Plate Expectations

What’s Hot New Zealand checks out the creative culinary capital and its key players in an exclusive preview of New Zealand’s iconic foodie Mecca Visa Wellington On a Plate ahead of its 10-year anniversary in August.

“The gold foil adds some bling,” says Maxine Scheckter, the 22-year-old pâtissier who has transformed Kilbirnie into one of Wellington’s hottest foodie destinations after opening her social media-melting patisserie Sugar Flour in the sleepy suburb four months ago. The current cuisine It girl who ditched school at 17 and followed her passion for pastries studying and working in Wellington and Paris before a stint in Heston Blumenthal’s famed London restaurant The Fat Duck is referring to the gilded delicacy and jaw-slackening pièce de résistance in her tasty tetralogy – An Exploration of Citrus – the Lemon Passionfruit Sphere. Part art, all culinary revelation the glistening lemon-hued orb, dotted with the winking gold foil and delicate baby basil leaves looks almost too good to eat. Reluctantly cracking through the white chocolate shell reveals a golden, bittersweet grapefruit marmalade core, the silken tang of lemon crémeux, and the sharpness of an impossibly light passionfruit mousse which combine in a harmonious marriage of textures and flavours, the acid profiles of its citric stars beautifully tempered by the mouth-coatingly rich white chocolate and fresh burst of the basil. Playfully provocative, it brilliantly represents the locally-sourced seasonal inspirations that sell out in the early afternoons during Sugar Flour’s three-day trading (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) and is the perfect embodiment of Visa Wellington On a Plate’s culinary creativity.

Oikos-Hellenic-Cuisine-1Image: Oikos Hellenic Cuisine

Long the country’s culture capital, Wellington sits somewhere between Melbourne’s dynamic foodie scene/laneway cool and New York’s urban savvy, the oft-quoted ‘coolest little capital in the world’ and ‘world’s most liveable city’ wears its well-earned monikers with pride. There’s a deafening buzz about the city, and it’s got nothing to do with the Beehive. Crammed with more than 55 galleries and museums, including the heavy-hitting national treasures that are Te Papa (be sure to catch stunning new Kiwi exhibition Toi Art and the larger than life Gallipoli: The scale of our war) and The Weta Cave, it’s a gastronomic wonderland where cunning craft beers, astounding coffees, killer cocktails, gourmet purveyors and an inimitable dining scene spanning everything from food trucks and pop ups through to quirky cafes, casual and fine dining are nestled alongside designer boutiques, cutting-edge theatre and a seven-night-a-week live music scene all wrapped in a stunning, waterfront setting where everything is within walking distance.
Another culinary star on the rise rocking the suburbs, this time in Miramar, is Theo Papouis, the disarmingly charming and wildly talented chef behind Oikos Hellenic Cuisine (pronounced ‘EE-kos’). Just one year in and Papouis is killing it with his tweaked take on traditional Greek fare where his seasonal, shared menu is as tricked up as the surrounds. Forget white and blue clichés, Oikos is a classy haunt with an edge, where green walls meet industrial lighting, timber floors and bodacious interpretations of classic mezze-style plates, including the instant institution that is his Sesame Crusted Feta, accompanied by slinky jazz tunes and ouzo by the glass. For an insight into his Long Greek Lunch (Aug 12, 19 & 26), we graze our way through a table laden with plates of exotic and intriguing flavours and textures spanning the aforementioned feta (salty-sweet nutty perfection), a salad spiked with hard sheep and goats cheese, candied walnuts and tangy grape molasses through to meaty hits of fiery pork meatballs, meltingly tender lamb shoulder, the delicate nuances of seared fish atop braised lentils and the silken seduction of the Set Yoghurt and crispy, light doughnuts. The menu, and it’s glossary for some of the trickier words, delivers both a banquet and an education. As we head back to our hotel, we’re grateful Papouis, the former chef to the US Ambassador of Cyprus, ignored his restaurateur dad’s advice on not following in his footsteps.

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Grand Mercure – Forage Kitchen + Bar

With its prime positioning perched above the city on The Terrace, the refurbished swank of the Grand Mercure Wellington provides the perfect base camp where edgy lux styling meets breath-catching views across the Cuba Quarter. Showcasing a bed so wide I could sleep across its luxuriously downy width, the King Suite effortlessly impresses with its marbled stone bathroom and range of locally-produced bathroom amenities. An onsite gym, heated pool and sauna also prove beneficial primers for pre- and post-dining activity, while Forage Kitchen + Bar’s killer views out over the city lights make it a nightcap/debrief essential. There’s also a handy VIP lift which cuts out some seriously steep uphill exertion following a hard day gourmet-hopping, and it’s also dangerously close to the spiritual home of Wellington’s epic craft beer scene – Garage Project.

