Author: max veenhuyzen
Photography: john laurie
When the Tory sailed into Wellington in 1839, hot on the heels of Dutchman Abel Tasman and Captain James Cook, it heralded the start of European settlement proper in what would become the New Zealand capital.
But the produce and dining on offer in Wellington today are a far cry from the pigs, pumpkins and potatoes on which its early pioneers survived. Just two centuries later it's a land of milk, honey and world-beating pinot noir from nearby Martinborough; a thriving cosmopolitan environ that confounds stereotypes of soulless capitals. And much of the city's energy is attributable to its vibrant food-and-wine scene.
It all amounts to good news for travellers in Wellington for the Rugby World Cup: regardless of how your team fares, top-flight snacks and drinks are certainties, particularly if Logan Brown, the city's finest diner, is on the agenda.
Named after its founders Steve Logan and Al Brown, the airy dining room is housed in a former bank building. A deer head (shot by Al Brown) peers over diners from on high. An aquarium is built into the bar. But as striking as the décor is, it's the handiwork of head chef Shaun Clouston that really gets tongues wagging. Rather than an amuse-bouche, a season-appropriate koha ("gift" in Maori) prefaces meals; in this instance, a quenelle of macadamia skordalia served alongside a pristine single witlof leaf and candied nut rubble. The likes of confit turkey and perfectly flaky longline-caught blue-nose cod are indicative of Clouston's faultless technique and respect for produce. It'd be remiss too not to mention the paua ravioli, a menu mainstay that tempers the richness of abalone, chilli and herbs with a subtly lime-spiked beurre blanc.
Arbitrageur is another name belonging to the financial-institution-turned-eatery camp. Chef-patron Chris Green cooks with an unrepentantly Larousse bent: local scampi is grilled and hit with butter, garlic, chilli and citrus while spirals of house-made Toulouse sausage find company in rich Puy lentils and Savoy cabbage. By day the feel is upmarket business lunch, but come nightfall the ties are off and the bar fills with people keen to pillage Arbitrageur's cellar while snacking on charcuterie and smallgoods. Revolutionary? Hardly. But when a formula works as well as this, why reinvent the Brie de Meaux wheel?
At the Museum Hotel, the oddly named Hippopotamus is another of the city's bastions of gastronomique Français. Despite the fine-dining trimmings, there's a definite generosity and lack of stuffiness here, certainly in the likes of melty duck confit and a colossally proportioned smoked eel and watercress salad. Although flambéed crêpes Suzette deliver old-school theatrics, it's the excellent dessert assiette - in particular, the salted caramel-spiked tarte Tatin - that best references yesteryear. The fit-out is similarly retrospective with brightly coloured furniture and OTT art conjuring an opulent Marie Antoinette vibe. If a splendid Hemingway - made using freshly squeezed juices and garnished with a Central Otago cherry soaked in pinot - is anything to go by, there's reason plenty for hotel guests to leave overcoats in the room and spend the entire evening in-house.
The abundance of pant-suits and dinner jackets occupying dining rooms is no coincidence: chalk all that business attire up to the federal government and its associated white-collar splinter cells that all call Wellington home. Not surprisingly then, most of the major hotel chains have a presence in the city. But dig a little deeper and you'll find sparks of eccentricity to counter the expected, from the aforementioned Museum Hotel to the quirky Ohtel, a 10-room boutique hotel tastefully stocked with the cutting edge and the vintage. Big business's free-flowing bucks play a significant role in fuelling the city's robust hospitality scene: well-paid corporate types with good job security are going to want to eat and drink. And well.
But expense-account dining is but part of the tale. On the flip side of that platinum Amex lies a thriving student population courtesy of Victoria and Massey universities. These leaders of tomorrow are, today, catalysts for and benefactors of the city's cheap, cheerful and casual food scene, a scene where cosy eateries such as Buenos Aires Tango Bistro rule. Here, gaggles of the hip and hoodie-wearing congregate to feast on Milanesas (South American beef and chicken schnitzels) and Argentine-style empanadas, ideal one-handed eating for the twenty-something running late for a lecture (or party). Elsewhere, you'll find the young populating Wellington's cafés, eateries, bars, lounges and combinations thereof: all places you'd go to as much for a snack as you would for a favourite libation.
Like any university town, Wellington is not without its share of venues best avoided by the student-averse (give the joints spruiking three-dollar pizza and foam parties a wide berth). But generally speaking, most of the city is bipartisan territory where both sides of the fence can cohabitate peacefully. Take, for example, Hashigo Zake, an underground (literally) beer bar bringing together fine brews from near and far. As the name suggests, Japanese whisky and sake also feature. And the Nipponese influence carries over to the food, with takoyaki, gyoza and edamame sharing menu with jambalaya and Thai pork pies.
