27 July 2009

Waitangi Park Market gets a new name...

Since moving to Wellington about 5 years ago, I've been a semi-regular at Wellington's vege markets. For a long time it was the one on the corner of Vivian and Willis St, but now that I live closer to the waterfront I've been visiting the Waitangi Park Market, held each Sunday morning in the Te Papa carpark.

Well, more accurately, I should say the former Waitangi Park Market, as it seems they have gotten a PR upgrade and gone for a new image. Last time I visited (a couple Sundays ago) there were blue eco-bags ($3) hanging at each stall emblazoned with a snazzy new name/logo: Harbourside Market. A quick Google search confirmed the name change, and pointed me to the market's website, which is pretty informative and has a gorgeous layout to boot :)

The website has a list of the stallholders at the market as well as heaps of other information, so I won't do a detailed summary here but rather a quick overview of the highlights of my visit the other week.

The market has your regular old fruit and veg sold by various local farms, and what's on offer tends to vary according to the season. Prices for seasonal produce are often way cheaper than supermarkets, too, which is a big plus (and the main drawcard for budget-conscious shoppers like me). The other week there were some beautiful-looking leeks, cauliflowers and broccoli among other greens - I couldn't resist.

Another one of my favourites are the Thai/Cambodian herb stalls. According to the list of stalls on the Harbourside Market website it seems that there are 2 - Thi's and Phala's, and I'm not entirely sure which one I have been to more, but I do tend to get my vibrant green coriander bunches and lemongrass from one of the two.

On this particular occasion I visited Phala's stall and got a little tub of the lemongrass paste ($4 large, $1 small). I've gotten the small tub before and used it to season a Thai stir-fry recipe, which turned out to be the most authentic-tasting thing I've cooked. Next time you're there, give it a smell... if you've been to Thailand before you may recognise it as the smell of street vendors cooking their food (and boy, did I love Bangkok street food). Apparently it keeps for a while, since it's preserved in salt, so this time I bought a big tub hoping it'll last me a bit longer...

While we're on the topic of Asian foods, there are a few stalls worth checking out, either for something to snack on whilst you shop or containers of food to take away. The Chinese Takeaway stall sells fresh noodles for your soups or stir-fries, as well as hot foods like steamed pork buns, wontons, and (I believe) more substantial meals. I'm a pork bun fiend, so I had to get one: it was light and fluffy on the outside, and the inside tasted suspiciously... homemade. Yup, I doubt these came from a frozen supermarket package (or if they did, a different one to the ones I usually get). Really delicious and perfect for a cold morning!

There were a couple of Indian stalls selling roti and whatnot, but I was particularly drawn to this red mobile because they offered dosa. I will definitely be trying it out in weeks to come, so you can expect to hear about it in more detail then!

There are a number of artisan food sellers with a variety of products, a lot of which is available for tasting, which is what makes the market experience so fun.

It's great to be able to connect with the people involved with the product instead of an anonymous face behind a supermarket counter. Salami, cheese, jam, sauces, breads, baked goods - it's all there.

I've started to get most of my meat from the market too, since I live too far away from my favourite butcher in Kelburn to visit there often. On this visit I bought a lamb roast from the lovely people at Wai-Ora Farm Lamb, which turned out beautifully.

The Heritage Meat stall sells a big variety of sausages and usually has a plate out for tasting - yum! (The beef & guinness are my current favourite but in the past I've bought the pork & apple sausages as well as their chorizo and all have been delicious)

Bulls Bacon also has a stall selling (you guessed it) bacon and pork products, which I haven't tried yet but am very eager to. Will update on that one.

And, (excitingly for people like me who didn't grow up by the sea) there are a couple of boats which pull up to the dock and sell fish right off their decks. I haven't gotten any yet, but they do a roaring trade, so I suspect it can't be bad.

Notably missing the other week was the Mac Snack stall... I think the time I was there before I heard the guy say he would be away for a few weeks, so fingers crossed he'll be back soon... I need my chocolate macadamia nut butter ($8.50) fix!

Whew! This is starting to feel a bit like an advertorial so I'm going to end it here. (We are in no way connected with Harbourside Market - just avid shoppers.) There are heaps more stalls that are worth mentioning... perhaps I will have to report back at a future date. Definitely worth a visit, even if you're not the kind of person who likes to go shopping on a Sunday morning! Who knows, you might develop a new routine.

A definite must-visit!

Harbourside Market
Wellington waterfront
(just beside Te Papa & Waitangi Park)

22 July 2009

A long-time favourite: Ban Mai Thai

To me, Thai food is comfort food. This goes way back, much earlier than recent trips to Thailand... it was the first "ethnic" cuisine I got into as a kid (not counting Japanese, which my mum cooked regularly, and maybe tied with Mexican). I always looked forward to family outings to the local Thai place, and when I was a teenager my friends and I would scrape together our spare change - enough to split a plate of pad thai noodles and maybe a satay chicken (I'm sure the waiting staff in those tip-reliant American restaurants loved our frugality).