Attention-grabbing cans and bottles line the walls amid covetable merch and the industrial gleam of the stainless steel brew plant at Garage Project’s Cellar Door and HQ as a young guy packs two old-skool glass flagons (Half Gs), like my grandfather used to drink out of on Sundays, filled with GP’s finest into their vintage carry case in the former petrol station. Embracing the casually cool nonchalance of their provocatively named beers and artist-designed labels the Cellar Door is that kind of place, and beer geek heaven. Famously bursting onto/creating the Wellington scene back in 2011 with their ambitious 24/24 series (brewing and releasing 24 different beers in 24 weeks) GP’s trio of hop heads Jos Ruffell and brothers Pete and Ian Gillespie made a huge splash and changed the face and flavour of Kiwi beer in the process. Savouring a tasting flight with Assistant Manager Sara Graham we marvel at the subtleties of the ingenious beer/wine marriage in the Rosé de la Vallée (a 9% Pinot Noir Pilsner), and the lush, easy peachy drinking of low-alcohol salted sour stunner White Mischief before indulging in the cakey, chocolatey cherry richness of the deliciously puzzling black dessert lager Verbotene Früchte (think Black Forest gâteau in a glass) up and across the road at the Garage Projects Taproom.

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Image: HUSK – Jeff McEwan, Capture Studios

Also brewing to the beat of his own kettle is Kerry Gray, the international gong-collecting brewer behind Choice Bros’ range of experimental and audacious beers. Housed in HUSK (a former boxing gym), we find the righteous multi-tasking eatery, bar, brewery and Karamu Coffee roastery up a fairy light strewn-laneway and past stacks of old wine barrels aging Choice Bros brews, off happening Ghuznee Street. Starting out with a home brew kit 6 years ago obtained with a WINZ food voucher, the ever-resourceful Gray’s alchemic approach to brewing has seen him become one to watch on the nation’s beer scene. Mostly named after David Bowie lyrics and songs (you can drink your way through a Hazy Cosmic Jive, sip on a Sun Machine, get Strung Out On Lasers and Shake It!) Gray’s quirkly-named beers contain some equally quirky ingredients like wormwood – the key botanical used in absinthe – in Sun Machine (a herbaceous and incredibly quaffable Absenté Saison). His award-winning Red IPA Reet Petite pairs a fresh ginger hit with a satisfyingly bitter finish while Strung Out On Lasers, a lusciously tart Raspberry and Lime Gose is palate cleansing perfection. Not content with conquering the world of beer, Gray is now expanding his repertoire to include wine and if his first entry The Line Begins To Blur (note the Nine Inch Nails reference), a killer Pinot Noir Rosè Pet-Nat, is anything to go by, he’s about to shake up the wine establishment too.

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Image: Whistling Sisters

Up the street at Whistling Sisters Beer Co. Brewery & Fermentery, it’s all about creating a balanced beer. We’re getting a tour of the spanking new Fermentery side as Bede Roe explains Head Brewer Dale Gould’s pursuit of hoppy perfection in creating subtle flavours where the yeast balances out lightly hopped flavour profiles as we sip on the chilled charms of their Gose-style Rooty Toot Toot’s harmonious union of salty, sour ginger and citrus notes. Another multi-tasking site, the brewery, restaurant and bar melds industrial cool with a seriously beer friendly menu from Head Chef John Allred, designer lighting and funky mezzanine complete with its own bar. We’re here to road test their Festival Dish, the cunningly clever savoury ‘birthday cake’ that is Gâteau Ghuznee. Riffing on the ‘Party’ theme of this year’s festival, Whistling Sisters packs a meaty punch with layers of pork braised in their Oatmeal Chocolate Stout, blood sausage and spinach ‘iced’ with a buttery agria crema and studded with ‘candles’ of baby carrots. It’s followed by a sublime beetroot-poached rhubarb and Whittaker’s white chocolate mousse with the crunchy nutty hit of hazelnuts and the lingering, earthy beetroot flavours perfect between sips of the fruity XPA.