Another house of eating and drinking that kowtows Eastwards is the recently opened Ancestral, its unassuming façade belying a (rumoured) seven-figure fit-out bill. Beyond the heavy royal blue curtains and discreet window decaling, the ambience is yum cha meets neo-Tokyo, at least in the sleek, mostly black front room that's home to the restaurant and bar. It's a little airier in the courtyard, where, after 3pm, yakitori is grilled to order. But regardless of where you park yourself, ask to see the wine list. Drum-and-bass-DJ-turned-wine-aficionado-about-town Stephen Wong has assembled a handy collection that tempts with grower Champagne and other French booty stashed away in the small but meticulously stocked cellar.
A few doors down and up a flight of stairs is The Library, an endearing late-night lounge and dessert bar festooned with books, booths and booze. From his poky kitchen, pastry chef David Cadoret delights by way of apple chiboust tarts and salvos of mini churros. Don't be afraid to leave the decision making with the team behind the bar when it comes to drinks: personable chaps such as Tom Offenberger, thoroughly versed in the art of shaking, stirring and mixing a tipple, will reward your faith by whipping up the likes of a Buffalo Trace Manhattan invigorated by maraschino and chocolate bitters. It's an excellent sidekick to an equally impressive chocolate pudding and basil custard nightcap.
Despite residing in the same building, the highly recommended Motel Bar is accessible only via nearby Forresters Lane. Numbers are deliberately kept low at this discrete den of drink, so checking in may require patience. But once you're in, your time in the queue will seem a distant memory. (Unless you're Liv Tyler. The fact that the actress was denied entry because the bar was at capacity has become something of a local legend.) It's the cocktails on which Motel's reputation has been built, but manager Kyle Simpson and his bar team also preside over a connoisseur's drink selection. Seeking rare spirits, dry-ice trickery and house-made syrups and infusions? Then this is the counter at which to pull up a stool.
If oenophilia is your affliction, Wellington is your salve. Kick things off at Vivo Enoteca Cucina, another alley denizen. The selections by the glass cover much ground while the main list boasts multiple vintages of Kiwi and international marques. The peasant Italian menu is best exemplified by the rustic Sicilian sandwiches. They arrive from the kitchen as a trio of bready pockets stuffed with pork and fennel sausage and blasted with dollops of garlicky butter. Neck the rest of that Hawke's Bay and Co "Supernatural" sauvignon blanc then get your skates on, perhaps to the Matterhorn (opened in 1963) where a serious Old World-leaning cache of vino is curated according to climate and grape colour.
Of course Wellington has more to offer than just alcohol, but before we move on, I feel duty-bound to suggest you do your booze shopping at Waring Taylor Street's endlessly brilliant Rumbles Wine Merchant, and try to get your hands on a bottle of Smoke & Oakum's Gunpowder Rum, a locally produced high-proof spirit laced with tobacco, chilli and gunpowder. For Ben Simpson, Smoke & Oakum's creator, embracing seafaring traditions (the British navy used to check the proof of rum by mixing the spirit with gunpowder and igniting it) when crafting boutique booze in this port city made perfect sense. And we have to agree. It seems an apt, if leftfield, beverage to represent the country's capital.
Like any cosmopolitan hive, Wellington takes its coffee seriously - why else would a city with a population of approximately 450,000 require some 13 different roasters? While many regard Caffe L'Affare as pioneers of the local coffee scene, it's Mojo which seems to have found its way into most Wellingtonians' morning rituals. From its waterside HQ, Mojo roasts close to 500 kilograms of grower-direct beans daily for deployment throughout Wellington, including the airport café where travellers can purchase coffee packaged in robin's egg-hued bags for home. Closer to town is the Memphis Belle Coffee House, and although it's awash with boho charm, a nigh-on paralysing coffee selection including siphon, pour-over and cold-drip preparations hints at the level of respect afforded the bean by its charismatic baristas.
Which segues to another truth: other than a taxi from the terminal, Wellington is a city where an automobile is entirely optional. Basing yourself near the Tory Street-Courtenay Street nexus puts you within striking distance of all the CBD's treasures, including gourmet grocer Moore Wilson; if you can walk through its aisles without a single pang of jealousy, you're a better man than I. But if you do find yourself in possession of car keys, the hilly seaside hamlet of Miramar is as good a reason as any to don those driving gloves.
