Wellington Safe Once More

Chow, Restaurant 88, Tequila Joe’s, Duke Carvell’s Emporium

Just got home from a night out with the girls, or suppose I should say women: my sister-in-law Kathryn, mutual friend and fellow Food Night devotee Stacey, and the baby of the group, my 32 year old sister Victoria.

The hex seems to have passed. No earthquakes, no fire alarms and no storms.  Roofs, roads and infrastructure unharmed.  We weren’t asked to leave anywhere, though not everyone was letting us in, claiming, as they did, to be closing or out of tables.

Stacey had suggested we start with cocktails and so, like the innocent little fluffy white lambs we are, our tails waggling behind us, we arranged to meet her at Chow for two for one cocktails.

To those many who are enamoured with Chow’s famous Rosebuds, I have but two words: Hazelnut Sours. And another two: Seriously good.

For those who don’t do nuts, my sympathies and the last two words: Pomegranate Cosmopolitans.  

I wish I had taken pictures for you, but sorry, too busy drinking.

Next stop was popular Vietnamese Restaurant 88.  The surroundings were stylish, the service was polite and friendly, if lacking somewhat in confidence.

We started with a range of appetisers: sugar cane prawns, beautifully light pork & prawn dumplings, the ubiquitous fresh spring rolls, coconut battered calamari and, finally, sticky rice fritters with “Saucy Lemongrass Chicken”.  I found the texture of the rice fritters appealing, but the chicken neither particularly lemongrassy nor particularly saucy, in all a bit of a disappointment.

There was an odd confusion surrounding our intention to share, the fact that we had five starters for four of us, and, finally, a question as to whether the five plates would fit on the table (which they did without difficulty, and would have done even if two of our dishes had not been served on the same platter).

When the starters eventually arrived, they were tasty enough, but my overall impression was that the food was perhaps dulled down for western tastes.

Of the two main course dishes that appealed to us, the pithily named “Saigon Banana Leaf Wrapped Grilled Chilli Spiced Fish” was out for the night, so we made for Havana Bar and the promise of tapas. 

On the way, we happened in on relative newcomer Tequila Joe’s.

Tequila Joe’s strength may turn out to be it’s size. It’s small. The kind of small that makes it easier to create atmosphere without losing authenticity.

If the bar is small, the kitchen spaces are tiny.  Think food-truck tiny.  But if our chips and dips where anything to go by, size is not getting in anyone’s way.

The chili con queso held its own. The chips were warm, fresh, crisp and delicious. The guacamole possibly the best I’ve ever had, though it pains me to say it, including my own.  Can’t wait to try the fish tacos.

There was more fun on the drinks front.  These may come to you in a jam jar, which I’m guessing is next best to a real mason jar, those being comparatively costly in these parts. It’s a cute little nod to Americana, although my I suspect our Pennsylvania-born Kate may have been wondering just a little where the rest of the trailer park fixings had gone.  What went into the jars and glasses was good too.  I would have had another Caipirinha had it not been for the earlier drinks of the evening and an abiding desire to get home on my own feet.

The music was well suited to our generation with Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, not all American, but contributing 70s grunt to the American atmosphere nevertheless.

It’s been a long time, I could have been in a little bar state-side, I’m just not sure which one. With it’s clean lines, part of the bar speaks of fresh American sophistication, the paintings hint at a more stylised Mexican influence, and the rest makes me want to park my hog (OK, I had a red tricycle once) out the front.

I’m not sure these three elements are quite speaking to each other yet.  Perhaps in time. Perhaps they don’t need to.  Perhaps this is the feel of the modern Californian bar. In any case, even with the a couple of licence plates on the wall, this is not another one of those Happy-Days-wanna-be, nostalgia-flogging American/Texan/Country themed bars.  And amen to that.

After the Tequila Joe’s experience, we wandered along to Havana, but the restaurant was closed and the bar was packed, Olive and El Matador were also shut and Ombra didn’t have table space for four.  This was our good luck as we eventually wound up with a cosy spot at Duke Carvell’s Emporium on Swan Lane.

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Cleverly decorated to give the impression of having been there forever, Duke Carvell’s is one of those places you can go and sit, talk, eat, drink, people watch, listen to music and even play a game of scrabble (not that you would necessarily want to, but the set is there if you do).

