It was a happy collision of events. In the same week that reading Max's article on Wellington in the September issue of Gourmet Traveller had piqued my interest in visiting New Zealand's political and food capital, Positively Wellington Tourism contacted me to invite me along on a weekend-long blog junket to check out the food and drink scene in Wellington. Seeing as I'd never even been to New Zealand's North Island before (see a post about my trip to the South Island here), it was an opportunity I felt I couldn't refuse.
The junket was part of the publicity for PWT's current tourism campaign in Melbourne to promote Wellington as a cool dining destination - culminating in a two-weeks-only pop-up restaurant on Gertrude Street Fitzroy, run exclusively by Kiwis and using Wellington produce.
The restaurant, called WLG, is operating in the Rue de Fleurus site at 153 Gertrude Street (formerly known as Claypots and conveniently located just across the road from The Everleigh). WLG opens TONIGHT and runs every night until 27 November. The three course menu is a ridiculous bargain at only $35 per head, plus $30 per bottle of NZ wine. Other details about the restaurant, including about the five chefs who've designed the menu and will be running it, can be found here.
Ticket reservations for the restaurant were available through the Time Out website but have already been snapped up - however they'll still accept walk-ins each night, so you may get lucky. OR you might like to enter the Melbourne Gastronome WLG ticket giveaway - I've got a double pass to the restaurant to give away to a blog reader. The pass is for two people for dinner at 8pm on this Sunday, 20th November 2011 (so don't enter the competition if you can't attend on Sunday night, obvs). To enter, leave a comment on this blog post stating your favourite New Zealand import in Australia - cultural, culinary or otherwise - before NOON on Friday 18th (if I don't already know you through blogs/Twitter etc, make sure I know how to contact you in case you win). I'll announce the winner on Friday afternoon (via both Facebook and Twitter, so keep your eyes peeled), and I'll email the winner their PDF double pass.
Wednesday update: Photos of the restaurant and meals served on WLG's opening night can now be seen on Shellie's blog. I was also invited along last night, and was particularly taken with my main (slow-cooked venison in Tunisian brik pastry with veal sweetbreads - mmmmm - broadbeans, peas and pancetta), my dessert (licoricello panna cotta with vodka lime parfait and pistachio wafer) and the laid-back Kiwi charm of a waiter sporting a truly outrageous moustache.
So, a photo tour of Wellington (apologies, I'd half-drafted this post last week but I've been struck down with illness over the last four days and am currently running a fever, so this post will be light on analysis).
I went to Welly a few weekends ago, accompanied by three other Melbourne food bloggers (Ed, Penny and Shellie). During the two days I attended three of the restaurants whose chefs will be running the WLG pop-up.
Lunch on Saturday was at Logan Brown, one of Wellington's most upmarket restaurants. If the facade looks a little imposing, it's because the 1920s building used to be a bank.
Lovely high-ceilinged interior. We had a good chat before lunch to head chef Shaun Clouston (one of the WLG chefs) about the provenance of his produce.
I was particularly excited about trying the local shellfish that we can't get in Oz, like tua tua surf clams from Cloudy Bay (similar to pipis), and Tio Point Bluff oysters and Mahurangi Pacific oysters. Sensational.
Special mention also to the chestnut flour pappardelle with porcini mushrooms, macadamias and gorgonzola, and the Whangamata scallops with cauliflower cream, coppa wafer, apple and preserved lemon. Some beautiful organic biodynamic Urlar wines, too.
In between restaurants I made a beeline for some of the tourist sights: the Wellington Cable Car (see photo at the top of this post) up to the Botanic Gardens and lookout over the city, and an hour at New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa.
Such a great museum! One of the best I've been to in years, I wish I'd had more time to explore it - especially the exhibitions about the geology and flora and fauna of New Zealand, and the Mana Whenua exhibition about Maori culture (including a copy of the Treaty of Waitangi, which I studied at uni).
On the Saturday night we went to dinner at The Larder in Miramar, a suburb 15 minutes drive away that is also home to Peter Jackson's Weta studios (filming for The Hobbit movies is currently underway, but alas I didn't spy any Middle-earth inhabitants).
Chef/owner Jacob Brown takes great pride in the relationships The Larder has with its suppliers: to reinforce the point, black and white portraits of various suppliers adorn the walls of the restaurant, and Jacob (also appearing at WLG) can tell you an anecdote about each one.
Culinary highlights included my carpaccio of peppered venison fillet with spiced pear, pear jelly and beetroot; Penny's pig's head baked in brik pastry with seared chicken livers, radish and cress; and my main of pork belly with crumbed black pudding, apple calvados puree and pepper caramel. A Valrhona fondant and parfait were also excellent.
Back in town, we went for cocktails at Matterhorn, recently voted one of the 50 Best Bars in the World by Eater.
In addition to flying back some Martinborough pinot and a bottle of the suddenly-very-trendy-in-Melbourne Lighthouse Gin (hand-crafted and hand-distilled in the Wairarapa), I also bought a bottle of Smoke & Oakum's Gunpowder Rum, an outrageous, you'll-love-it-or-you'll-hate-it small batch blended rum infused with tobacco, chillies and actual muzzle-loader style black gunpowder. It's... a little intense.
Although I was in Wellington for less than 48 hours, I liked that my schedule allowed me some time to explore the town on my own. One solo expedition led me to breakfast at Sweet Mother's Kitchen.
SMK was kooky in all the right ways, decorated with lowbrow trinkets and staffed by friendly kids who kept swapping ridiculous afro wigs. The casual (yet ambitious) home cookin' menu, which included Creole, Cajun and Mexican dishes, has no equivalent in cafe-saturated Melbourne - I'd LOVE to know what my N'awlins/Texas expert (and cuisine purist) friend Burger Mary would've thought of it, had she been with me. Those beignets were damned tasty.
Just some photos of buildings in the city centre that caught my eye.
On the Sunday morning we all visited Wellington's weekly food and wine artisan City Market, where we were welcomed and shown around by one of the Market's co-founders, the personable Rachel Taulelei (owner of seafood supplier Yellow Brick Road).
Lots of produce from the City Market will be served at the WLG pop-up in Melbourne.
More local colour at the Market. I really liked that Crooked Cider Lars was selling - it was cloudy, very dry and made from proper cider apples. If only I hadn't already reached my customs alcohol limit, sigh.
Outside at the regular Harbourside Market, loads of red kumara plus bananas SO CHEAP they'd make an Australian weep.
Our last meal was at Capitol, another restaurant whose head chef/owner Tom Hutchison will also be cooking at the WLG pop-up. Photo of Ms Jeroxie taking a photo.
Shellie opted for something sweet at Capitol, French toast with shaved apple and passion fruit salad. The dish I was taken with was the seared scallops with parsnip puree and pancetta crumble.
And finally, a word about coffee. Welly is officially crazy for coffee: there are over twenty coffee roasteries in the Wellington area alone (a remarkable fact when you consider that the city's population is less than 400,000), and the third wave coffee movement has definitely made its mark.
I stopped in at the Memphis Belle Coffee House, the home of Flight Coffee (best ethically traded coffee in New Zealand, according to this year's NZ Coffee Awards). From the coffee station offering Chemex, Syphon, V60 Pour-over or Swiss Gold brewing methods, I chose the Chemex for my Brazilian Moreninha Formosa. Seriously cute little cafe.
And so ends my weekend blog junket to New Zealand! If you're in Melbourne, be sure to enter the giveaway above for a chance to check out the WLG pop-up for yourself on Sunday, otherwise you might like to try your luck with walk-ins if you're wandering down Gertrude Street during the next fortnight.