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Image: Field & Green

At Field & Green, gastronomic genius Laura Greenfield has her work cut out for her this year. Greenfield’s simply titled Festival Dish Stuffed Confit Duck Leg has actually been hand-shredded, blended with pancetta, green pepper corns and more, and reconstructed, complete with reinserted bone and intact skin, in a labour of love she’ll be repeating 1,000 times over the 17 days of the festival. Our anticipation levels kick into overdrive after we spot Kiwi restaurateur royalty Steve Logan and co (of Logan Brown fame) at a neighbouring table checking out the new additions to Greenfield’s weekly changing menu. Billed as ‘European soul-food’, Greenfield’s next level comfort food has been wowing Wellingtonian taste buds with her masterful twists on the classics showcasing fresh, local ingredients since she and partner Raechal Ferguson (responsible for the stylish, minimalist bistro-chic asethetic) swung open their swanky doors on Wakefield Street. In addition to the duck (a flawless combo of succulent, smoky gaminess humming with green pepper and offset by the piquant tartness of a damson jus) Greenfield (former Head Chef at Sotheby’s in London who created menus to complement their art auctions) is getting biblical with her Seven Sacred Species event (Aug 22) inspired by the Middle East. Our teaser of her Smoked Goat Cheese Fritters, Chicken and Fig Pastilla, Warm Potato Salad (with green harissa oil and olives) and Jewish Honey Cake with Fig and Honey Ice Cream (one of their 17 hand-churned ‘adult ice creams’) is a religious experience in itself cramming off the chart flavour levels into each addictive bite.

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Image: PIVOT Photography

Also winding back the clock are the team at Le Samouraï with their retro flashback Fondue & You party (Aug 15) hosted by legendary sommelier Ryan McKenna. The intimate, French-style Tory Street bar, based on the cult(ish) flick of the same name, rocks a repurposed basketball court for its tables among an eclectic fitout and is the brainchild of the team behind sibling hotspots sharing the same building the wildly popular Asian eatery Chow, slick cocktail lounge and live music venue The Library, and newly-minted cocktail concept Forresters Lane. Morphing from early morning cafe through to wine bar during the evening, there’s plenty to see by either watching the staff working their magic or the city pass by the glass frontage. The 70s-themed fun kitsch-fest puts an old spin on shared dining as we laugh and wrangle with fondue forks, dipping a selection of breads, charcuterie and vegetables into pots of molten gooey Wairarapa cheesey goodness and sip Martinborough’s finest as funky soul music fills the space. In addition, Executive Chef Kristan Mulcahy has created the Frenchest of burgers with his Le Coq Au Vin Burger Wellington entry putting a red wine-braised chicken thigh, bacon and pickled mushroom chutney between a toasted potato bun for a brilliant update on the classic.

Afterwards, we follow cocktail architect Pete Lowry around the corner to Forresters Lane where chief concoctionist Laura Walker and the team give cocktails the same love contemporary chefs do their food with a seasonal menu changing weekly. It’s a casually cool intimate space where unused summer fruits sit in preserving jars awaiting a winter reincarnation. Bitter Celebrity Breakups is the menu inspiration on our visit, but we’re here to try their Visa Wellington On a Plate cocktail, or a variation on it, Born, Buried and Dug-Up. A piratey elixir of Smoke & Oakum Gunpowder Rum, Reid + Reid Vermouth, yellow chartreuse and housemade aromatic bitters has been buried in a cask in Ōtaki and will be dug up after six months in time for the Festival. Mixed with fresh lemon and starring a hangi roast tamarillo crumble, it’s an astoundingly good libation, fresh and brilliantly balanced with a thrilling edge.

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Image: Shepherd – Jeff McEwan, Capture Studios

“Do you want me to just feed you?” says Wellington culinary maestro, namesake and resident silver fox at Shepherd, Shepherd Elliott. It’s an offer too good to refuse as we nod eagerly in agreement, and a fitting finale to our gastronomic odyssey in the capital. Tucked down Hannahs Laneway the former canteen for Hannah’s factory workers is a collab between hospo heavyweights Elliott (Leeds Street Bakery) and Sean Golding of neighbouring Golding’s Free Dive. Espousing sustainability, and ethical fresh local fare where nothing is wasted, Shepherd exudes a sexy 70s vibe where pops of red join jars of preserves and breeze block walls under designer lighting and knowledgeable friendly staff are happy to offer a peerless drinks match or have a chat. Seated at the open kitchen makes for a dinner-and-show-type experience as we watch our oysters being shucked in front of us. Supremely fresh they’re served natural, with Chardonnay vinegar and shallot cream, and crunchy Korean fried with kimchi aioli with precision control of the flavours allowing the heroes to shine. An eye-rollingly good creamy savoury steamed custard with bacon vinaigrette and toast is followed by the delicate gaminess of Venison Tataki, the hearty flavours of Umami beef short rib and butcher’s paper special Pigface Pasta, where smoked pork tongue meets egg pasta, pork broth, lemon puree and a dusting of black garlic powder is a highlight. The daily Rye Wholemeal Doughnut is Negroni, which we duly pair with the classic cocktail for a stratospheric climax.

