07 September 2012

Beervana 2012

This year I went to Beervana for the first time. I really don't know why it took me this long: I'm a beer drinker, a craft beer enthusiast, a fan of all things Wellington, so it should've been at the top of the list. But for whatever reason, when Beervana came around each year, I gave it a miss. Too far away, I thought; I'll spend too much money, I already drink enough craft beer anyway, how different would it be from just popping down to one of Wellington's many craft beer bars?

How wrong I was. 

Too far away? Nah - I mean, yes, Westpac Stadium is on the opposite end of town to where I usually hang out, but for the truly lazy, pretty much all buses end up at the Railway Station and it's only a short walk from there.

I'll spend too much money? Far from it. $40 gets you admission to the event and your first four tokens; additional tokens are $2 each. If you're just tasting beer, each 75ml taste costs either one or two tokens, depending on how high in alcohol the beer is. So $20 worth of tokens will get you between 10-20 tasters of beer, which is plenty. Food is reasonable too, at two to five tokens per dish.

I already drink enough craft beer anyway? This might be true. But the thing I didn't count on was the sheer variety of beer available at Beervana. All of my favourite breweries, plus ones I hadn't heard of before, all offering their standard brews plus special, limited-edition beer that you're unlikely to see elsewhere. 271 kinds of beer. All under one roof. It was, in no uncertain terms, beer heaven.

For those who haven't been to Beervana, I highly encourage you to get along next year. For those who've already been, well, you know what I'm talking about. Here are some handy tips that, in my opinion, will help you make the most of Beervana:
  • Go in a group. Preferably a group of friends with whom you don't mind sharing saliva. If you work as a team, you'll end up tasting a much greater variety of beer than you would on your own. For example, I went in a group of four girl friends (none of whom had the flu). Every time we tried a beer, we'd all try something different, and pass our tasting glasses around. Over the course of the day, I worked out that we would've tried maybe thirty or forty beers between us - not a bad effort.
  • Line your stomach, often. Okay, so it's a beer festival, and I'm sure most people don't go to Beervana with the intention of staying completely sober. But you don't want to be that fool who's spewing in the toilets a couple hours into a session you've paid $40 to attend. (Actually, I didn't see any outlandishly drunk people, but I was pretty busy paying attention to the beer, not the other people there...)

    Luckily the organisers of Beervana are more than responsible hosts and have a really, really decent variety of food on offer. It's no surprise, given that Martin Bosley is Beervana's food director, that the restaurants serving up pies and sandwiches and other beer-friendly food were all top-notch: to name a few: Boulcott Street Bistro, ArbitrageurWakelin House pies, Martin Bosley's, the Hop Garden, the Dumpling House. Most of the food was priced between 2 and 5 tokens. Totally reasonable.

  • Get to the Festive Brews bar. The way Beervana is set up is this: many breweries have their own stalls where they're pouring their usual offerings, maybe one or two other special brews. But if you really want to make the most of the variety available at Beervana, go to the Festive Brews bar, where you'll find a range of beer you're unlikely to see anywhere else.

    This year's Festive Brew theme was 'Fruit & Veg' - some of my favourites included the Three Boys Coconut-Milk Stout (a twist on the classic milk stout, with more than a hint of toasted coconut coming through), Renaissance Great Pumpkin (a medium-brown brew that reminded me of spiced pumpkin pie), Twisted Hop Marmalale (a strong, citrusy, caramelly ale, pictured below)

  • Look out for unfamiliar breweries. These are the ones you're less likely to see on tap at your local craft beer bar. The best way of doing this is to head over to one of the regional bars, where you'll find a lot of the smaller breweries from around New Zealand and Australia.

    At the Top of the South Brewery, for example, I ended up talking to Dale of Dale's Brewing Company (who turns out to be a friend of a friend - small world), and trying his bright, bubble-gummy Belgian Ale. Really good, and I never would've tried it (and other beers like it) if I hadn't stopped by the regional bars.
  • Don't be shy about queuing up. Chances are, if a bunch of beer nerds are lining up at a particular stall, they've got something really good on offer. Take the Garage Project stall for example: it was packed the entire time. I almost thought, "I've just been to a dinner at Garage Project, I've tasted a lot of their beers, I could be trying other offerings instead of standing in this line.

    Luckily a friend told me about Garage Project's Ziggy's Carrot Cake Ale - a trophy winner at the recent Brewers Guild awards - and I managed to get in line for a taste of what can only be described as carrot cake in liquid form (with a spritz of orange oil as "icing" - YES). And I didn't regret spending a few extra minutes in line. Look how happy I was afterwards:

  • Get along to a beer & food matching session. This, unsurprisingly, was probably the highlight of my day. There were a few different beer/food-themed sessions open to the general public, including a beer & cheese matching demonstration, a gastropub cooking presentation, an introductory "Beer & Food 101" class.