Warm focaccia filled any remaining gaps.  I’m glad I didn’t ask for my usual trim hot chocolate, because the creamy, chocolatey, but not too sweet chocolate they served me made for a perfect dessert with a neat frangelico on the side.

And so, gentle reader, off to bed.  Tomorrow is the last day of the school holidays, and I know two little girls who will want to make the most of it.

On Shaky Ground

It’s been nearly a fortnight since my last post.  

For the most part, the silence has been for good reasons. But the days of shake, rattle and roll leading up to and following Sunday’s M 6.5 quake, have left even this earthquake hardened Wellingtonian shaken and wondering if 80 litres of stored water will see us through if it gets really serious.

The last post marked the beginning of the school holidays. Since then:-

I’ve been asked to leave another restaurant, this time because of a fire alarm. I’m developing a complex.  One might have thought that the sight of all those firemen would have provided some compensation for the inconvenience, but sadly no.

We’ve had friends around for that civil German institution, Kaffee und Kuchen.

Encouraged by the success of the honey and goats cheese profiteroles we made at Food Night the other week, I’d decided to confront my nemesis, choux pastry, once again in the hope of producing a tray of light, crisp-cased, cream filled, Belgian chocolate-smothered eclairs.  Who doesn’t want to wolf one of those with a cup of coffee of a cold, bleak Sunday afternoon?

Until now, pate a choux and I have rubbed along OK, but the results were never quite right. Instead of persevering with tweaks to the recipe that has always got me 95% of the way, I made a last minute and deeply regrettable decision to try a different one, the recipe Francesca brought home from her afternoon at Le Cordon Bleu, no less.  

They rose promisingly at first.  Then half way through, they just stopped.  I was left with hard, thumb shaped stubbs of dough. Simply put, there was no Wind in my Windbeutel.

Thankfully, long time friends Kristina and Jeremy are understanding folk.  My mother, whose mantra is “always make ahead” knew better than to say anything as we watched the scene unfold (or not) with horror.  My father gave me a hard time as always, but, just as predictably, seemed happy to do his share of damage to my newly re-fashioned cream and chocolate topped pastry fingers.  They still tasted OK, but you all know how little comfort that can be.

In the circumstances, I hope you will forgive the absence of photographic record. Admitting to one’s mistakes is one thing, being confronted by pictorial evidence quite another.

More on Kaffee und Kuchen another time, perhaps even with Kristina’s delicious Black Forest Cherry cake recipe.

I owe thanks to Vladimir Petkov for introducing me to Finnish band Apocalytpica. As a woman whose musical tastes often lean towards the young-angry-male end of the spectrum, I often hear a riff on the car radio and wonder how it would sound on my cello. Now I know.

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Unlike Perttu Kivilaakso, I have no immediate plans to perform clad only in leather trousers, my hair thrashing wildly. Leather trou don’t come in my size, and if I play with my hair out, some almost always gets caught between fingers and fingerboard, making for very painful position shifts and unwanted distraction from the purity of artistic expression.

Frankly I don’t know how Pertuu and his mates do it, but I bet they wear pony tails when nobody’s looking.

Here is a link to some of their early material, a cover of Metallica’s, Nothing Else Matters. Avoid it if you take either your metal or your strings too seriously, but it put a smile on my face.  String players my also be amused by their master class satire Cello Lesson # 1.

Continuing on a Nordic theme, Small Acts’ Jennifer Duval-Smith, also shared this very enjoyable clip. Three Swedish fishermen sing Seal’s, Kiss from a Rose.  Perhaps not my favourite Seal number, this one still goes a long way to prove my theory that good things happening around kitchen tables.  If I’d had these boys when I was running the local Russian Orthodox choir, things would have been very, very different.

We had a couple of nights of sleepovers, then took off for a few days holiday with my parents.

We stayed here:

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The Mountain House, Stratford, with the Summit of Mt Taranaki 

Visited places like this:

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Lighthouse, Cape Egmount

Did stuff like this:

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And of course, this:

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Last Saturday we got home relieved to find that nothing had moved in Friday’s earthquake. Since Sunday it’s been a different story.

We were on the road when the M6.5 hit and didn’t feel a thing, which was a mercy because our elder two girls, especially Francesca who was just old enough to understand what happened in Christchurch and Japan, were already anxious enough.

