Thursday, 6 September 2012

Wellington on a Plate

Between Wellington in a Pint, Choice Beer Week, Beervana and Wellington on a Plate; August was an absolute treat and I've lost track of all the awesome meals and beers that have passed my lips. The "Coolest Little Capital" has certainly pulled out all the stops to ensure that winter doesn't drag on - although there's no comparison to a dark and depressing English winter, we're still getting 11 hours of daylight! But without Christmas it could get pretty depressing without a good smattering of excellent indoor festivities. As such there's been no danger of drifting into a winter slump (aside from the 'belly full of good food and beer' kind), so here's my attempt to write-up the best of them.

Wellington on a Plate is basically celebration of good food and the many great places to eat it in this fair city. For a few weeks participating restaurants have a special menu generally including a free glass of wine, to entice customers and get people trying somewhere new. One of the highlights for me has been the burger competition, ranging from the creative ("beef bacon" anyone?) to the weird (anyone for a banana and kaffir lime burger patty?).

We kicked off festivities at our local, The Hop Garden, which as well as being a purveyor of fine food sells lots of delicious local craft beer. Their entry into the burger competition was the 'Casablanca Kid', a Moroccan goat burger. Here's what it says on the tin: "Moroccan-spiced wild Wairarapa goat patty with roasted aubergine, couscous, lettuce, tomato and harissa sauce in a toasted Brezelmania bun, with handcut chips and weissbier aioli". I think the only other time I had goat previously was a month or so back in this very pub, obviously they're big fans of those wise-looking creatures. The patty itself was on the dry side (to be expected as goat is leaner than beef or lamb), but very tasty and spiced up with some Moroccan seasoning.  The aubergine was notable only by it's absence, which is a shame as it would have worked as a great lubricant for the meat. Harissa (a chilli sauce with spices and citrus) might just be my favourite relish ever, and I can't believe I had never thought to put it in a burger before. The bread was fresh and toasted to perfection, but I couldn't really see the benefit of adding cous-cous into the mix. It was in a square almost like a block of tofu, and along with the bun and chips (a combination which honestly I'm not that fond off; call me a wuss but I'd be happier with burger and salad!) made it a seriously heavy meal. To accompany the burger I had a Garage Project Trip Hop, a 'triple hopped' pale ale. This went down a treat, the fruity notes riffing off the fruit and spice dominated flavours of the burger perfectly. Despite some niggles we still very much enjoyed the burger, and duly texted off our 7/10 rating. Still a decent score I reckon, at university this would get you a first-class degree!

After a long, awesome yet tiring Beervana weekend (basically I was either at work or beer-in-hand for three days straight - although the beauty of volunteering at the festival was doing both at the same time!) we decided to check out the Tasting Room on Courtenay Place. Apparently having a Beef Wellington there is listed in the Lonely Planet as a top 10 culinary experiencing in Wellington, so we put our tourists hat on and checked it out. The place is wood panelled to the point of having the air of a Swedish sauna, but more likely they are going for a hunting lodge feel. Dimly lit and cosy, but with a big screen for sport and selling the usual suspects on tap in jug form, it seemed like the perfect place for a proper Kiwi bloke to take the missus of an evening. I spied the beer bottle list and promptly ordered an Invercargill Pitch Black while we waited for a table. I ordered the Beef Wellington (rude not to, and it was part of the WOAP special menu) and Charlotte plumped for the Wagyu beef burger. Mine came with a starter, a fresh and zingy tomato soup. We were Beef Wellington-virgins, and I admit I was pretty excited by the prospect. It came and was really something else, an amazingly indulgent meal. The Kiwis take their pies seriously, and this is basically the world's most decadent pie; a lump of Angus beef fillet wrapped in bacon, topped with duxelles (minced mushrooms, onions and garlic in paste form) and wrapped in delicate puff-pastry. I'm drooling just writing this! The rich, dark beer worked well with the steak, but was dry and cold enough to cut through what is a decadently rich meal.