    And then, for those with enough foresight to pre-book a Beer & Food ticket ($64 instead of the usual $40), there were exclusive beer & food matching sessions presented by beer writer Neil Miller and some of  Wellington's top chefs, including Rex Morgan (Boulcott Street Bistro), Martin Bosley and Shaun Clouston (Logan Brown).

    I went along to Shaun Clouston's session on Saturday night. He paired Emerson's 'Taieri Gorge' spiced ale, more commonly associated with the sweet, gentle spice of a hot cross bun, with a savoury Nepali lamb curry. Some lucky audience members got up on stage to taste the food, Richard Emerson himself was there to explain the beer, it all smelled incredible.

    The dish I was definitely inspired to try, though, was Shaun's recipe for butter & wheat beer-poached tuatua with basil and chilli. It's a simple dish, quick and easy to make - he cooked it before our eyes as we sat sipping the citrusy wheat beer, inhaling the sweet, briny aroma of the tuatuas as they cooked.

    I never think of myself as much of a wheat beer fan, but after seeing it used in this dish I think I could be convinced to buy it every now and then. I haven't tried making it myself yet, but here's the recipe in case you want to give it a go:
Shaun Clouston's butter & wheat beer-poached tuatua with basil & chilli
(recipe reproduced with permission of Beervana)

600g tuatua
150ml chicken stock
100ml Three Boys wheat beer
1 long red chilli (finely sliced)
2 garlic cloves (finely sliced)
10 large basil leaves
10 parsley leaves
150g diced butter

Bring chicken stock, beer and garlic to a simmer. Add tuatua, cover, and gently cook until just open. Before serving, stir in the diced butter, chilli and herbs.

25 August 2012

Burger Wellington 2012: Boulcott Street Bistro's T-Rex Burger

This year, Wellington on a Plate’s Burger Wellington event had a whopping 63 restaurants participating, yep, that’s 63 separate burgers. I kept meaning to make a Top 5 list beforehand, but every time I looked through the Wellington on a Plate programme I got a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices out there, so.

I still hadn’t made up my mind on the first Monday of Wellington on a Plate when I went to the Pecha Kucha: Imbibe event put on by the good people at the City Market (a riotously entertaining, informative and all-around good-time event, and a really good use of $10, by the way).

And at Pecha Kucha, one of the speakers was Rex Morgan, head chef and part owner of Boulcott Street Bistro and someone I generally admire. He talked about his life and career so far, and at one point he mentioned – so quickly you’d have missed it if you blinked – “this” (pointing to a dimly lit photo of what looked like a burger) “is our T-Rex burger for Burger Wellington this year, and it comes served on a bone” – and on he went to talk about work he’s done in New Zealand and internationally, people he’s met, and so on.

But afterward, I was still fixated on the idea of this T-Rex burger.  By the next day, I had made up my mind that if I was going to try one burger during Wellington on a Plate, it would be this one.

My friend Riki made the booking. And this is how she said the phone call went:

R: Hi, I’d like to make a booking for lunch tomorrow, for the burger?
B: Yes, okay, oh I’m really excited for you, you’re going to love it.
R: I’m really excited too.
B: You’re going to feel like a T-Rex eating it. You’re going to go “rarghh”
R: Rarghhh!
B: And you won’t really be able to use your hands, because T-Rexes have such small little arms.
R: I’m going to have to stick my face in it.
B: Rarghh!
R: I’m really excited now.
B: I’m really excited for you too.

…and so on. So, anticipation was building. Expectations were high. And the next day, we sat down to a crisp white tablecloth, crystal-clear wineglasses, gleaming silverware, and – a burger on a big slab of bone, skewered with another slab of bone.

Aside from the presentation itself, which was fantastic, the burger was one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in the past two weeks – a medium-rare, char-grilled patty topped with falling-apart tender barbecued short rib between halves of a flawless bun, with beetroot relish and a crunchy horseradish-celery salad an added highlight. 

Accompanying the burger were thick-cut fries and a smoky tomato sauce (served in a hollowed-out bone). They were fine, though I was really too distracted  by the burger to pay much attention to the fries.

The very best part of this lunch, though, might have been getting our hands and faces all messy with burger while fancy-looking suits around us daintily clinked their glasses and tucked into their fancy meals. Did I feel like a T-Rex? Maybe. Did I let out a roar of delight? Probably. Do I hope Boulcott Street Bistro will bring back the burger from time to time (and let me know beforehand)? Definitely.

Boulcott Street Bistro99 Boulcott St

(04) 419 4199

Visa Wellington on a Plate ran from 10-26 August 2012.