The trip home involved chucking together a shopping list for the emergency supplies we should have got around to laying in but never quite had, finding an open supermarket, avoiding both motorway and tunnels, checking in on my sister (there were power cuts in her neighbourhood), calming the children and preparing ourselves in case the glass in our conservatory kitchen had met the same fate as many windows downtown.

Well, we were pretty damn lucky.  Not much damage at all. But doesn’t perspective change quickly.

Getting rid of our old rusty barbecue in the Residents’ Association annual large rubbish collection (an excellent service for which our ever-loving City Council has naturally withdrawn support) had seemed like good housekeeping.  We were de-cluttering, I thought smugly.

Now I just think that if we lose the mains gas and electricity, we’ll have no alternative means of heating food or water.

There is an old plug in phone.  In the attic. Somewhere.  We think.  Along with a pile of old quilts and blankets.

I bought a torch-radio that runs on a dynamo after the second and calamitous Christchurch quake.  That was thought to be in the garden shed, along with spare loo paper, tarpaulins, spades and the firewood.  Said torch is now resident on the hall table. We are are possessed of multiple tins and packets, all of which I hope we will never need.

The choice of cinema for the obligatory school holiday movie trip became a matter of which building was most recently constructed and closer to home in an emergency.  In the end Tuesday’s three family outing was postponed to a time when I can go into a public building without wondering how close the nearest exit is and what is likely to fall on my children and my car on the way out.

There was, however, no reason for the children to miss their cookie baking and sausage making classes at Moore Wilson on Wednesday.  The diminishing severity of aftershocks boosted our confidence, besides it is unthinkable to me that anything really bad could happen to you at Moore Wilson.

For years there’s been talk about Wellington, nestled as it is where the great Australian and Pacific plates meet, being overdue for The Big One.  Here, I thought, perhaps a silver lining?  Had we got it out of the way? A relatively big quake, with relatively little damage. Perhaps in the same way one might have hoped that the massively traumatic Christchurch earthquake would have been enough ruin for one generation to behold.

No, says the New Zealand Herald, because the quake wasn’t triggered by the Wellington fault line and when that one goes, we can expect an M8.5. Not much point keeping the china and lamps on the floor, because when that one comes there are going to be bigger things to worry about.

Well I’m not moving any time soon. Apparently the Wellington Fault last did it’s thing between 200 and 450 years ago.  It’s a 500 to 1000 year event. I’m 44 and I’ll take my chances.

And besides, the Herald is an Auckland paper.

Food Night: Because One Thing Always, Always Leads to Another

Natasha and Victoria

Let’s blame it on good friend and partner in crime Natasha.  She put me up to it.

I was organising our monthly craft night, when Natasha dropped one of her typical, quiet, by-the-by bombshells. “If you want to do something similar with food,” she said, “I would be keen”.

There are plenty who know of my fondness for food and cooking.  A quick look at my figure and a guinea pig could work it out. But fewer know about my mania for organisation. Natasha is one of them. So, if you think about it, it was downright irresponsible. Roughly the equivalent of telling a convicted arsonist that someone should build some bonfires for Guy Fawkes Night or taking a kleptomaniac shopping in a coat with deep pockets.  You didn’t make them do it, but you knew darn well what would happen.

Over the years, I’ve met others who share my obsessions.  Take my former lecturer and friend Margaret. (The black and white images and salsa picture are hers).  Margaret and I shared some adventures years ago when she was researching and I studying at the same German university.  I already had a cookbook problem, but Margaret made me feel it was OK.  She suggested new titles, pointed out the possibilities for posting books home cheaply via the Bundespostsack.  We cooked together.  We ate out.  She facilitated.  Or perhaps we were simply co-dependent.

I met Stacey when she started seeing an old university friend about 15 years ago. We hit it off immediately. Something about the way she followed me out to the kitchen where we talked about this and that and family.  I knew she was one of us when she showed up at the annual New Year’s Eve party with a great slab of Kikorangi blue and Falswater crackers.  Over the years there have been countless dinners, birthdays and  holiday celebrations, one helping the other with the cooking. Often my favourite part of the evening is in the kitchen with Stacey, working amiably side by side on the menu of the day.

My sister Victoria is 12 years my junior.  We’re very different people, but at the end of the day, fruit of the same tree.  She may not take it to the same lengths (yet), but she’s been bitten by the same bug.  How many people do you know who will walk from one end of the CBD to the other just to find the better sushi place for lunch?

