chicken satay ($6 for 4 sticks) which came with a little saucer of peanut sauce. The chicken was nicely charred on the outside, and not too dry: the texture was dead on. But I felt as though both the sauce and the chicken itself could have done with a bit more seasoning. Still, these were satisfying.

The real test, for me, was the curry laksa ($8) and the roti ($2.50). To put it lightly, I was obsessed with laksa whilst living in Singapore... I'd have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner if there weren't so many other foods to try! So, I had to see how Satay Village's laksa stacked up.

The broth was rich and creamy, giving off steam redolent of coconut milk and spice. The noodles were chewy, the chicken and fish cakes standard but faultless, and the fried tofu soaked up the broth wonderfully. The only disappointment was partly my fault, since I unthinkingly replied "medium" when the waitress asked how hot I wanted it. But, for a medium-spicy dish, you would at least expect some heat; I could hardly detect any, and as the soup cooled off it started to taste bland. (I took the leftovers home and added a generous scoop of curry paste; problem solved!)

The roti was not nearly as good. Admittedly I have developed somewhat snobbish tastes when it comes to roti in that I prefer the freshly made: flaky, fluffy, somewhat stretchy. These tasted like they had been reheated (though the crispiness of the edges suggested they hadn't been microwaved): while still chewy enough, they were a little dense and definitely not fluffy or stretchy.

E ordered the chicken mee goreng ($9), a heap of fried egg noodles and chicken dumped unceremoniously on a plate with a smattering of shredded carrots as a garnish. While not the most attractive, it was as good as I remembered: kind of greasy but full of flavour.

All up, my return to Satay Village was a mixed bag, but I think I'll be back. Great value for money, acceptable food, brisk yet satisfactory service. Next time, though, I'll definitely be ordering my laksa "extra hot".


Satay Village
58 Ghuznee St

27 September 2009

Hunting and Gathering

This is more of a boast than a review! But alas – hunting and gathering is a legitimate way to stock the larder. And luckily for me, my flatmate is one of these types. In the warmer months we have paua and crayfish, and last night, wild pork! A perfect comforting meal for one of the last few wintry nights before daylight savings and spring weather wander our way.

Wild pork bears no resemblance to supermarket or commercial pork. It has a depth of flavour and juicy succulence that the former doesn't even come close to. And it has a fantastic rind if you're a sucker for crackling. This meal renewed my faith in pork (post-'porkgate' that has been rearing its ugly head recently in the media). Obviously, everyone doesn't have access to wild pork, and even for those that do it is generally a rare occasion; so I would be interested to know if anyone knows suppliers in Wellington where you can get really good quality free range pork ?...

While Away an Afternoon at Breakers Cafe

Having worked up our appetites spending the morning lusting over vegetable garden seed/plants/potting mix aisles and planning vegetable gardens fit-for-kings, Millie and I decided to take Gertie for a spin round the bays to Seatoun to explore the gastronomic offerings of suburbia. We happened upon Breakers - the cutesy bach-like café on Dundas St. After umming-and-ahhing over the cabinet fare and the blackboard menu, I settled on a vege filo ($5) and a cappucino ($3.50), and Millie chose the vege panini ($7) and a flat white ($3.50). The cabinet was small but well stocked, there was a good variety of sweet eats, but I felt that there could have been more variety than the eggy-pastry-quichey bits for the savoury selection. The blackboard was also a bit ho-hum.

On first glance the cafe looked teeny-weeny, but in fact tucked around the weatherboard corner is a whole other seating area overlooking a sunny outdoor patio – perfect for lazing in the sun while you satiate your weekend food desires. We chose to sit out the front on the wee mosaic tables at to shelter from the howling wind. While commenting on laid-back, small-town feel of the suburb (and watching dogs of all sizes trot past), our coffees arrived.

The coffee was Emporio – it was good. However we both found it to be quite milky, probably due to the larger cup size – though we thought this didn't detract from the quality. We didn't wait long before our lunch arrived, and I was most impressed that they timed the delivery right – mine was cabinet food, and Millie's was off the menu, and many cafe's don't make the effort to bring food simultaneously in this situation. The second thing I think is worth a comment was that my filo pastry retained its crunch – which obviously meant the staff had not nuked it in the microwave, and taken the time to heat it in an oven (either that or they have an ingenious microwave-method that retains the crunch factor).

My little filo-quiche was good, though not overwhelmingly so. It was presented well, with a small salad side and a sauce. The sauce was some straight-out-of-the-bottle plum I think, and I felt it would have been nice to serve with a chunkier relish or similar.