22 August 2012

The Larder (DINE Wellington set lunch)

If you haven't been to the Larder yet this Wellington on a Plate and you're able to get to Miramar between now and Sunday (the last day of Wellington on a Plate until 2013, boo hoo), I suggest you do so as soon as possible. It's well worth a visit.

The Larder's DINE Wellington set lunch is $35 for two courses and a glass of wine. I highly suggest taking the option of adding a third course for an extra $10, too. If you've never eaten there (or you see the place as more of a brunch/coffee stop) this is a seriously good chance to get acquainted with chef Jacob Brown's food. The man is a genius - I had one of the better dinners of my life a few days after this lunch at a collaborative dinner by the Larder and all-around-awesome Wellington brewery Garage Project (but more on that later).

I could just say all of the food was seriously delicious and leave it at that, but here's a quick overview of this year's set lunch menu:

For starters, an heirloom beetroot, feta and shaved apple salad. Though the salad had less of a focus on the beetroot, feta and apple than I expected from the menu description (they were definitely present, but it was much more of a leafy salad than I thought it would be), it was still very good: thoughtfully put together, a mix of the aforementioned ingredients, crisp winter salad greens and a smattering of hazelnuts, with a clean, simple dressing that really let the salad components shine through. 

Plus, in keeping with the Wellington on a Plate theme, the feta used here is locally-produced Zany Zeus, which just happens to be one of my favourite fetas ever: just salty and creamy enough. I use it in everything.

But before I get too carried away talking about the salad, let me get carried away talking about this soup: so simple, yet so many flavours and textures: creamy, earthy jerusalem artichoke soup topped with incredibly satisfyingly meaty confit rabbit (YES!), crunchy, almost-sweet hazelnuts and a chunky slice of crisp-chewy buttered ciabatta toast. The soup itself was like nothing I've ever had - I've had plenty of jerusalem artichoke soup in my time but nothing so dreamily light, both creamy and airy at the same time. I said this at the time, and I've said it to lots of people afterward, but I'll say it again: it was like eating a cloud. Dreamy.

Oh, and also: the rabbit. Man. I wish I could've taken a container of it home to eat with everything. 

After the soup I could've left a happy woman, but no, there was this: pan-roasted fish with Wairarapa celeriac, Prana Sprouts baby herbs, Lot Eight citrus olive oil and mustard seeds. 

Everything about this dish was perfectly executed: perfectly crispy skin (and skin-on fish tastes so much better, I reckon), impeccably cooked flesh, and the remoulade-like celeriac slaw hiding underneath the fish in that picture? Just wow. Crunchy and bursting with flavour and, just, um, wow. 

I didn't end up getting a photo of the other main, so you'll just have to imagine it looking incredibly decadent and delicious, which it was: twelve-hour cooked lamb shoulder with roast cauliflower, spiced olives and wild watercress. Yes, it was as good as it sounds. 

And, of course, dessert. By this time we were pretty stuffed but this isn't something you'd want to pass up: a dark chocolate parfait with milk chocolate mousse, preserved peaches and crème fraîche. I don't normally go for chocolate desserts but I did this time (mostly because it's the only dessert on the set menu) and boy, was I glad. 

The mousse was dreamy, the peaches tasted like something out of my childhood, and I only wished there had been more crème fraîche because the cool, tangy, unsweet cream offset the richness of the mousse like it was the most obvious pairing in the world. At the risk of using the same imagery twice in one blog post, I'm going to say this: again, it was like eating a cloud. 

So, I think that's all I need to say. Get yourself to the Larder. Get there soon, before Wellington on a Plate is over for another year. Bookings are advisable, especially if you're going on a weekend - it can get busy. 

Corner Darlington and Camperdown Rd

04 891 0354

Visa Wellington on a Plate runs from 10-26 August 2012.

16 August 2012

Capitol (DINE Wellington set lunch)

Just let me say this: try and get yourself down to Capitol sometime over the next week and a half or so. Go at lunchtime, when the Wellington on a Plate set lunch is on offer - at $25 for two courses and a glass of wine, it's incredibly good value. And, most importantly, it's good.

With last weekend being that glorious couple of days where Wellington on a Plate and the film festival overlap, I found myself hanging out around the Embassy theatre over much of Saturday and Sunday. And next door to the Embassy (actually, on the ground floor corner of the Embassy building) is, of course, Capitol. So it was an obvious choice for lunch when my dad and I had a couple hours to kill between film festival screenings.

If you're new to Wellington on a Plate set lunches, the way they generally work is this: you choose two courses from a list of starters, mains, and desserts, plus a glass of one or two Wellington region wines on offer. 

We started with pâté and soup. The pâté - made from free range chicken livers - was dreamily smooth, served with thin, chewy ciabatta toasts and a Wairarapa pear chutney.