As for Natasha, she and I bonded over countless lunches, morning teas, piroshki making sessions and other fundraisers for the local Russian Orthodox parish.  If you’re going to put on a ball with a 5 course supper for 110 in a hall with one domestic stove and an indifferent water heater, you want Natasha with you from the planning through to the bitter end. She is a voice of reason, yet where others will reach straight for the too hard basket, Natasha never discounts a concept until we’ve worked through the possibilities.  In a world full of naysayers, this is a rare quality in a friend, and a brilliant one in a fellow foodie.

These women form the hard core of Food Night.

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Top: Natasha and Victoria with the Paella,  Above: Later at the table Stacey and Victoria

It was not as easy to arrive at a formula for Food Night as it was for Craft Night. Craft Night cohesion comes simply from togetherness.  If you don’t feel like making anything you can just hang out for the conversation.  It really doesn’t matter.

Run your foodie group without more planning and you run the risk of it turning into one of those pot luck dinners where there are 7 pasta salads, 2 rice salads and a garlic bread. You might not starve, but without some co-ordination, you’re unlikely to come away with a transcendent experience.

For now we’re doing it this way:

  • We meet once a month at one of our houses to cook and eat a meal together.
  • We have a theme for each month.  This can be a particular cuisine, ingredient, course, festival – whatever you are all interested in.  This month our theme was tapas.  The last time it was Vietnamese food.
  • You agree a menu for the night –  say everyone picks a dish. The host buys the ingredients for the meal and we split the bill.  Then only one person needs to go shopping and you avoid ending up with 4 bunches of coriander and 3 bottles of fish sauce.
  • As an optional activity to provide some inspiration (OK, so it’s an excuse), we meet for a meal earlier in the month, sharing all the dishes and thus tasting as much as we can. Dinner didn’t work for us, but we have adapted remarkably well to being ladies who lunch.

It’s a real treat to have friends from different compartments of your life together at once. Being with people who share your interest is plain liberating, then there’s another kind of familiarity that comes with doing, rather than just talking together.

We’ve started to talk about other things we might do under the Food Night umbrella as time goes on, for example a weekend away or a dinner for our closest family and friends. Who knows where this adventure will take us.

Our last tapas inspired food night menu: above left, seafood paella – not a tapas dish, but we wanted to give it another go anyway; above centre, potato and baby spinach tortilla; above right, the salsa to go with our cerviche (not pictured); below left, choux puffs with a goats cheese filling and drizzled with honey; below right, garbanzo beans (chic peas) with choritzo.

On Friends, UFOs and Getting Crafty

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The day our third and youngest was born,  we didn’t contact many people.  Facebook could wait.  But I did send a text to one old and dear friend to let her know the baby had arrived safely.

Lisa didn’t have my new cell number, but at our age, friends don’t have babies every week. I hadn’t bothered adding my name.  The answer returned swiftly: “Congratulations, but I don’t think we know each other.”  

Once she knew it was me, her next text read  “How did that happen?”. Whilst Lisa had a genteel upbringing, the question was not about how the baby came to be, but how it could be that a whole pregnancy had passed unnoticed.

Life slips easily into a series of days made up of nothing more than the struggle to get to work, do the chores, feed the children and get some sleep. Days become weeks then months where nothing remarkable happens, there are no specific memories to look back on.  It is not that these days are unhappy, but they leave me with the feeling that life is just sliding by. I’m not making the most of our precious time together: life is not being lived lavishly.

This is not to say life is quiet and restful. There are the times you look at your diary only to find that your next completely free weekend is in two months time. (In our case, usually indicative of the state of our daughters’ social lives rather than our own).  There is a world of difference between having lots of things to do and living a rich and full life.

This year I’m on the look out for more opportunities to spend time with the people that matter.

Against that backdrop, I must also explain that in some far corner of my brain apparently untouched by feminism or rational thought of any kind, I nurture a deeply held belief that my happiness is dependent on my house meeting Martha Stewartesque standards of organisation.  Those of you familar with the clutter affecting many rooms of said house will no doubt be surprised.  The truth is, I am a failed neat freak.

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Part of this clutter is directly attributable to numerous UFOs or unfinished objects: incomplete craft and sewing projects, half knitted sweaters, unfinished mending, baskets of leftover yarn and the like.  So when sister-in-law Kate and I talked about doing some more needlework classes, I had to admit that what I really needed was to get on top of work I already have on hand.

