Sunday, June 16, 2013

Capital Eating 2013

Hearty thanks to Alexander "Slim" Bisley, who for the third year running has put together this comprehensive guide to eating well in Wellington. I can't personally vouch for the restaurants, but I can personally vouch for Alexander, who approaches food recommendations like he approaches all of his writing - with intelligence, charm and some good hard yards in the field. So, over to him:

Cafe Polo 

“I hate the Wairarapa so I never go out there,” Fat Freddy’s Drop’s foodie Mu told me recently in an uncharacteristically solemn tone. “There’s something dark about the Wairarapa.” Indeed; but the area does put out some tasty produce. Cafe Polo’s Wairarapa beef fillet medium-rare, with Parkvale mushrooms (also from the valley of darkness)—and triple-cooked chips and onion rings— is Roppongi Hills precise, slice- by- slice, sensational. When this freelance hobo of no importance went recently they indulged my refusal to sit at the drafty table by the door (they’d first said ‘twas all they had), and put Orlando Bloom there instead.

Cafe runner-up: Queen Sally’s Diamond Deli does damn tasty counter food and coffee from barista Jon Coddington, dealer to Lyall Bay sound tyrants. “Mu has quite the coffee addiction,” Jon chuckles. 

Ortega Fish Shack and Bar

Ortega Fish Shack and Bar’s Mark Limacher and Peter Collins are two of New Zealand’s greatest chefs, a bit below the awesome artist Sid Sahrawat. Their crayfish butter sauce is one of the best sauces I have ever tasted; I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat hungry for it. It comes with a generous portion of pan roasted Blue Warehou, delicately complemented with ratatouille. Before the cray, I recommend pan-fried prawn tails, garlic butter drunk (spiked with lemon and tagliatelle). Or seared scallops with beurre blanc. Or Cook Strait sashimi. All the seafood at Ortega is fresh- as- fuck. From start to finish, atmosphere to service, the experience is terrific. “Oh, he looks like a schoolboy”, my grandmother said of Davey McDonald. The young gun’s Wellington’s best maitre d’: relaxed, clued-up, intuitive. Even hard to please Aucklanders like Simon Wilson walk away from Ortega impressed!

Seafood runner-up: Shed 5. Their signature whole-fish dish is an excessive delight. Regardless of whether you get a seat with a view. Hopefully the current refit will make the environment more appealing.

Sensual Pleasure

“People have found that food gives them a lot, it gives them things that they aren’t getting elsewhere in their lives,” Michael Pollen. “This strikingly powerful interest in all things having to do with food coincides with a progressively more mediated, digitized life. We spend our time in front of screens. We don’t exercise our other senses very much. And food is this complete sensory experience. It engages all five senses. It’s a sensual pleasure. And it is also—and I think this is a very important part of the food movement—really a communitarian movement. What’s driving people to food in many, many places is the kind of experience you can have at a farmers’ market. It’s really a new public square.”

There’s sensual pleasure to be found in Wellington, for sure. From Tuwharetoa tane Hemi Tahu’s eggs benedict with house (wood) smoked salmon slathered with singular hollandaise (or beautifully poached feijoa, pineapple and black doris plum with thick greek yoghurt, honey and muesli) at Charlie Bill’s to rotisserie chicken ex Le Canard’s stand at the Te Papa Sunday market.

At that market communitarians jostle with hustlers, like the Greek guys selling fish fresh from the boat. Their shameless efforts to shakedown a few extra dollars can be unpleasant, but once was funny. Cos I was with a girl, the guy thought he could shift an overpriced twenty dollar lot on me. “No,” I demurred, ordering a modest portion of tarakihi to go with the trevally in the fridge. “We’ve already got some at home.” He bristled: “From where?” “Wellington Trawlers on Cuba St.” “You tell my uncles, my estranged Greek uncles, you’re buying from Niko now!”

Wellington is getting an overdue African restaurant soon, where excellent Moroccan restaurant Casablanca’s currently serves fish tagine. Energetic Barika has been serving a (usually) mean Senegalese lamb joloff from his foodtruck at WOMAD, Cuba St’s Friday market, and the Newtown Festival.

Vegetarians and Non-drinkers 

"Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It's healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I've worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold. Oh, I'll accommodate them, I'll rummage around for something to feed them, for a 'vegetarian plate', if called on to do so. Fourteen dollars for a few slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini suits my food cost fine," the great Tony Bourdain hilariously jibed vegos.

I agree with Bourdain that a life without meat— or cheese, especially from Wellington’s merveilleux fromagerie Le Marché Francais— is not a life worth living. But as a non-drinker (yeah AA Gill aussi, French snobs), I have solidarity with choice being treated shabbily. Some of my best friends are vegetarians, and we have shared healthier delights at joints like Cafe Polo (vegetarian big breakfast), Restaurant 88 (Saigon crispy rice crepe) and Great India (paleek paneer). Non-drinkers are treated piss-poorly, even by otherwise decent places that should know better; limited to Bundaberg ginger beer and similarly overpriced crap like Simply Squeezed OJ. In addition to eminently drinkable drops like Moretti Zero, Ortega’s Rory Linstrom does good mocktails such as Captain Ortega (lemon, passionfruit, orange, cranberry, pineapple and mango), Hawaii 5-0, and Pink Lemonade.

Best Brunch: Charlie Bill
Best Café: Polo Best Counter Food: Queen Sally’s Diamond Deli
Best Date Joint: Foxglove
Best Dish: Pan roasted Blue Warehou, ratatouille and crayfish butter, Ortega Fish Shack and Bar
Best French: Le Canard
Best Fromagerie: Le Marché Francais
Best Italian: Ombra
Best Indian: Great India
Best Japanese: Have to go to AK
Best Kebab: Phoenician Falafel
Best Maitre D': Davey McDonald, Ortega Fish Shack and Bar
Best Mocktail: Captain Ortega, Ortega Fish Shack and Bar
Best Seafood: Ortega Fish Shack and Bar
Best Steak: Crazy Horse (wagyu only on Monday twofer nights)
Best South American: El Matador
Best South-East Asian: 88
Best Survivor: Great India
Best Thai: Phu Thai Esarn
The Departed (In sorrow, not in anger): Kazu


Update 29/6 
Re Seafood: Readers asked me whether I’ve eaten at Martin Bosley’s? Nope, as yet. (Ortega’s relentlessly good.) However in 2011 my drycleaner gave me one of the Oriental Bay chef’s shirts. The Dominion Post Your Weekend then ran a feature noting how Bosley was so busy his shirt was unironed at their interview. 

Readers also enquired re the town’s best cheap eat? After the Wellington NZIFF launch, I enjoyed dinner at Casablanca, reminding me that it’s Wellington’s best value joint IMUO. At $20 their fish tagine is generous, fresh, healthy and delicious. (Their excellent dahl soup entree is almost enough for a meal itself.) On arrival, five moorish homemade North African dips like hummus (and unlimited free pita bread) appear as a gratis entree. Four types of olives are free. Occasionally I finish decadently on a baklava dessert, lashed liberally with almonds, vanilla icecream, honey and spices.

Casablanca’s environment is very inviting, communitarian and relaxed for groups to pontificate about Seth Rogen vs Robert Fisk, etc. The latest on Barika’s African restaurant replacing Casablanca is maybe, maybe not.

Alexander Bisley is a Wellington freelance writer, who is marking nine years as an editor-at-large of the acclaimed Lumière Reader this winter. Follow Alexander on Twitter at @alexanderbisley. You can email him at