Charlotte tried the Tasting Room's burger competition entrant, the Wagyu Wonder Burger. I had a taste, although I don't remember an awful lot about it as my tastebuds were overloaded and dancing for joy after the Beef Wellington. Here's what the menu said "100% Wagyu beef patty with aged cheddar, dry-cured bacon, vine tomatoes, iceberg lettuce and Tasting Room chutney". Wagyu is definitely one of my favourite types of beef, and has a fun back-story to boot: The cattle are a Japanese breed but the key is also in the way they are raised; drinking beer or sake and receiving massages. I suppose if you had to be an animal raised for human consumption this would be the way to go! It was a very succulent, no-nonsense burger. In terms of the burger patty itself, I'm a firm believer in simplicity. Fresh mince, hand-formed and seared in a hot pan/griddle, a little seasoning on top (but not mixed in, salt does breaks down the proteins and it results in a much stodgier patty). So from my point of view, this was exactly how a burger should be. The meat being the main event, with the rest complementing it nicely rather than taking over entirely. I'll be so bold as to say this isn't going to win the award, I guess competitions like this are usually more about creativity and a good burger isn't hard to find in Wellington any time of year. We felt it deserved a 8/10 score in the context of this competition, I'd probably give it another half point if that was allowed! Bearing in mind that I'd save a 9 for a creative yet surprisingly awesome burger, and 10 is a score unlikely to ever be achieved, unless I could categorically state that it was the best burger I had ever had eaten and was ever likely to.

The next burger we tried out was at one of our favourite pubs, Little Beer Quarter. This was the first bar we set foot in on arrival in Wellington, and it certainly set the bar high. It has a cosy, pubby atmosphere with an excellent range of beers. Renaissance, Tuatara, Emersons and Moa are always well represented on draught with a good selection of the small craft brewers such as 8 Wired, Yeastie Boys and Garage Project too. It's definitely one of the most pleasant places in Wellington to while away an evening. But on this occasion, here's why were here: "Beer-braised hare and smoky bacon with watercress and a beer and beetroot relish in a Pandoro harvest seed bap". I was a little bit worried as there was a withering hand-written sign on the bar, asking for complaints to be discussed with the staff rather than blogged about. A sentiment I would agree with, I'm of the "if you can't say anything nice, say nothing at all" school of good manners and believe you should always give an establishment a chance to rectify the situation. But I find that kind of thing a bit too high on the passive-aggressive scale for my liking, and more than anything it made me worry that the food might be something to complain about! After supping an always delicious Tuatara Aotearoa Pale Ale, bursting with fresh NZ hops, the burgers arrived and my fears were allayed. A fresh semi-wholemeal seedy bun contained an epic feast: Hare steak, smoky bacon topped with seriously juicy beetroot relish. The meat was in whole form rather than minced into a patty, and was more along the lines of a perfectly done stewing steak; juicy and tender. On top of this you might think that aioli would be overkill, but it really worked and added a creamy dimension to the prevailing richness. This was a seriously indulgent burger, but the peppery watercress and juicy beetroot kept it all in check. This may just be one of the best burgers I have had the pleasure of eating. From a pendantic point of view: was it a burger or a sandwich? But I ignored this petty qualm and duly texted off my 9/10 rating.

