Wellington is one place I’ve been to in the world that I can safely say I’ll be revisiting time and time again. With three visits now under my belt I can only feel fortunate that such a vibrant and cool little place is less than four hours from home.
Two nights remained for us on this New Zealand getaway so some cramming was without a doubt in order.
In typical Wellingtonian fashion the weather kept us in check. One minute it’s raining, the next it’s blaring sunshine; a few minutes after that and the wind is so intense that if you were to jump in the air you’d land a couple of metres down the footpath. The dishevelled look isn’t something you need to spend money on at a hairdresser in this town; it happens as soon as you walk out the door on a windy day.
We shacked up on Tory Street at some apartment style hotel with very thin walls, if you know what I mean, and not all that far from it was this little joint we stumbled upon.
Tucked behind a KFC is this unassuming little place that’s little more than a brick façade with a few seats out the front. Curiosity got the better of me so I stuck my nose through the door and discovered a narrow space with a bar, benches and seats with a variety of vines growing up the walls and overhead. At the rear is a proper sit down area with fully functioning kitchen, some great-sounding food on the menu and a slew of micro brewery beers to boot. Score!
It immediately became wine o’clock so as we parked our glutes in a shaded spot, sipping on local Red Metal merlot and a Dog Point savvie, we grabbed a couple of plates of food. Mildly-spiced, and beautifully crunchy onion bhaji (15) were teamed with goat curd dumplings (or gnocchi) with a pickled lime emulsion that brought both sides of the plate together.
Seared new season scallops (18) with leaves and broad beans dressed in wasabi that was barely noticeable. A few golden spheres of salty fish roe joined the party and I was very pleased to see the roe left on the scallops. The sticky pork croquettes (15) were quite tasty but I’m still puzzled as to where the “sticky” comes into it. Maybe the pasty filling? A cider vinegar dressing worked nicely with the pork flavours, as did the bitterness from the radicchio.
Many more things I could have eaten graced the menu; like steamed snails with pecorino or pork belly with smoked potato mash, even wild game terrine. Share plates perfectly constructed for kicking back with a vino, beer, cocktail or cider. What a great little find.
The Hop Garden – 13 Pirie Street, Mt Victoria
Later that afternoon we got the train up to Petone where we were set to catch up with a few people. Dinner was booked and we had no idea of where or what we were eating.
My stomach smiled when I saw we were about to walk into a brightly-lit restaurant, simply decorated (barely at all) with formica tables and lazy susan’s. The young people running the floor were beyond friendly and very helpful, a concept I don’t see very often in restaurants like this. Well, in Sydney anyway.
A procession of dishes kept us eating for a couple of hours; some prawn twisters (5.9 rather flavourless prawns wrapped in pastry, fried), steamed dim sims (5.5 siu mai) and pan-fried lamb dumplings (5.9) that were very much like the northern Chinese ones I adore, just smaller.
I found the orange beef (17.9) rather standard; just strips of lightly battered meat mixed with a sticky orange sauce. My least favourite was the sizzling satay chicken (18.9), which comes as no surprise as I loathe those cow-shaped hot-plates that spit all over the table. The pieces of chicken had so much tenderiser applied to them that the texture was like overcooked pasta. I left that for the others, that seem rather happy with it.
Cumin lamb (18.9) always goes down a treat and aside from being a little dry, it packed some flavour as well as a fraction of chilli. Loved the braised pork (17.9); deeply rich chunks of belly doused in a syrupy sesame sauce.
Another crowd favourite was the cooked king prawns (28.9) with spicy salt. Whole prawns fried with garlic and onion and tossed with salt and chopped red chilli. Loved these, as well as the hot & spicy pork spareribs (16.8); rich, caramelised and juicy tender.
Desserts (6 each) were a non-event and barely worth ordering. Battered pieces of banana with the most generic ice cream I’ve tried and the same ice cream, dipped in the same batter, deep-fried, soggy, not good at all.
Mr Ji’s Kitchen – 285 Jackson Street, Petone
Twice we visited Six Barrel Soda Co. where the main attraction is, of course, the variety of soda’s they make themselves. Organic fair trade sugar, filtered water and ingredients like fruits, nuts and spices form the syrups. Add some sparkling water or soda and you have a deliciously refreshing bevvie. First it was a lunch slider special. For me, beef & cheddar slider (13) with a cherry & pomegranate float. Great little burger with caramelised onion, some pickles and kettles. The other one – haloumi slider (11) with pickles and kettles and grapefruit & hops soda.
The following morning it was breakfast of mini hot dogs (12). Yes, that’s right, hot dogs for breakfast. A trio of Island Bay sausages with sauerkraut, caramelised onion and a little wild rocket. So good! The other half settles on the more sensible weekend scram’ (10); silky eggs with chorizo, smoked paprika and toasted ciabatta.
Six Barrel Soda Co. – Level 1, 33 Dixon Street (enter via Eva St)
We didn’t have to walk too far for dinner thanks to this place being virtually next door to the hotel. Restaurant 88 is a swish Vietnamese place set beneath an apartment or office building. The menu speaks traditional but, as with the decor, it’s constructed with a more progressive and modern hand.