The soup - Parkvale cap mushroom, lentil and herb, with Pandoro croutons - was simple and light, the excellent broth carrying the earthy mushroom flavour, the fresh herbs and clear broth making it feel bright and ready for spring.  

Both mains on the set menu are worth trying - this was the fried arrow squid with aioli and rocket. It's good: nice and simple, tasty, inoffensive; the aioli especially packs a garlicky punch.

But oh my god, the veal. So tender you could cut it with a fork, so perfectly seasoned, and the rich, savoury jus plus the creamy mashed potato and crispy shards of pancetta and fried sage: YES. This is the kind of dish you take one bite of and can't help but burst into a big, wide grin. It was incredibly good. 

Some restaurants participating in DINE Wellington will let you add on a third course for, say, an extra $10 or so. Unfortunately there was no such option at Capitol - not that we didn't try for the Wellington on a Plate dessert (lemon mousse with Lavender's Green syrup and baked rhubarb). And because we were there during Capitol's normal brunch hours, there wasn't a dessert menu to choose something sweet from.

Luckily there was this semolina pudding on the brunch menu, which really was more porridge-y than pudding-y, but hey, that's what you get for picking dessert from among sweet breakfast dishes. Anyway, the poached tamarillo it came topped with was beautiful: tart, and softly sweet, and the most sultry-red colour.

There's something really magical about sitting in a window seat at Capitol with a glass of wine in hand, the afternoon sun streaming in, making even a mid-winter day feel like a relaxed summer evening. The food was beautiful, the service good, the atmosphere wonderful. I don't know why I don't eat here more often, but I bet that's about to change. 

10 Kent Terrace
(04) 384 2855

Wellington on a Plate runs from 10 - 6 August 2012.

28 July 2012

Gipsy Kitchen, Strathmore

I freaking love this place. Excellent coffee, excellent sandwiches, delicious pies, super nice staff, I could go on and on. So, okay, I will.

Let's start with the coffee. They use Supreme beans, and while I don't like to think I pick favourites among Wellington's coffee roasters, perhaps it is more than coincidence that lately, all of my favourite cafes use Supreme? But anyway, I digress. It's not so much that Gipsy Kitchen uses Supreme as much as the fact that I have yet to have a bad coffee there. And, if you can't (or don't want to) drink cow's milk in your coffee you're not limited to soy - there's the option of goat's (yes, goat's) milk or rice* milk, too. I once sampled some of fellow blogger Shirleen's goat's milk flat white, and I can tell you, it's not overly goaty or pungent - just has a little bit extra tang. So for those so inclined, the option is there.

The food is all counter food, and it's all beautiful, from the luxuriously folded layers of pastry making up the scones, both s
weet and savoury (who puts mashed potato in a savoury scone? these geniuses, that's who), to the gorgeous rectangular tarts and pies (a superb potato top number immediately springs to mind), to all kinds of sandwiches almost too beautiful to eat. Fresh herbs seem to be everywhere, everything tastes as it should, a bit better even. I'm aware that I'm gushing here. Don't worry, it's warranted.

And I actually think I'm in love with everyone who works there, male and female. Certainly they know that the best way to run a cafe is to be charming to everyone; no silent, aloof baristas here. They're all very cool, but not too cool for you, and they always seem to be having fun, listening to good music, calling everyone "babe" in the most genuine, un-ironic way you could possibly say it. It's practically impossible not to have an immediate cafe crush on whoever is taking your order/making your coffee/bringing you water/etc. I'm speaking from experience.

Sometimes it's hard to get a seat because it's only tiny - just a few counter seats along the window, plus some tables outside and some stools in a courtyard out the back - with the next door shopfront used for food prep. Apparently, on Mondays and Tuesdays the deli is closed and the shop next door transforms into a place called Zuris' Coffee Shoppe. I work too far away to visit, but I'm sure it's also great. 

Normally I'd go through and describe some of the food, but I think this time I'll let the photos speak for themselves. Also, most of these photos were taken** on solo visits spanning the last couple months, and I hadn't been thinking about blogging on some of the earlier visits, so... I don't think I could accurately describe exactly what everything was like. It doesn't matter too much. It was all delicious. I'm going back tomorrow. 

*? I will check asap, and fix this if I'm wrong. 
**yes, okay, instagrammed...

4 Glamis Ave

04 388 4455

(If you don't have a car, don't let this stop you. Get the #44 bus. It's worth it)

27 June 2012

Auckland Eats

Every now and then I feel like getting out of town (it's been my New Year's resolution for the last couple years to leave Wellington at least once a month - the only New Year's resolution I've ever kept). And when I don't have the time or money to go further afield, which is most of the time, I head to Auckland. Often enough, in fact, that one of my friends recently told me it's almost like I live there - but like I'm one of those people who doesn't hang out that often.