There’s not a lot you can’t teach yourself out of a good book.  Now with the internet, blog tutorials and youtube.com, it’s that much easier to do.  But I have fond memories of going to my great aunt’s weaving circle in Wadowice, or my aunty’s quilting group in Waipawa: women sitting around together working companionably on their respective projects, gentle chatter going back and forth, some laughs, the pleasure of company without any particular pressure to converse.  This is what I have looked for in needlework classes, but they have never really delivered.

So this year Kate and I decided to do something different and organised a monthly get together cum craft night.  We could meet in our own homes, but we have enjoyed the added benefit of holding the evening in the studio section of Made on Marion. Long time friend and proprietrix Maryanne Cathro is on hand with ready advice and every conceivable piece of thread, paint, glue or haberdashery one could need.

We gather on a Friday evening after work, everyone brings a bottle or something to nibble, we sit, catch up on each others lives, and work on our respective projects until we go home, tired but relaxed to our families and the weekend. For a couple of friends, this has been a chance to try something new in a safe environment, for others, a spur to pick up something already familiar, perhaps reinvigorated by new ideas from others or the shelves of Maryanne and David’s store.

What with being unable to type and wield a hook or needle at the same time, my own progress has slowed since I started this blog.  I had imagined being a few projects up by now.  But the afghan throw I started earlier in the year is still going.  I’m hoping to finish my squares over the next month. It ought to be done and adorning the back of my sofa before the winter is out.

Move Over Julia

Julia Child at Le Cordon Bleu

Above: Julia Child at Le Cordon Bleu in 1950.  As a child I watched her on Saturday afternoons with my grandmother.

You always want your children to have it better than you did.

By and large life has been pretty good to me, but like everyone else, I entertain the odd fantasy about what I would do if I won the lottery and found myself free to hop off the path that got me here, free to do something quite different.

In my mid teens, there was the odd, fleeting fantasy of becoming a concert cellist.  I prepared myself for this by not practising. This is like training for a marathon without so much as the odd long walk. Some might manage it. I, patently, was not among them.

I traveled in my gap year, sometimes picturing my future as a lone wolf journalist, always moving from trouble spot to trouble spot, dodging bullets to get my story, my luggage battered and my trusty camera my only constant companion. Apart from the fact that I never so much as kept a diary and took very few photographs, it was a thoroughly sound career plan.

Later, under pressure at university, I would dream of fleeing to Berlin and some tree-hugging commune in a run down Kreuzberg tenement.  Making a living didn’t come into it.  The moral high-ground would keep us warm.

Like many others, I worked my way through university in the hospitality industry and enjoyed it very much.  If I didn’t make it through Law, I would throw myself on the mercy of the executive chef of the hotel I worked at and beg for an apprenticeship in his kitchen. But I kept passing those exams.

When a stock market crash meant jobs were scarce, I mentioned my culinary plan B to my mother, who pulled a positively astounding 180 degree move and went from “Be a florist if you want to, but get your degree first.” to “We didn’t put you through university so you could work over a hot stove.” in under 60 seconds.

I have long since reconciled myself to being an amateur, very amateur, cellist, dodging bullets has lost it’s appeal, and frankly, Berlin hasn’t had quite the same cachet since the Wall came down. But the cooking thing has never left me.

Le Cordon Bleu, alma mater of the inimitable Julia Child, beckoned more than once, but Paris and London were far away from home and everything that held me here.  Then last year, they went and opened one right here in Wellington.  For all that it is right under my nose, to a mother of three with a mortgage, it might as well be on the moon.

I never thought one of mine would make it to Le Cordon Bleu before I did.  Certainly not before the age of nine, and especially not Francesca, as a toddler, possibly the most food resistant child in recent times.

Setting aside the intervening increase in appetite, it appears that disinterest in eating is not the same thing as disinterest in cooking.  Ever since Francesca could stand on a chair to see the bench, she has been a keen observer of culinary processes.

Cooking shows have also played their part.  Imagine my delight as my two eldest score every meal out of ten, with constructive criticism on presentation. Apparently I am not alone.  Good friend and partner in crime Natasha’s girls do the same thing.

In case you are thinking that I have spawned some kind of anorexic culinary savant, I should explain.

Natasha’s eldest and mine are of an age and have played together since they were very little.  Francesca was very fortunate in that when her friend got to go to a Petit Cordon Bleu class for her birthday, Francesca was invited to go too.