Millie's panini was also well presented with the same salad and sauce. The bread was fresh and well grilled. She felt that the pesto-tomato-spinach-cheese filling could have done with something else, perhaps mushroom or pumpkin to jazz it up a bit, not that it was decidedly lacking – just simple. Overall a great local - standard fare and good coffee, an a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by.

Breakers Cafe

24 Dundas St


(04) 388 5566

24 September 2009

Fidel's is worth the fuss

Fidel's was incredibly packed last Saturday. This wasn't much of a surprise, since the veteran Cuba St cafe is a favourite for the weekend brunch crowd. But this time it was busier than I've seen it in a while, the atmosphere decidedly frenetic. While E and my visiting brother pounced on a just-vacated table, I joined an awkwardly snaking line punctuated by harried-looking waitstaff and waited for my turn to order.

"Have you got a table yet? Because we're pretty full right now and..." No sooner had I nodded than the girl at the counter handed me a number for my coffee and the peach, raspberry and cream cheese brioche ($5) that I ordered. "Oh and it'll probably be a while for your coffee, too," she said, before turning to the next person in line: "Hi! Hi! Excuse me!"

I didn't mind having to wait for my coffee. After all, it was the weekend and it wasn't like I had any big plans. Plus, it gave me time to slowly pull apart and nibble at my brioche.

One of the Fidel's big drawcards for me is their selection of brioches. Fluffy, buttery, eggy: they're definitely rich, but the bread itself isn't too sweet as most of the sugar content has been directed into the fillings. My favourite is their boysenberry-custard filling, but the peach-raspberry-cream cheese variation was just as divine. And the generous sprinkle of sugar crystals, especially on that characteristic little doughball fused to the top, sent my tastebuds into ecstasy.

By the time my flat white ($3.50) arrived, my brioche was long gone. Which was fine; it gave me the opportunity to focus on my coffee. Fidel's is another cafe serving up Havana coffee. I'm a big fan of Havana beans, normally getting my fix at Deluxe. This particular coffee had the whole smooth, frothy thing down pat. But it was a little more front-of-tongue bitter than I'm used to, though not unpleasantly so. I wonder if they use a different blend, or if it's related to how the coffee is made? (Coffee experts, please enlighten me!)

My brother ordered the bean and scrambled egg burrito ($16). Filled with Fidel's chilli black beans and a good portion of cheesy scrambled eggs, it was a respectably solid meal. It came topped with tomato salsa, sour cream and a mystery drizzle of what we guessed was red pepper coulis. I had a bite and couldn't really taste any chilli, but my brother reported that it was the kind of heat that builds up slowly instead of searing your mouth.

(I can't help thinking, with the ends left unfolded, doesn't this burrito look more like a dosa?)

The one disappointment of the morning was E's soup of the day (leek and potato, $10). While it looked and smelled delicious, it was curiously devoid of salt. I'm not talking a little bit undersalted, either: there was no salt to be found. I'm going to put this down to kitchen error, since I'm usually quite happy with Fidel's food. Luckily the problem was remedied using a nearby salt shaker, and the accompanying toasted ciabatta bread was fantastically chewy and crisp, great for dunking into the soup.

Despite the Cuban-themed decor and a couple cursory nods to Cuban cuisine on the menu (black beans and sofrito chicken come to mind), Fidel's isn't really a Cuban cafe. Most of what you get here is pretty standard in cafes across Wellington. But, importantly, their coffee is reliably good, and the food is satisfyingly tasty (salt-less soup snafu aside). Plus, they make their own fresh fruit juice, though I haven't had it in a while.

And despite Fidel's tendency to get madhouse busy on weekends, the atmosphere doesn't suffer too much. Once you sit down with a coffee or pastry you'll forget all about your jumbled attempts to grab a seat somewhere, and relax while reading the newspaper or watching people walk up and down Cuba St.

RATING: 3.75/5

(I had to give it a little extra boost for the brioche - so amazing.)

Fidel's Cafe
234 Cuba St

21 September 2009

News flash (UPDATED) - asparagus flies off the shelf

Horowhenua asparagus ($13.95/kg edited - sorry, I noted the wrong price), spotted at Moore Wilson's.

Asparagus season, my favourite season of all, has begun. I've splurged on some crisp-looking stalks and some prosciutto to mark the occasion... Happy eating, everyone!

UPDATE - I returned to Moore Wilson's a couple hours later and all traces of asparagus had vanished. Glad I was quick, more tomorrow perhaps?

19 September 2009

Curry cravings conquered at Great India

"Let's get curry," E suggested the other day. But it was too late; all the Indian restaurants had closed for the afternoon and the closest thing we could get to Indian food was neon-orange food court butter chicken. We went to Momo Tea for Chinese instead, but for the next few days all I could think of was curry.

