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.