So when I got back from overseas last week, tired after 30 hours of travelling and with hunger gnawing at my stomach, I knew just what I wanted, and headed toward Ban Mai Thai Cafe. This cute restaurant on Vivian St (with its lovely wooden carved details on the sign outside and above the counter inside) has long been my go-to for Thai in Wellington. I'm not too sure why, except that I've tried the others, and in my opinion this little place is the most consistent.

The staff were all smiles just as usual, and soon after placing our order our entree of Thai fish cakes, or tod mun pla ($7.50), arrived. They were just right - springy texture, subtly seasoned and accompanied by a sweet chilli dipping sauce. Their sauce is great - it's tangy, a little less gooey than the stuff you get out of the bottle, and has little pieces of chopped peanut in it.

We gobbled these down in no time and munched on the decoratively cut carrot too, dipping it into the remnants of the sauce. I'm sure I saw the waiter give me a slightly amused glance when he saw me chowing down on what was probably meant to be an ornamental garnish. What can I say? Long flights leave me ravenous.

The one problem with Ban Mai Thai is that it's a small place, so if there are a lot of people there, the kitchen gets busy and food takes a little longer (conversely, when it's empty, the food arrives in no time). This is fine if you're with friends as there's plenty of time for conversation, and usually I don't mind waiting since I'm hardly ever in a hurry. This time, though, I was totally zombied out (jet lag was starting to kick in) and unable to hold a conversation, which made waiting for our food a little painful.

It was well worth the wait, however. E had the nam tok ($15.50), beef salad with chilli, lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal seasoning. He must have been hungry too, because I could hardly sneak my fork across to his plate to grab a bite. I did try a little, though, and it was good - spicy, meaty, and with a good portion of crunchy vegetables such as cucumber and onion. The beef wasn't as tender as I would have liked, but the flavours were spot on.

I had the larb gai ($15.50), which has been my standard order for the last 2 years or so. It's a simple dish of minced chicken with chillies, lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal. Often in Thailand it's served with green beans mixed throughout; this version had spring onions which gave it a flavourful bite. It's a little spicy but I love the heat, and together with the steamed rice I ordered ($1.50) it disappeared in no time.

Ban Mai Thai has a pretty extensive menu, with the standard curries, fried noodles and rice, stir-fries, etc... but inevitably whenever I visit I always turn to a page near the back which features food from the northern region of Thailand. I'm not sure if this is because that's where the owners are from - I should ask next time. Anyway, this page has some gems - the nam tok and larb gai we ordered were both featured in this section. Go ahead - try something new!

RATING: 3.5/5

Ban Mai Thai Cafe
111 Vivian St
Te Aro
(04)384 4092

Open for dinner and takeaways

17 July 2009

Ohh là là, j'adore Le Marché Français!

I've been on holiday for a couple weeks... well, more of a whirlwind continent-hopping trip than a holiday... but am happy to say I'm back in Wellington (though not re-adjusting so happily to winter cold and rain). Before my departure, E and I were up in Thorndon taking care of some errands, and I used it as the perfect excuse to visit Le Marché Français.

They're the ones who I got that fantastic Coulommiers cheese from back at the city market, and I had been overhearing various conversations extolling the virtues of some French cafe-cum-shop up on Thorndon Quay, but I had never visited myself.

Well, it's a good thing I live relatively far from Thorndon, because otherwise my savings would soon disappear into Le Marché Français' welcoming coffers. After a bit of confusion as to the location (it's inside the Woolstore building, up some stairs and round a corner), we settled into their light, airy cafe for a fantastic lunch.

I had the salade de chèvre chaude ($14) which had slices of toasted baguette, drizzled with what tasted like honey and topped with warm, creamy goat cheese, arranged on an ample bed of mesclun greens, capsicum and cherry tomato. The balsamic vinaigrette was just right - not too overpowering. Normally on a winter's day all I want to eat are soups or hearty stews, but this salad somehow hit the spot. I think it's because of the rich, warm chèvre.

E had the soup of the day ($8) which, that day, was a creamy, deep green mixed vegetable concoction which came in an adorable goblet-like bowl.

I'm not sure if this was due to E's soup order but before the meal arrived we received some sliced baguette along with olive oil and balsamic for dipping. Having grown up in the States where it is usual for restaurants to put out free bread before the meal (I'm sure this does nothing for Americans' waistlines), this was a much-welcomed gesture.