Yesterday was our chance. A spare hour at lunchtime saw us heading into Great India with growling stomachs. We obviously weren't the only ones in the mood for curry, as most of the tables were taken and we shared a large, round table with two serious-looking businessmen.

First on the agenda was a mango lassi ($4.50). I tried to save it to drink with my meal, as the smoothie-like yoghurt drink is perfect for taking the heat off a spicy curry. I was so hungry, though, that I ended up guzzling most of it as soon as it arrived.

Unlike most mango lassis, this one wasn't completely blended together. Although I mixed it up right away with my straw, the marbly effect of the syrupy mango and the tangy yoghurt was visually appealing.

We ordered off the $10 lunch menu which includes a choice of main, rice and bread. Choices included both curries and tandoori dishes, which almost tempted me out of my curry cravings... almost.

I had chicken madras with garlic naan and coconut rice. The sauce had a texture quite different from the creaminess of other curries - it was more of a puree. The South Indian influence was apparent with the use of coconut and the extra pile of coconut flakes used to garnish the dish. And I was pleasantly surprised that "medium hot" as the menu proclaimed was spot-on; I found myself trying fruitlessly to suck the last remnants of my mango lassi through the straw in an attempt to cool my mouth.

The curry had pieces of chicken breast, which I found a bit different. I usually prefer the juicier leg or thigh cuts, but this meat wasn't dry like some chicken breast can be. The coconut rice had a full, rich flavour from the coconut and caramelised onions cooked into the rice, and the serving was garlic naan was ample and chewy, perfect for dipping into curry.

E had the gehtu masala - a lamb curry with garlic naan and pulau rice. The lamb, marinated for 48 hours, was tender and meaty and full of flavour.

The curry was a spectacular bright-pinkish red colour, and judging by the sweat on E's brow, amply spiced. The pulau rice provided a nice, mild contrast to the curry, while still flavourful.

Service was excellent even though the restaurant was very busy. Attentive wait staff took our orders soon after we had decided (and not too soon, either), we didn't wait long for our food, and after our meal, as we sat dazed and satiated, a waitress arrived with a basket of hot, minted towels - "to refresh yourselves", she said.

I loved the Bombay Sapphire bottles reused as water bottles.

Great India is, well, great - for reliably good curry, excellent service, and those minted towels. While the dinner menu might be a bit more expensive than your average Indian place, the $10 lunch is great value and seems to be very popular with the Courtenay-Manners office crowd. I know I'll be back soon!

RATING: 4.5/5

Great India
141 Manners St
(04) 384-5755

12 September 2009

Momo Tea on a rainy afternoon

I love rainy spring days. Wellington's wet winters usually get the better of me, and I'm often yearning for sun, but once spring rolls around the grey, melancholy drizzle outside feels just right. Perfect for curling up with a book, or throwing on a raincoat and going for a purposeful walk in the rain, or eating rich, warm comfort food. (Of course it helps if the wind isn't blowing, and if it follows a string of warm, sunny days). And now that winter is receding, I want to hold on to those last vestiges of seasons past.

It was in this frame of mind that E and I put on our raincoats and headed out for a wander along Courtenay Place. We were hungry, but it was past 3pm and all that was open was fast food restaurants or little Asian joints. Wanting to try something new, we settled on Momo Tea.

Its well-lit interior, with colourful green and yellow chairs and almost-stark fluorescent lighting provided a cheery contrast to the dull grey outside. It seems as though half the menu is made up of different drink options - mainly various fruity flavours of bubble-tea drinks ($4.50-$6, though "bubbles", or tapioca pearls, are $1 extra), as well as some juices and interesting options like the lychee yogurt drink ($5.5o), which E ordered. It was refreshing, sweet, and just a bit sour from the "yogurt" flavour - I'm guessing whatever they use is more like Yakult than a thick, creamy yogurt. I ordered a cold sesame milk bubble tea ($7), which looked like it should be a cookies-and-cream milkshake but tasted more like the black sesame ice cream I had at Kazu a while back.

I noticed a variety of "toast" options on the menu, including coconut toast ($3). I ordered it, hoping with all my might that it would be something close to kaya toast. It wasn't - it was a thick, fluffy slice of lightly toasted white bread with some kind of gritty coconut-flavoured butter on top. Not altogether unpleasant, though. With all that butter, sugar and refined flour it falls squarely within that semi-sinful category of comfort food.

Speaking of comfort food, I ordered the braised pork claypot ($12.90) from the little list of specials. I was sold as soon as I saw the words "braised" and "claypot" in the line - just perfect for a rainy day!

Because the menu had just said "pork" I was happily surprised to find that the cut used was pork belly, simmered to a falling-apart state in a sweet, soy-based sauce. It was served with a few pieces of Asian greens (probably to appease the conscience after eating so much melt-in-your-mouth pork fat!), and a plate of rice on the side.