Classes are held in Le Cordon Bleu’s splendidly equipped kitchens.  A class of eight was taught by chef de cuisine Paul Dicken, aided by assistants who took care of the dangerous tasks: sharp knife work (splitting vanilla pods), deep frying and the like.

The three hour course was packed with content.  The children made hokey pokey  ice cream from start to finish including preparation of the custard base.  They cut pasta, crumbed fish, made pommes William and tuiles.

Back at home, I was struggling with some pasta of my own.  Francesca bobbed into the kitchen proudly bearing the fruits of her labours. “I’ve been using one of those this afternoon too, Mama” she said, eyeing up my very underutilised Imperia.  I was using mine to roll my dough, before slicing my tagliatelle by hand.  “Chef says you need to let the sheets dry a little before you cut them” my earnest little friend told me, helpfully.

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We had guests coming around for dinner and I was out of time to chat, but the next day she spent the better part of an hour giving dear old Mama a blow by blow account of what they had done, how, why and using what equipment.  She had clearly engaged with the class content.  She was interested and spoke about her experience with quiet confidence.

Would I send her again?  Yes.  It’s costly, so not too often. But in terms of what she’s likely to get out of it, worth it.

The winter holidays are coming up in a couple of weeks, so to keep the momentum going, I’ve signed Francesca and Lydia up for an on-line holiday programme on kids cooking website It’s My Turn to Cook Tonight. We have a couple of house guests and maybe another one or two besides, so I’m preparing to give my kitchen over to the ten and unders for a couple of days.  No idea what the programme will be like, but if nothing else, it should be a good lesson in the use of information technology. There’s nothing to lose. The course is free and if we don’t like it, we can just switch the laptop off and find something else to do.

It really was a dark and stormy night.

It’s a long time since I was last ejected from a bar.

On reflection, I can’t recall it happening before, but surely I misspent sufficient youth that it must have happened, at least once.

Thursday evening, I definitely got turfed out of Havana Bar. I’d like to be able to tell you it was because my friend, Thor, picked a fight with the barman.  But in reality I was out with Thor’s mum and mums of other children in my daughter’s class. And the cause of our expulsion was that the roof had blown off Havana’s dining room, the restaurant guests were being reseated in the bar and we were out of luck.

hereisthesun-copy (2)           Havana Dining room

Left: Havana in better weather; Right: in the dining room with the offending section of roof (see skylight)

We understood, sympathised even, and, after sitting against the wall of the former worker’s cottage and feeling the force of each gust lift the whole structure up a couple of inches, or so it felt, were perhaps even relieved.

The weather hadn’t seemed that bad when we left home.  Dark?  Yes, Friday was the winter solstice in these parts.  Windy?  Yes, but it’s Wellington.  There’s a reason we have so many wind sculptures. Wet?  Also true, but none of us is made of sugar, and besides, it had taken a good number of emails to get this evening off the ground. We weren’t about to give up because of a bit of damp.  

I had not factored in how sheltered our house is.

We drove into the city around the bays. The rain, like the Zephyrometer, was horizontal,  one of my companions gaily explained how her husband had to stop and move a trampoline off the road to get home.  At traffic lights, the wind played with the car, like a kid blowing at a dead moth on a windowsill.

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The Zephryometer: a bright orange wind vane.

Back out on the street, the wind was doing that thing where it kind of sucks the air right out of your mouth.  Fresh refuge was a mercifully short walk away. The Southern Cross looked warm and inviting. And it was.

Older Wellingtonians will recall the days when the Cross was a booze barn par excellence.  It was popular with students for the reasons that it was cheap and “relaxed” about age restrictions.  It was the kind of bar where the carpet was squishy and you kept a close eye on the barman to make sure he didn’t short serve your drink. It’s seen some variations since then, none terribly prepossessing.

Never my favourite spot, I haven’t been in there in over 10 years, so the place that greeted me on Thursday came as nothing but a pleasant surprise.  It was clean, warm, spacious yet still cosy.  The fire was going, and in the lounge area guests curled up with mulled wine and hot water bottles. Despite the weather and the size of the bar, it was quite full. The staff immediately found our group a corner in the dining area where we could all sit together.

An inveterate grazer, I was glad to see a range of small plates on the menu. But after last week’s steak debacle, I still had a craving to fill.