As we were eating we continued to peruse the menu and noticed they had escargots. I haven't had these since a French class trip to a French restaurant back in high school (when I was thoroughly grossed out by the thought of eating snails), and E had never tried them. A dozen snails are on the menu for around $13, but our lovely waitress suggested we get 6, given that I was full from having devoured my whole salad and E was somewhat apprehensive about snails. Not too long after, they arrived, in a cute little platter with each individual snail dunked in garlic butter. I'm happy to say they were much better than I remember from my finicky teenage years, and E enjoyed them just as much.

After all this, I couldn't leave without dessert. We were sitting near the counter, where a case of sweet and savoury tarts was staring me in the eye. But I resisted the gorgeous tarte au citron and opted instead for the crème brulée ($9) which is one of my favourite desserts ever. I'm pleased to report that it was divine, the scorched sugary crust easily cracked through with a spoon to the creamy, vanilla bean custard underneath.

Le Marché Français is only open for breakfast/brunch and lunch, so it doesn't have the kind of pretentiousness a place aiming to serve the dinner crowd might have. It's all class, though, in a very French way - casual, yet refined. And the staff (made up mostly of French) were friendly and attentive, refilling our water when needed (and even providing us with a second plate of bread after we piggishly chomped through the first one). Although we didn't have any wine with our lunch, it should be noted that they have an extensive list of French wines and suggest pairing them with various menu items.

They also have a deli/shop (hence "le marché) attached, where you can get any number of French grocery products, cheeses, and deli meats. Perhaps on my next trip there I'll write a post about the shop, as it is special in its own right. Definitely worth a trip to Thorndon!

RATING: 5/5 (what can I say, I entirely loved this place)

Le Marché Français
Level 1 of The Woolstore Design Store
262 Thorndon Quay
04 499 1834

Open for breakfast and lunch.

14 July 2009

Sad news - Calypso closes its doors

Sad news: I walked past Calypso Cafe today and there was a note on the door saying that, as of July 4, it has closed indefinitely due to a recent burglary and the current economic climate.

I'm pretty disappointed and a little enraged (who would burglarise Calypso? They totally didn't deserve it - the proprietors are so lovely). But, they say it's a recession now - sigh. And I have some suspicion that the restaurant wasn't entirely suited to its location, which might have had something to do with its untimely demise. That end of Taranaki St is entirely bereft of restaurants, and doesn't get as much foot traffic as some other streets in Wellington. And maybe a smaller premises would have suited Calypso more.

Whatever the reason, it's unclear whether Calypso will return. Sad news, but I'm going to stay optimistic, since (as I previously wrote) it has gone through a couple different incarnations. And the note said that they would continue their catering services - so do go and check out www.calypsocafe.co.nz if you are in need of catering... any party with jerk chicken is a winner in my book!

06 July 2009

Bellissimo Il Piccolo

Having never been lucky enough to travel to Italy, I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the food at Il Piccolo further than my own taste buds squealing in delight. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Italian food experience is as much about people, intimacy, laughter and experience, as it is about the fare. And the ‘Ministry of Pizza & certain other things’ as it self-reflexively known, certainly delivers on the latter. Step inside the tiny trattoria on upper Willis st, and indulge in the intimacy of the quaint surroundings – authentic to the romantic notions of Italy that frequent my travel dreams. Probably not the best place to dine if you are claustrophobic, this eatery is petite to say the least, with only 5 tables that are close enough to overhear the scandal breaking at the next table. Exclusively run by an Italian couple, you will be served by the slightly eccentric but charming proprietor – who will linger for a chat at the slightest encouragement, and inspect the quality of your wine (BYO) as he takes it away to uncork it. The menu is fresh and simple encompassing antipasti, zuppe (soup), insalate (salad), pizza, pasta, and dolci (dessert). M and I started with the Angio Pan Pizza ($6), a crispy golden base smothered in buttered garlic and parsley – simple and warming and plenty enough for two.

We shared a Lasagne al Forno ($15) and a Stromboli Pizza with pepperoni, mushrooms, chilli and olives ($15). The pizza and pastas are uncomplicated and rustic, with quality ingredients and robust flavours that warm the cockles of your heart. Needless to say, we ate every morsel with gusto, and continued to dessert without a thought to increasingly tight waistbands.

The Tiramisu ($6.5) was gorgeously smooth and creamy albeit a little on the smaller side for the purposes of sharing, and it could of done with a touch more coffee/liqueur drenched sponge. Service is consistently prompt and charming, though I am always happy to while away the time supping a warming red and staring out the fogged windows or basking in the eclectic charm of the surroundings and laughter of the patrons. It is always a shame to step out into a biting southerly wind rather than a cobbled terrace in Italy.

Careful not to confuse Il Piccolo on Willis with its counterpart on Vivian st, which is still lovely, but doesn’t quite replicate the romanticism of the original.

Il Piccolo Caffe
248 Willis Street
Telefono 385 2645

Temping to award 5 Beehives, but that would be due to my bias - I LOVE this place