I've been in my old home Wellington this weekend, previewing some of the highlights of Visa Wellington on a Plate, an annual festival where local restaurants offer special, accessibly priced menus and all sorts of food-themed events take place. If you have a soft spot for the capital (and what sort of monster doesn't?), make sure you book a visit between August 10th and August 26th. Here's some of the most exciting stuff happening this year:
Courtenay Place, formerly just the home fresh-faced Greek girls who didn't disclose nearly enough to new suitors about their family members' anger management problems, now has a couple of first-class Asian restaurants. Dragonfly is a must-visit - it looks beautiful, from the origami menus to the handmade wooden stools to the thousands of strips of material painstakingly sewed to the ceiling. And the food is breathtaking - best tofu I've ever had in a restaurant, one of the greatest dumplings I've ever tasted, and a very good eggplant salad. It's cool but warm, the food tasty but light. Go there for a $50 build-your-own banquet special for the duration of the festival. Dragonfly's owned by a young brother and sister team whose late father ran Yangtze and Jasmine restaurants, which you'll know of if you were in Wellington back in the days when hotels closed on the weekend (as late as the nineties, I'm told).
Petone: just one strip of motorway away from the CBD and freshly colonised by the middle classes, it's the Te Atatu Peninsula of Wellington. And it has one of Wellington's best restaurants: Gusto, housed in an old dental surgery dripping with art deco authenticity. The chef has a long impressive CV and he lives just down the road with his two daughters, so it's a real local set up. He's a very, very good cook and during VWOAP he's offering two courses and a wine for $35. I can recommend his incredible braised osso bucco, moulded into a cylinder then crumbed in parsley gremolata. It's totally worth the trip to Petone, and you get to see that beautiful city skyline on the way back in.
Why didn't anybody think of a chocolate festival before now? This runs during VWOAP, and sells out every year - book tickets right now at www.chocolatefestival.co.nz. It's your only chance to get one -on-one with NZ's best chocolatiers except for at a big food show and let's be honest: it's no fun tasting chocolate when you have to fight for facetime with some merlot-soaked muggins reeking of free Arnott's Shapes.
Forty per cent of craft beer in New Zealand is drunk by Wellingtonians, and there are some superb beer bars in the Capital - the sort of places you simply don't see in Auckland. Hashigo Zake in Taranaki Street changes beer kegs so often they have to print a daily menu listing what's currently on tap. Little Beer Quarter is great too. The best of Wellington beer is celebrated at Beervana, another event that forms part of the VWOAP festival.
One of the keenest beer lovers in the city is chef Anton Legg at The Fork and Brewer. He took me through a beer and food tasting on Friday night which was exciting and incredibly interesting. This sort of thing: he served a hoppy IPA with brie and crackers - the salt and fat in the cheese coats your palate and blocks the bitterness of the hops, allowing all their floral, fruit notes to jump up and punch you in the buds. It all sounds a bit much I know, but it was one of the most effective demonstrations of matching I've ever had, and he's working hard on a beer matching menu that will do the same for anyone who walks in off the street and wants to give it a go. He also does craft beer vinegars.
Logan Brown is the most famous name in Wellington eating, and it's still great - the room is the same beautiful thing it's always been, but they've brought in some innovations to the eating programme - high tea on a Saturday afternoon is particularly popular. Catch chef Shaun Clouston at the Masterclass during the festival (along with Michael Meredith, Ben Shewry, Rex Morgan and others) or try his pinot-braised Pirinoa Station lamb on the LB festival menu - a super tasty breed whose flavour apparently benefits from one tonne of salt sprayed over each acre of the farm every year by the Wairarapa surf.
Plum used to be an average sort of a Cuba Mall cafe but it's been refitted and rebranded - it's now a lovely place to sit and eat top notch nosh. My favourite was a manuka smoked salmon with baby beetroot on tarator, a moreish blitz of nuts, garlic, lemon and olive oil (walnuts and breadcrumbs in my home version). Plum's doing $35 for two courses including a glass of wine.
Excited much?! That's just the start of it - there are scores of restaurants involved and dozens of events to choose between. You could do what I've done and book two or three days down here then eat out for every meal without spending too much at all. A hard copy programme is the best way to browse it, and you can find one via www.wellingtononaplate.com.
I was hosted down here by the Bolton Hotel - it's a beautiful, five star hotel, with massive rooms and something I didn't realise was critical until I had a baby girl: a bedroom you can close off from the living area, so that when your daughter goes to sleep at 7pm you don't have to a) put her in the bathroom and use the lobby toilet for the rest of the night or, b) put her in the same room as you and sit in silent darkness together until 8.30pm when you crawl into bed yourselves out of sheer boredom. So yes, if you want to make it a really special stay, book at the Bolton, from where you can walk to almost all of those other places I've recommended. Don't try to walk to Petone though, that's just silly.