The last meal of our burger challenge was at Beach Babylon, by the water on Oriental Parade; one of my favourite parts of the city. We'd been meaning to check the place out for a while, and was glad of an excuse. A rather impressively mistachioed chap welcomed us, and I ordered an Emerson's 1812 to kick things off. This is a very well balanced IPA, malty in the English style but with a burst of New World hops. We first introduced to this great beer by Charlotte's old boss (at the pub in Akaroa where she worked briefly), drank this regularly and introduced us to it. The guy was way past retirement age and the pub was pretty old school, mostly serving interchangeable big brand beer by the jugful. He seemed to keep a collection of local craft beer more for himself than the locals (we also had our first Three Boys Oyster Stout here, what a lovely beer). A great sign that times are changing, slowly but surely, in the New Zealand beer scene. Charlotte had opted for the lunch special, which came with a cheese fondue starter. It was effectively a whole block of cheese melted into a bowl so it was a good one to share! If there are many more indulgent pleasures on this earth than melted cheese then, for the sake of my health, I probably shouldn't know about it. Sour dough bread, dipped into melty Emmental cheese, just picture this and tell me you're not drooling. The strong malt character of the beer chimed with the sweetness of the cheese, but the bitter hops jumped in there to cleanse the palate. For the main course she had the Fritata which she assures me was "beautifully light". The main event for me of course was the burger; "grilled ostrich patty with prosciutto, smoked provolone cheese, mizuna, and spicy cherry relish in a Turkish bap". Another fantastically indulgent concoction; a typically oily Turkish roll got the ball rolling, the cheese was an excellent Italian variety which was like a slightly smoked mature cheddar, and melted perfectly onto the burger. The prosciutto added a funky flavour along with the slightly gamey ostrich patty. To bring it back from the brink was the sweet cherry and red cabbage relish, kind of like sweet sauerkraut. It was a really great burger, but I couldn't help but think it would have been better with beef. There just wasn't an awful lot to say about the Ostrich patty, it was just meaty, and a little on the greasy side (surprising as Ostrich is quite a lean meat). But every other element of the burger was absolutely spot on, and between the smoked cheese and the cured meat it made for interesting eating. I gave it 8/10. Out of all the burgers we ate, this is the one I would love to most replicate at home. I'll let you know if a beef patty works out any better!

After starting to scratch the surface of the many purveyors of great burgers, the competition was over for another year. All of the burgers I tried were very good in their own right, and it's only in the context of a competition that you would start to notice some of the negatives, or think about how it could be better. It's probably not always the best attitude to go into a meal you've paid your hard-earned for, but it's the kind of thing I do every time I eat, even more so if I've cooked it! While usually it's great to just sit back and enjoy a meal regardless, thinking about what you eat and drink is no bad thing. I guess if I didn't think about what I ate or drank, I wouldn't currently be boring you with this very blog! Now wouldn't that be a shame... Surprisingly none of the establishments we visited were short-listed for the final judging, so I look forward to more seriously awesome burgers in the future. Rumour has it that the winner is currently reprising their entry, so I may well have to check that out and report back.

On the final weekend of the festival, we sought out one final treat. After meaning to pay this place a visit ever since the beginning of WOAP, we finally got around to checking out the pop-up Oyster bar on Cuba Street. It was run by seafood specialists Yellow Brick Road (not Martin Bosely's as I originally posted, although he was helping out on the night - hence my confusion!), and has been freshly shucking oysters each evening in a car park up on Cuba St to delighted bivalve lovers. I'm not sure we'd put ourselves in that category, as we had never had an oyster before or are particular fans of raw seafood. When we saw they were doing Tuatara Pilsner battered Oysters, we knew that would be right up our street, and after a bit of a wait due to the sheer popularity of the place we were not disappointed. They were buttery and tender, a little firm but not chewy like mussels. There was a great buzz about the place, and a good mix of seasoned seafood lovers and first-timers like ourselves. We were really loving the oysters and tentatively agreed to pop back the next night and try some raw ones, only to realise that it was their last night. But as an added bonus for their last night, Yeastie Boys brewer Stu McKinlay was pitching in and taking orders, whilst serving up his award-winning Pot Kettle Black porter along with Wellington in a Pint winner Celia-Wade Brown Ale. Delicious! A perfect marriage of high quality local food, matched perfectly with an excellent local beer.

One great thing about Wellington is that you can barely walk into somewhere selling craft beer without bumping into the people who make it, and I am already starting to recognise a few faces about town who are doing great things for beer in New Zealand. I'll be starting to cover the NZ beer scene in more detail from now on and my next post will be about the legendary Beervana festival, stay tuned!

No comments:

Post a Comment