It does almost feel that way, except I like to think of myself as the kind of person who emerges from seclusion more than once every few weeks. And no, I'm not thinking of moving to Auckland. But I'm getting into Auckland lots - I feel like in the last few years Auckland's developed a burgeoning cafe scene, or maybe it's just that I've discovered a lot more places since upping the frequency of my visits. Anyway, one thing is certain: when in Auckland, I eat well, whether it's at a cafe, restaurant or cheap and cheerful joint.

Here are a few of the places I've found pretty good over my last visits. Since many of these places I've only visited once or twice, rather than attempt a full write-up I'll leave you with my impressions and photos of what I ate:

Barilla Dumpling, Dominion Rd

I visited Barilla Dumpling for the first (and only, but certainly not the last) time when I was up in Auckland back in March. It's been much-talked about (see here and here and here and here) but I'll add my own two cents: awesome, no-frills dumplings, the likes of which you won't find in Wellington. The dumpling menu is about a zillion flavours long, you can only order them by the twenty (which will set you back roundabout ten bucks) and you can get them  boiled, steamed or fried. Eighty dumplings for four ravenously hungover twentysomething girls? Bring it on. 

(I have to admit, though, eighty was possibly a bit ambitious.)

Barilla Dumpling
571 Dominion Rd


Kokako Cafe, Grey Lynn

Kokako's new(ish) outpost in Grey Lynn deserves a mention even though I didn't particularly enjoy my visit there back in April, but then that can be attributed to the fact that on the day I visited I was suffering from one of those awful colds that completely robs you of your appetite and your sense of taste and smell. Horrible for trying a place for the first time.

But if I had been able to taste what I was having I might've told you that my smoothie was at once refreshingly tasting and refreshingly different: almond and coconut milk instead of dairy (probably a good thing, since I was sick), blueberries, banana, goji berries. And even without tasting it I was won over by the presentation - why are things served in jars somehow so likeable? Maybe it's some kind of quasi-hipster aesthetic that feels right at home in Grey Lynn.

Speaking of Grey Lynn hipster types, the place was full of them - there were those guys I saw at Golden Dawn the night before, here was a table of girls in improbably cool outfits (for me at least) for a Sunday morning. But despite feeling a bit sceney it's a nice place for anyone to hang out, my ailing self included. It's bright and airy and though I can't quite remember through my fever-clouded memory, I think the staff were nice. Good things. 

The baked eggs and cornbread I had came with not two, but three eggs (which sort of justifies the $19 price tag) atop a mix of black beans (yum) and kumara (I probably would've preferred potato). And, okay, I couldn't really taste much but I'm pretty sure those fresh chillies on top cleared my sinuses enough for my sense of smell to return slightly before lunch at Depot later that day (but more on that in another post).

Kokako Cafe
Corner of Williamson Ave & Great North Rd
Grey Lynn


Little and Friday, Newmarket 

There's been a little bit of buzz in the back of my mind for a while now telling me to get to Little and Friday. I'd heard bits and pieces about it on blogs and social media, they've just put out a gorgeous-looking cookbook, everyone seems to be talking about their cakes and pies and doughnuts. Their main outpost is in Takapuna, but not too long ago they opened up another cafe in a fabric store in Newmarket. 

On Saturday we went there and the place was intimidatingly packed: a line snaked around the counter, the big communal tables were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with cool girls and lunching ladies, staff squeezing through the crowds to deliver coffee and heated up pies and quiches and so on.

As is ideally the case with all counter-food joints, by the time we got to the front of the queue a couple seats had opened up for us. Phew. No awkward milling about or hovering over some poor souls trying to finish their lunch. 

There are about a million kinds of quiche (well, a handful at least, but there might as well have been a million, it was so hard to decide) and my beetroot and blue cheese one was definitely pretty tasty. Excellent pastry.

And this is probably the worst picture of a doughnut I've ever taken, but, guys: this. Don't eat it if you're after something light and fluffy: it's got a good coat of icing sugar on the outside that sort of crusts up like a cross between a sticky glaze and a crunchy sugar coating. And the vanilla custard filling? Dreamy. I think there was also some kind of jam or fruit or something inside but I wasn't even paying attention because it was all so rich and delicious. Probably not advisable to have more than one a week though, unless you want to be on a constant sugarhigh. I was.

Little and Friday
Martha's Fabrics
12 Melrose St


Xi'an Food Bar

Last one for now, and also the last and most recent meal I had in Auckland. This place is somewhere my friend Sophie told me about, and then another friend suggested we meet at a Chinese noodle place on Anzac Ave, and when I got there I realised with a happy coincidental thrill that they were one and the same place.

The place is spartan, almost dingy, and there are these funny ordering devices on the table that I feel would've been really futuristic in the early 1990s but now feel a bit comical. Anyway, you punch in your order number - no human contact required - and once your food is ready someone brings it over to you.