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Image: Jeff McEwan

Plating Up

Having grown from just 43 menus and 30 events at its inception, Visa Wellington On a Plate (the brainchild of festival director and co-founder Sarah Meikle) is now, without question the highlight on the nation’s foodie calendar and rocking its biggest offering yet this year with 213 restaurants, 100 menus, 63 cocktails, 148 events and 180 burgers all celebrating the ‘Party’ theme. Growth, on the gastronome scorecard, however, is not without consequence. With more choice comes sacrifice; Exhibit A: once achievable, the Burger Wellington bucket list this year means die hard burger fiends will now have to chow down on 10.5 burgers each day(!) during the 17-day festival to knock them all off – something of a delicious, meat-sweat inducing test of endurance.

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Image: Mr Go’s – Jeff McEwan

Casual Eats

Essential eateries for your radar.

Mr Go’s This neon-lit hotspot and shout out to hardworking local market gardener Mr Go was home to last year’s Burger Wellington winner Kiwi China, China Kiwi. Serving Pan-Asian Kiwi-influenced street food, grab a Gua Bao (their alternating $6 weekly special offers incredible value) and share some sides like Mince + Cheese Dumplings, Spinach Chaat and Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken. Wash it down with a local wine, beer or fiesty Asian-spiced cocktail and make sure you leave room for their famous soft serves: Peanut Butter Chocolate (using Fix & Fogg, natch) and the Momofuku Milk Bar-inspired Cornflake Milk. mrgos.co.nz

The Flight Coffee Hangar

Housed in an old car park and former site of their specialty roastery, Hangar offers a true bean to cup experience where fine cafe fare sits alongside some of the city’s best coffee, craft beers, wines and cocktails including their eye-widening Cold Drip Martini. Timber and exposed brick walls set the scene that packs them in, including regular and Kiwi NBA legend Steven Adams who was enjoying an incognito brunch under a hoodie during our visit. Back up the explosive flavours of their GF and vegan offering Kumara & Potato with a tasting trio of flat whites and start the day right. flightcoffee.co.nz

Prefab

An instant institution on opening, Bridget Dunn and Jeff Kennedy’s (the creators of Caffe L’affare) perpetually heaving cafe, roastery, bakery and ACME & CO test kitchen is a masterstroke of ingenuity. Located in a huge, super light warehouse-style space it epitomises industrial cool. Enjoy the aromas of freshly roasted coffee and baked bread while sipping a breakfast cocktail or recover with a signature detox juice to the soundtrack of jazzy tunes as you wrack your brains trying to pick the best dish from a menu of winners (FYI, you can’t go wrong with the Grilled Halloumi). The well-stocked cabinet fare only adds to the confusion but gives you yet another reason to come back. Whatever you do, don’t leave without trying a doughnut. pre-fab.co.nz

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Image: Fix and Fogg

Walk this way

More than just a gourmet walking tour, Zest Food Tours’ knowledgeable foodie and tour guide Fiona Arbuckle sprinkles our tour with history, architecture and arts along with the city’s culinary movers and shakers from Mojo Coffee, the roastery and cafe chain with world domination on its mind to Gelissimo Gelato’s former IT guru, now gelato godfather Graham Joe, who creates award-winning confections for his waterfront gelataria as well as special event and signature gelatos like gorgonzola for Ombra. Sample a platter of the region’s finest at Wellington stalwart Moore Wilson’s deli and fresh food store (they have three cheese rooms, just saying), and discover the gastronomic delights of Hannahs Laneway visiting Fix & Fogg’s quirky peanut butter window offering tastings and selling hot toast smeared with their wares, Leeds Street Bakery hitting up those famous salted caramel cookies and Wellington Chocolate Factory’s bean to bar ethical and organic crafted chocolates. zestfoodtours.co.nz

Need to Know

Eat & Drink

Sugar Flour FB/sugarflourpastry
Oikos Hellenic Cuisine oikos.co.nz
Garage Project garageproject.co.nz
HUSK huskbar.co.nz
Whistling Sisters whistlingsisters.co.nz
Field & Green fieldandgreen.co.nz
Forresters Lane forresterslane.co.nz
Le Samourai FB/LeSamouraiwgtn
Shepherd shepherdrestaurant.co.nz

Do

Zest Walking Food Tours zestfoodtours.co.nz
Te Papa tepapa.govt.nz

Stay

Grand Mercure Wellington grandmercure.com

More info

WellingtonNZ.com

Visa Wellington On a Plate, Wellington, Aug 10–26, visawoap.com