The area, originally dubbed Watt's Peninsula (and Whatai by the Maoris before that), was renamed Miramar (Spanish for "wonderful sea") in 1872 by James Coutts Crawford after the majestic house built for him by his brother-in-law. Almost a century and a half later, the multi-million-dollar studios and production facilities built in the area by Lord of the Rings director and local lad Peter Jackson have prompted whispers of another name: Wellywood. Thankfully, to date, the proposal to spell the suburb's nickname in Hollywood-style white lettering on a nearby hillside has been quashed. But beyond bringing Middle-earth to life, the Miramar neighbourhood is fast establishing itself as the discerning Wellingtonian's suburban eating destination of choice.
At Roxy Cinema, both these strong suits are brought together in a captivating art deco-styled two-theatre complex. Outside screening times, it's Coco restaurant and bar that supplies the post-matinée frivolity. Local publican Jonny McKenzie has captured the period's charm on a golden era-inspired cocktail list sporting the likes of the Islay- and vodka-powered Dreamy Dorini Smoking Martini as well as the Blood and Sand, a tie-in to the 1922 movie. Eats-wise, however, chef Nic Spicer's food isn't quite as on-brand. For him, it's about very now flavour and shared eating, so say hello to five-spice pulled-pork sliders and sweet chipotle chicken wings. In another food and film team-up, rumour has it that a hankering for Mexican by local production house employees (many came from California's leading production studios to work on The Lord of the Rings) gave rise to the opening of the nearby La Boca Loca. But whatever its raison d'être, this taquería awash in lurid turquoise triumphantly delivers - the roast spiced pork shoulder and pineapple salsa is particularly worth laying off the popcorn for. And before you ask, yes, the tortillas are made in-house daily; yes, there's carne asada, too.
Operating behind a less conspicuous façade is The Larder, another Miramar eatery whose reputation extends beyond neighbourhood lines. Here, Jacob Brown, former head chef at Tabou in Sydney's Surry Hills, cooks with integrity, generosity and heart (not to mention other cuts of offal - crumbed lamb's brains, maybe, or seared calf's livers with potato rösti). It's not all sit-down bistro-style eating, though. Perhaps the strongest proof of locals' acceptance of Brown is the seemingly endless queue of bodies craving coffee and something baked to get them through the nine-to-five. That portraits of Brown's suppliers hug the walls speaks volumes about his attitude to cooking and his role in the food chain.
New Zealand knows full well that the world's eyes will be Aotearoa-trained in the next two months. Up and down the country, last-minute preparations are being completed before the arrival of an estimated 85,000 international visitors for the World Cup. There are new high-profile restaurants opening in Auckland and there's unprecedented talk of extending Bluff's famous oyster season in an attempt to lure the North Island-bound south to Invercargill. And Wellington? Well, save for some roadworks and other infrastructure tweaks, it's very much been business as usual in the lead-up to rugby's big dance.
But when you're dealing with a locality that loves a festival (the city's just hosted the third instalment of its August food love-in, Wellington on a Plate), why wouldn't you want to stick to the script? No matter how many times you've seen them, those charming Hataitai and Roseneath homes hugging Evans Bay Parade still elicit sighs of admiration on the taxi ride into town; Te Papa museum and a healthy arts calendar ensure the city's cultural fabric remains strong year-round; and, regardless of your intended length of stay, Wellington's gastronomic riches seem too numerous to fit into a single trip. Rugby World Cup or not, any time is try-time for this most charming of capital cities.
THE FINE PRINT
Air New Zealand has daily direct flights to Wellington from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
EAT & DRINK
31-33 Courtenay Pl, +64 4 801 8867.
125 Featherston St, +64 4 499 5530.
Buenos Aires Tango Bistro
210a Left Bank Arcade (off Cuba Mall), +64 4 803 3950.
25 Taranaki St, +64 4 384 7300.
Museum Hotel, Level 3, 90 Cable St, +64 4 802 8935.
19 Park Rd, Miramar, +64 4 388 2451.
cnr Darlington & Camperdown rds, Miramar, +64 4 891 0354.
Upstairs, 53 Courtenay Pl, +64 4 382 8593.
Cnr Vivian & Cuba sts, +64 4 801 5114.
106 Cuba St, +64 4 384 3359.
Memphis Belle Coffee House
38 Dixon St, +64 4 212 6823
Shed 13, 37 Customhouse Quay, Kumutoto Plaza, +64 4 385 3001.
Cnr Tory & College sts, +64 4 384 9906.
2 Forresters La, +64 4 384 9084
Cinema and Coco
5 Park Rd, Miramar, +64 4 388 5555.
32 Waring Taylor St, +64 4 472 7045.
19 Edward St, +64 4 384 6400.
Classic deluxe rooms from $228. 90 Cable St, +64 4 802 8900.
Studio rooms from $212. 66 Oriental Pde, +64 4 803 0600.