Xi'an food - from the same place as the terracotta warriors I believe - is not something I'm really familiar with, though I wish I was. I can't stop thinking about the hand-pulled noodles I had: $9 will get you a very filling bowl of freshly made, thick, flat noodles. You can have them in soup, or with chilli oil and a variety of toppings. I had braised pork and oh my god: whatever they did to this pork, I want to do to all pork I eat from now on. It was like a tangier, spicier Chinese cousin of Southern pulled pork or Mexican carnitas. Delicious. And did I mention only $9 for a huge portion - enough for me to eat half and take the rest home with me on the plane?

If I wasn't so full from the noodles I would've tried their burgers - a Xi'an style bun, toasted and halved, with different meat fillings. And cheap - I believe around $4.50. I'm sure they'd all be delicious but if I could have that pork in one of those buns - oh man. I'll be making a trip back for sure. 

Xi'an Food Bar
11 Anzac Ave

Auckland: love you lots. I may never move there, but that doesn't stop me from visiting, and eating, and discovering. And, best part? I'll be up again soon. Aucklanders (and Auckland-lovers), where should I visit next? 

20 June 2012

Gusty Gourmet's Top Five Picks: Visa Wellington on a Plate Events

Yesterday I patiently sat at my desk all through lunchtime so I could leave work an hour early, get myself over to the St James Theatre and join a throng of food-loving Wellingtonians (okay, and some from further afield, too) to celebrate the launch of the fourth annual Wellington on a Plate food festival. It was great: a big, long table heaving with cheese and bread and other nibbles from Ruth Pretty Catering was centrestage, there was plenty of local beer and wine on offer, and the atmosphere was one of pure enthusiasm.
And, really, what better way to spend a rainy Monday evening than on a dramatically lit stage, sharing wine and cheese and pretty damn tasty nibbles with a bunch of food and media types? The excitement was palpable, the room was buzzing, I had a fantastic time and I don't think it was just the wine. It's nearly here, folks, the fourth year of what has quickly become one of Wellington's defining events, and anticipation is high.

If you're as indecisive as I am, you'll know how hard it is to whittle down a huge programme into a Top Five, but I've done my best. These picks reflect my personal tastes, and there are bound to be heaps more that you might like better, so I'd recommend a good read through the programme (online at http://www.wellingtononaplate.com/, and hard copies should be making their way around town soon) to find your own must-eats. And there are a lot to choose from - 111 events this year! And 109 restaurants participating in Dine Wellington, and 64 Burger Wellington entries. Yep, it's big. It's exciting. It's better than Christmas. Get scheming!

Gusty Gourmet's Top Five Visa Wellington on a Plate Events:
1. The Oyster Saloon 
Daily (except Monday 13 August) 5-8pm. 

If you're a fan of oysters, if you're on the fence, or heck, even if you think you don't like oysters (just as long as you're not allergic - if so, I'm sorry!), this is a must in my book. When I saw that there's going to be a pop-up oyster bar run by Yellow Brick Road throughout the duration of the festival I was already sold. Rachel Taulelei of Yellow Brick Road is already my favourite fishmonger/oyster-shucker and it's pretty fair to say if I manage to get myself out of the house on a Sunday morning it's usually to the City Market where I'll slurp down a freshly shucked oyster with lemon and hot sauce before I can do anything else. So, okay, this is my kind of event. There was no way it wasn't going to be number one. 

I've always been a firm believer in having oysters freshly shucked - none of this plastic pottle business - and I know Rachel shares that ethos, so I'm really excited about an event that's accessible to the public (no booking required!) that is all about the oyster. From the sounds of the programme, there might be fried oysters and chowder, too - all things I can get on board with. The Oyster Saloon will be open from 5 to 8 pm most evenings in the Wilson carpark on Cuba St, right by Floriditas. I have no idea how it's going to be set up - will there be covered seating in case of snow? - but I don't really care.

Plus, it's not a one-night-only event with limited places, so if you're at all like me (the indecisive late bird who gets no worms) this is one Wellington on a Plate event you shouldn't miss. As of today, the Oyster Saloon has got a Twitter account and a spanking new Facebook page already full of tantalising photos of oysters. What a tease. But until then, I'll be getting my usual oyster fix from Yellow Brick Road at the City Market every Sunday... here, I'll tease you with a shot of my most recent oyster from the other day:

2. The Larder Parks Up at the Garage
Tuesday 14 August, 6:30pm. $100.

Second on my list is this collaboration between one of my favourite cafes in town, the Larder, and one of my favourite neWellington craft breweries, Garage Project. Garage Project have been pretty active in the beer scene over the last year or so - I think I first noticed them with their 24/24 (24 beers in 24 weeks, brewed in super-small batches and launched every Tuesday at Hashigo Zake. Since then they've done a whole bunch of other exciting things like a collaboration with Norwegian brewers Nøgne Ø, a slew of further limited-release beers, and, just recently, got a proper brewery set up in their headquarters in - where else - an old garage on Aro St.

