Monday, August 13, 2012

Guest blogger Ben Hurley visits Tauranga

I'm delighted to introduce Ben Hurley as guest blogger this week. He's a bloody good cook and as a touring comedian eats very widely, not just the stuff that gets trapped in his beard over the course of the day. Enjoy his thoughts on the dining out scene in Tauranga:

Tauranga is an odd town. Not bad odd, I’ve just never been able to work it out. Other towns are easy to sum up; Hamilton has bogans, Wellington has arty types, Dunedin has students, Auckland has pricks and Christchurch has had a hell of a time so we don’t make jokes about it anymore.

Tauranga is New Zealand’s 5th biggest city and I’ve heard it referred to as “Little Auckland” more than once. I think this is because there are sail boats and the female inhabitants occasionally wear high heels. What I will say about Tauranga is that many unique phenomena can be found there, like Winston Peters supporters, and Oceanic reefs that pop up and surprise poor immigrant container ship captains, not to mention that ACDC drummer, Phil Rudd, lives there. See? It’s odd.

As I married a Bay of Plenty girl three years ago, I now spend more time in the Tauranga vicinity than I ever thought I would. Last Saturday, with our two-year-old at the grandparents', we ventured out in the nearest city to them for a rare ‘adults only’ evening of dinner and drinking.

As any parent will know, when these evenings present themselves, some planning needs to go into them. Also, my expectations for the night are high. Really fucking high. If I have a bad meal on our quarterly ‘date night’ I will seek answers. But what was I worried about, right? I was in ‘Little Auckland’. Surprisingly I found dining options to be a little thin on the ground.

That may sound unfair, Taurangans would argue they have a bustling nightlife. True. However, for this special occasion I was keen to push the boat out and get some fine-dining action in. Tauranga boasts many eating establishments on its infamous waterfront ‘Strand’, but most of those turn into booze barns at about 9pm and we are now far too grown-up for that.

During my research, the first place that jumped out at me was owned by the aforementioned ACDC drummer. Phil Rudd’s “New York chic restaurant”, on one of the Tauranga marinas, had been open just a few short months but, according to user reviews, seemed to be going well. An email was sent to Phil’s Place about a week before “Adult Night’ to secure a table. One was promptly received back assuring a table by the window. I was ready for some rock and roll inspired Prime beef.

Fortunately when I was getting directions to the establishment off the internet earlier on the day of dining I noticed a Bay of Plenty Times article saying that the restaurant had suddenly, mysteriously closed and Phil Rudd was no where to be found. Speculation was that perhaps some of his Dirty Deeds had caught up with him, that his finances were Thunderstruck and after some slow business had found it difficult to get Back in [the] Black. But I digress.

Planning wise, it wasn’t quite panic stations. The Waikato Chiefs were playing the Super Rugby final that night so it was fair to say that if I did find a fine dining restaurant there was a good chance they would have a table free. We decided on Somerset Cottage, a small, boutique restaurant that wasn’t technically in Tauranga but in its posh, satellite village, Bethlehem. After a few Tapas and glasses of wine at the hotel bar (Trinity Wharf, by the way, an amazingly set hotel with a not too shabby restaurant) we headed on the 10 minute car journey to the town named after where Mary and Joseph actioned a poorly thought out birth plan.

Now, Somerset cottage has been going 25 years and, as we all know, that’s no mean feat in the notoriously fickle dining industry. It was set in amongst residential Bethlehem (which is all of Bethlehem) in a building straight out of Beatrix Potter. Disappointingly, our waitress wasn’t a talking woodland creature but a more than capable human woman.

The food was hearty yet classily presented home style fare but overall the meal was a little patchy. My calamari starter had so much lime on it was almost inedible yet the roast duck was some of the best poultry I’d ever eaten. The lamb was perfectly cooked if not a wee bit under seasoned.

One of the saving graces and the best part of dining in regional New Zealand is that the portions are decent, even in a fine dining establishment like this. Heartland New Zealanders won’t happily part with 40 bucks for a main unless you get the entire lamb loin.

Not to be left behind the times, Somerset Cottage offers a good range of craft beers and an excellent (albeit, almost completely local) wine list that they seemed to be able to match with the food. A shared dessert of Dark Chocolate Brioche Bread and Butter Pudding was the highlight.

Leaving Bethlehem and heading back to Tauranga we got stuck behind a Morris Minor going 40 kilometres an hour on the main road. Not drunk, just elderly. Then, going back into our hotel, we drove down The Strand that was now so disorderly it looked like a scene from Mad Max. It summed the night up really. Maybe Tauranga isn’t that odd after all, it’s just now big enough that it’s starting to be as unpredictable as the other, bigger Auckland.