E had an order of the spicy chicken with rice ($11.90). It wasn't really that spicy, but that said, it wasn't totally lacking in heat either. Though plenty oily, it seemed like a more wholesome option, packed full of crisp, stir-fried veggies and chicken.

And, as if they had read our rainy-day mood, there was a shelf full of cards and board games. Some of them were Chinese games we didn't know how to play, but there was also a travel-sized Scrabble, perfect for our little table.

Service was a little haphazard (E received his entire order, including his main, before I was even served my drink), but the waitress who seemed to be running the entire front of house was lovely and very patient with us as we grappled with the extensive drink menu. The food was not bad, and the drinks refreshing, though I wondered if $7 for a bubble tea was a bit excessive. Or maybe not - I'm not in Singapore anymore, after all. All up, not bad for a mid-afternoon cheap feed.

RATING: 3.5/5

Momo Tea
66 Courtenay Place
(04)801 6260

Mon - Thu 11am - 1am
Fri 11amam - 3am
Sat & Sun 12.00noon - 11.00pm

03 September 2009

Simple, authentic pizza at Scopa

Don't get me wrong: I love pizza. It's got to be one of my favourite foods. But often, pizza here (cough cough, major pizza delivery chains) can be so mediocre, the essentials (crust/base, tomato sauce, cheese) being drowned out by a truckload of toppings, swirls of barbecue and/or sweet chilli sauce, so that what you're really eating is a smorgasboard of everything imaginable, doused in sauce and plopped onto a slab of dough. I like toppings, just not to the extent that you lose sight of what you're actually meant to be eating! Hmm, so maybe I'm a purist.

Anyway, I'm always thrilled when I discover a place that has mastered what pizza should taste like, before going nuts with wacko topping combinations. Scopa can definitely count itself in this category. Pizzas are made fresh to order (you can see the guys skillfully tossing the dough behind the counter), cooked thin-crust style in a woodfired oven.

And, on Tuesdays at lunchtime they offer $8 margherita pizzas (normally $14) - a nod to the idea that "simple is best", perhaps? It's an example of how great pizza should be, with the chewy, almost-crispy base, the combination of simple tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese, a sprinkling of fresh basil leaves. And it's the foundation for all the Bresolin brothers' other pizzas, which, though they have toppings, never overlook the essentials.

Here's my favourite part. For those looking for a little extra zing on their pizza, tables are topped with Huffman's hot sauce and a bottle of homemade chilli oil... my favourite!! At lunchtime the chilli oil bottles sometimes seem to be in short supply, but don't hesitate to ask for one (or snag one off another table) - the atmosphere is casual enough that this is easily done.

On this particular occasion I still hadn't had breakfast, so while E ordered a margherita pizza for himself, I perused the all day brunch/lunch menu and settled on the warm muesli with amaretti mascarpone and fig molasses ($8.50).

It was stunningly delicious. I didn't really know what to expect from the words "warm muesli" - a crunchy, hot cereal?! - but what arrived was a decadent porridge, complete with plump raisins and little pieces of shaved apple, topped with a generous dollop of amaretti mascarpone (divine) and lashed with a sweet, gooey sauce that must have been the fig molasses. Wow. Perhaps a little too sweet for an everyday breakfast, but what a treat!

I also ordered a side of potato and wild mushroom hash ($3.50). Again, I'm not too sure what I had been expecting, but this is what arrived:

The potatoes were well-cooked, and everything was glistening with the earthy, brown juices of the wild mushrooms. However, it tasted a little bland (generous dashes of salt and chilli oil fixed this), and I found maybe one mushroom in the mix - most of the brown stuff turned out to be onion.

Scopa remains one of my perennial favourites with its good, simple Italianesque cuisine, the casual, friendly atmosphere, the fact that it's open all day, the thick, rich hot chocolates ($2.50-$5.50). Plus, its location on the corner of Cuba & Ghuznee streets (and the floor-to-ceiling windows that open up in the summer) make it an ideal spot for people-watching. Try to grab a table by the window.

If you're going for pizza, one pie is enough for one really hungry person or 2 not-so-hungry people. In the past, a couple of girl friends and I would usually share 2 margherita pizzas between the 3 of us, which worked well. There are some other bargains at lunchtime ($10 lunch specials, $10 paninis with salad), though the option to create your own panini or sandwich from a list of meats, veggies and cheeses has sadly disappeared. If you're going on a Tuesday at lunchtime I'd recommend getting in quick, as the $8 margherita pizza seems to be a popular choice!

RATING: 4.5/5

Scopa Caffe Cucina
Cnr Ghuznee & Cuba Streets