And the Larder? It's firmly within my top five favourite Wellington cafes, and a favourite brunch spot (you may recall I blogged about my Larder love back in 2011) - their hot smoked salmon with scrambled eggs is to die for. Plus, head chef Jacob Brown's food philosophy is one I fully agree with - local, seasonal, not too complicated.

So imagine my excitement at hearing about this event, which is going to be held in Garage Project's brewery on a Tuesday night. It's a six-course dinner: three courses of food matched to existing Garage Project beers, three courses of beers brewed especially to match Jacob Brown's dishes. $100 well spentYES. 

3. Logan Brown Wild GameSeafood Degustation Dinners
Wild Game: Monday 13 / Tuesday 14 August. Seafood: Monday 20 / Tuesday 21 August. 6:30pm. $185.

At $185 a pop, I know I can't afford to go to both these dinners - in fact, with everything else I want to do during the festival I don't even know if I'll be able to afford one! But as far as degustations go, both of these sound excellent - starting off with champagne and freshly shucked oysters (and you know how I feel about that), then a five-course sit-down dinner. The wild game dinner features wild rabbit, hare (it'd be interesting to compare the two), boar, thar and pudding matched with Ata Rangi wines; the seafood dinner's got whitebait, paua, scallops, sea bass and pudding with Palliser Estate wines. Actually, with wines and all those courses and oysters AND champagnes that $185 is starting to look like a steal... hmmm. 

4.  Beef Wellington 
Saturday 11 August, 12-2pm. $75.

It's not every day you get to see exactly where your meat comes from, so this event caught my attention when it mentioned a master butcher would be demonstrating the art of butchering a 300kg cattle beast. Wowee! Plus there's a hands-on component - you get to try your hand at boning and butterflying a leg of lamb to take home. And then, tasting of different beef cuts cooked by Rex Morgan (of Boulcott St Bistro fame)? Plus some Pinot Noir? Yum. Sorry, vegetarians.*

5. Six Feet Under
Tuesday 21 August, 6:30pm. $70.

I know, I've already mentioned the Larder once before on this list. But really, this looks like a great event - six courses of animal feet! Stop cringing, guys, it's going to be good! I've eaten chicken feet plenty at yum cha, and snails, but not yet some of the other feet mentioned in the programme: pigs' trotters, calves' foot. But there's a first time for everything, and I have a pretty high level of trust that whatever it is, the Larder will do it well. Feeling a bit squeamish? Willing to push your personal boundaries a bit? If so, I might see you there. 

Honourable Mentions:
  • A handful of big events are on in conjunction with Wellington on a Plate, and the main reason they're not in my top five list above is because I wanted to highlight some of the smaller individual events. However, totally deserving of a mention are Beervana (I've somehow missed this every time, but am determined not to this year), the New Zealand Chocolate Festival (which I didn't miss last year - you can read about it here), and the Fisher & Paykel Masterclass with an amazing lineup of chefs, the likes of which include Rex Morgan, Shaun Cloustoun, Johnny Schwass, Ruth Pretty, Michael Meredith, and heaps more. Awesome. 
*I've just realised none of my picks are very vegetarian-friendly! Sorry! But I do know Matterhorn is doing a vegetarian degustation for Dine Wellington this year, and I'll be doing my Dine picks in another post... will keep you guys in mind then. 

Visa Wellington on a Plate runs from 10-26 August 2012. Bookings open at 9am Thursday 21 June for Visa cardholder pre-sales, and 5pm Friday 22 June for everyone else. 

16 April 2012

Samurai Bowl, Christchurch

I try to hit up Samurai Bowl at least once every time I visit Christchurch. My love of this place goes back years and years, to early on in my student days in when I was first exploring Christchurch eateries on my own, with a car, beyond the fish and chip shop near my grandma's house in Riccarton or the Chinese restaurant just up the road. 

Back then, Japanese food in Wellington was still pretty limited (it still is, in many ways) and I was really, really excited to find a place serving cheap, authentic gyudon and ramen. Back then, it was just a dark and tiny hole in the wall on Gloucester St, walls covered in printed A4 sheets advertising menu items and specials. But it was good. (And did I mention it was cheap? Important during my student days.)

Over the years they expanded, taking over a bigger space next door to the original shop on Gloucester St, but continued to serve decent, authentic, affordable Japanese rice bowls, noodle soups and other bits and pieces. And every time I visited Christchurch I'd make sure to call in for some ramen or gyudon. 