Dinner kicked off with a good start, all tender and juicy in the form of caramelised baby back ribs (14.5), slowly baked in a deliciously sweet tamarind sauce. There was sourness in there as well and with the slightest touch of a fork, the meat came off the bones effortlessly. I quite liked the pork dumplings in broth (14.5) as well.
There was promise of annatto seeds but I found that highly unlikely as there was none of the usual yellow/orange colour that this spice releases when you cook with it. Still, the soft, siu mai-like texture of the pork balls was packed with lemongrass and other herbs and spices. The only way was to eat it with a spoon and dunk into it with the baguette on the side.
Drunken crispy salt & pepper baby chicken (27.5) looked to be a house specialty so I made sure we ordered it. The little bird is poached in herbed wine, then fried. Nice tender meat with a five-spice flavour, but sadly we had not one skerrick of crispiness. Nice touch with the parcel of peanut and sesame topped sticky rice on the side.
I much preferred the char-grilled marinated pork loin (26.5) that also came with grilled meatballs. The chucks of meat were juicy with a beautiful charred and caramel flavour and the pork meatballs were just as juicy and loaded with pepper.
Of course we had to try the crème brûlée (13.5), which was intense with vanilla yet a little sloppy, but it was the scoop of black sesame ice cream that stole the show. Charcoal-coloured, gritty and smoky on the palate; to this day it’s the best sesame ice cream either of us has tried. PERFECTION. The other dessert, a sticky rice pudding (13.5) with mung beans, was just the ticket to end a good meal. Drenched in thick coconut cream, toasted sesame and coconut with fruit and ice cream.
All in all a great meal but I was disappointed to see the likes of chicken nuggets, sausage rolls and fish & chips on the kids menu.
Restaurant 88 – 88 Tory Street, Wellington
Seatoun Wharf and Worser Bay. Stunning location and on that particular day, some of the strongest winds I’ve ever experienced. I was almost knocked over every time I pulled the camera out to take a photo!
With nothing more than a few coins in our pockets we had a bit of a struggle to get back into town from Seatoun. The local cash machine wasn’t working and there were no cabs to be seen. Aside from feeling a bit peckish, surprise surprise, I was ok with walking from Seatoun to the airport, through the tunnel beneath the runway and into the Rongotai shops to get cash for a bus pass. It was a bit of a walk (about 4 kilometres) but at least I got to see my partners old neighbourhood when he was a kid living in these parts.
It was time for lunch by the time we got around to Oriental Bay so we jumped off the bus and had a bit of a fancy feed at The White House. Chef and owner Paul Hoather is all for keeping things seasonal and organic, sourcing most of his produce locally, even growing what he can on the roof-top.
The $140 degustation sounded too good to pass, and with the exchange rate we were taking 30% off everything anyway. Not that I need to justify anything here. A crudité of roof-top-grown radish started us off; served in a small garden terracotta pot complete with pumpernickel “soil”, honey and goat’s cheese truffle mousse.
Cute presentation, great flavours. Seared scallops were next, artfully arranged with a shaved fennel, radish, date and orange salad. A dusting of fennel pollen gave it more of an aniseed hit with some mild harissa and warehou custard as well.
Twice cooked pork belly, ginger & lychee jelly, plus some freeze-dried lychee on top. Spiced cashews, julienned green apple, fresh lychee, coriander and smears of sweet chilli mayo and coriander dressing. It sounds like a lot going on but all of it worked, even though I’m not a great fan of lychees. An obligatory palate cleanser was next; finely cubed fresh pineapple topped with pineapple granita, cracked black pepper and freeze-dried pineapple.
With our sweetly-cleansed palates it was an East-meets-West duck dish that followed. Cured duck breast, confit duck leg, ginger braised cabbage, orange kumera purée, hoisin sauce and mandarin paste. I was beginning to crave something green, like another vegetable or some leaves; anything to help along with the meat-fest.
More meat came next. Angus beef fillet on Worcestershire spätzle, a baby ham-poached carrot (more, please?), carrot purèe, fried scampi and a rather glossy oxtail jus. Loved the späzle and the scampi and found the beef a little too tepid in temperature.
Some pre-dessert Moon triple cream brie started us on the home stretch, served with cinnamon poached pear and beautiful walnut bread. Dessert number one was all about plate theatrics with a bathroom theme. Very cute. A “loofah” of pistachio sponge, a “soap” deliciously-creamy milk curd and “suds” delicately flavoured with honey.
To follow is a glittered crispy chocolate cylinder filled with espresso mousse, iced coffee sorbet, chocolate crumbs and caramel and yoghurt gels. As our bellies settled into XL mode, a final pair of petit fours completed our lunch spread. Passionfruit marshmallow and choc hazelnut truffles. I missed the theatrics that came with these, thanks to ducking to the gents, but the dish was served over dry ice with vapours spreading across the table. A steamy end to a pretty good lunch.
The White House Restaurant – 232 Oriental Parade, Oriental Bay