And then, and I almost don't even need to say this because you'll already know because it's in Christchurch, the earthquakes. If I'm not mistaken, I seem to recall Samurai Bowl was closed after the September 2010 earthquake and remained closed after the February 2011 ones which saw the old Samurai Bowl building eventually torn down. (I could be confusing this with Burgers and Beers, which was also closed from September 2010, but in any case the old Gloucester St Samurai Bowl is long gone.)

Finally, in September 2011, old Samurai Bowl reopened in a new spot on Colombo St, right near the South City shopping centre. I didn't find out, though, until I was down in Christchurch for Christmas, when I was driving along Colombo St and had to pull over when I saw the familiar old flags flapping out the front. You know that kind of emotional surprise-relief you get when you find something really dear to you that you thought you'd lost forever? Yeah, that. 

The following is just a small selection of what's on offer at Samurai Bowl; what I've eaten during my last two visits to Christchurch. It's all been good. If you're in Christchurch, I highly recommend it for cheap Japanese eats, pretty close to how you'd get in Japan.

First of all: tonkotsu ramen. There is nowhere in Wellington that serves ramen like this: a deeply rich, salty, milky-thick pork bone broth with chewy, al dente noodles, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, pickled ginger and pork belly. The egg, boiled just so that the yolk's not quite solid, and soaked in a soy-based seasoning (I believe), is a dollar extra. Definitely worth it. For those who aren't so keen on the super-rich tonkotsu broth, there are other flavours: shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso, spicy miso, curry, and their signature samurai ramen (tonkotsu and shoyu). All up, it'll cost you around ten bucks, more if you add extra toppings like the egg. 

Not on the official menu, but really awesome and definitely worth trying if you're into ramen: tsukemen. If you've read the ramen issue (Issue 1) of David Chang's new-ish food quarterly, Lucky Peach, you'll know what I'm talking about. For everyone else, here's a quick rundown. 

Ramen is usually served like the tonkotsu ramen above: noodles and toppings swimming in broth. If you break ramen down into all its parts, though, it consists of the noodles, the toppings, a concentrated flavour base (tare) and the broth. Tsukemen is where you get the noodles and toppings separately, and dip them into a bowl filled with the tare, which is super salty and intense - definitely a sauce for dipping, not something you'd drink. Apparently, though I've never been able to do this (too full by the time I've finished the noodles!) you can ask for the tare to be topped up with the broth once you've finished eating the noodles. Not sure if Samurai Bowl does this, but if you make it through the noodles, it's worth a shot. 

Anyway, this is good. Really good. And quite possibly the only place in NZ that serves tsukemen. Let me know if I'm wrong...

In Japan, if you're at a typical ramen shop, you can almost guarantee they'll be serving gyoza too. Samurai Bowl's are great: with chewy, soft tops and crispy bottoms, they're cooked just the way I like them, the best of both the fried and steamed dumpling worlds.

And, what first made me fall in love with this place: gyudon. Your average gyudon consists of a bowl of rice topped with thinly sliced beef and onions simmered in a sweet soy sauce. It's pretty typical Japanese fast food, too; the Yoshinoya chain of gyudon shops is almost ubiquitous in Japan and is one of the few fast food chains I get excited about (hint: it's most excellent at 3am, and beats a greasy kebab/burger/slimy noodles hands down any day). 

This time I went for the ontama-kimchi gyudon: gyudon topped with an onsen-tamago (really slow-cooked egg that's only just set) and kimchi. It may not be for everyone; you may want to stick with plain gyudon. But for me, this combination of toppings (pretty common in Japan) brings back lots of memories of gyudon-eating in Japan. 

On a recent visit I took my dad and grandma along. Dad's choice: this vibrantly coloured avocado-maguro don. Perfect for summer, perfect for sushi-lovers: this was like a deconstructed sushi roll; the fish and avocado served atop sushi rice with nori, ginger and wasabi (add your own soy sauce to taste). 

I feel like Samurai Bowl's karaage has been pretty hit and miss in the past, but the last couple times I've been (coincidentally, since they've reopened in the new location), this Japanese fried chicken has been great: really crispy, really flavourful, just perfect dipped in some Kewpie mayo.

On the specials menu the last time we visited: soy sauce-seasoned grilled scallops, really tasty and tender and, at $5, an easy little nibble to add to your meal.

I'm really glad Samurai Bowl has reopened and seems to be going strong in its new location. It's cheap, casual (grab a menu yourself and order at the counter), food arrives pretty fast, with friendly staff, Japanese beer on tap and a BYO license. Plus they have the best ramen in the South Island, maybe even in all of NZ (though I haven't been to any of the ramen shops in Auckland so I can't say for sure!). 

Shop 5, 174 Colombo St

(03) 379 6752

View Gusty Gourmet - Christchurch in a larger map