The small plates delivered to our table were attractively presented.  The larger meals were nothing fancy to look at. But my steak was indeed rare (they asked twice to check) and the cafe de Paris butter well flavoured and obliged by melting steadily over the course of the meal. No lump of meat sitting in a pool of melted butter as is sadly sometimes served. The salad was generous, fresh and, in blinding contrast to last week’s vinegar bathed travesty, subtly dressed.

The service was relaxed, friendly yet very attentive all without being overbearing, or overfamiliar.

If the place came as a surprise, there was more to come when I checked out the website later on. For me, this is a new high in family friendly.  On weekends between 10am and 2pm you can go for brunch and have your kids entertained by craft tables, toys and face painting.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays they set aside a space for parents and children to relax in the morning, with someone to keep an eye on the kids, and, if you’re still there later in the day, you can even score a free chair massage. For crafty types there’s a knitting circle on Monday nights.  

Why didn’t someone tell me about this earlier?  How could I not have known?

By the time we finished our meals and talked some more, the airport was closed, ferry sailings cancelled, trees were blowing over and we heard that 25,000 homes were without power.   Seemed like time to go home.

It was the worst storm my city has seen in my lifetime.  Roads along Wellington’s southern coast were damaged by 15 meter swells.  200kmh winds were recorded on Mount Kaukau.  The Kaitaki, a 1600 passenger ferry, broke its moorings with 50 staff on board and was eventually brought to anchor in the harbour.

Road Damage

Damage to Coastal Road

But you can’t keep a good thing down. By the next day the folks at Havana, like the rest of the city, were unphased, up and running again.   It would be a shame for something as trivial as a roof to get in the way of such a good place to while away an evening.   I’m just going to have to find another reason to get there soon.

Steaking my Claim

Steak

I have a weakness. Well OK, several, but this particular weakness relates to steak. If steak Béarnaise is on the menu, I will seldom go past it.

This probably makes me boring and unadventurous.  I can feel the kitchen crew yawn as my order is called away.  But I know what I like.  I like a good steak and, verily, I adore Béarnaise sauce. Tarragon, surely, is something the Almighty created to compensate mankind for other things, like long winters, and bubonic plague.

That so many menus feature some variant on the steak and Béarnaise theme, and have done for so many years, tells me I am not alone.

Boulcott Street Bistro      Steak at the Boulcott Street Bistro

Above: Venerable Wellington institution, the Boulcott Street Bistro, has featured Fillet Béarnaise on its menu for at least 20 years (left plate right above).

I like my steak rare. It’s an individual thing, a matter of taste.  My mother blanches at the sight of pink juices.  I, on the other hand, didn’t bother to order a steak for the close to 3 years of my life spent pregnant: if I was going to have to ruin a steak by having it well done, I could ruin it at home at far smaller cost.  And if there wasn’t something on the menu that would eat better (to my tastes) than a well done steak, there was really no point dining out.

Well Done

Nearly well done: but my mum would think twice about the slight blush and the pink juices.

I’m not a fanatic.  I will tolerate anything from a very rare steak to one which is bordering on the medium rare.  And that’s just as well, because for all their training and putative professionalism, despite the fact that this is what they cook service, after service, after service, many chefs in this country still struggle to get it right.

I realise that I split the town’s eateries into three camps. 

There are the reliable – those places where the food is consistently good, you know your steak will arrive just the way you asked for it, and where, if you want to risk something new and don’t like it, you can be confident it’s because you just don’t like the new ingredient, not because it was poorly prepared.  The service will be good, sometimes even excellent.

At Jacob Brown’s The Larder in Miramar (just around the corner from Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop) your steak will come just as you like it.  The same is true of the Boulcott Street Bistro, where Jacob Brown used to cook and which, in my opinion, had it’s heyday in the hands of chef and former Wairoa boy, Chris Green, now at Abitrageur, and maitre d’ Stephen Morris, former owner of Copita and now of Avida.  Likewise, Lyall Bay treasure Elements Cafe does an excellent scotch fillet with duck fat roasted potatoes, broccolini, almonds & bearnaise.

Arbitrageur              Chef Chris Green

Above: at Arbitrageur; Chef Chris Green in Action.  Below: The Browns outside Miramar’s Larder and Lyall Bay’s Elements:  Go the Eastern Suburbs

larder (2)         Elements

Then there are the  less-than-reliable, the places where you order your steak, giving very specific instructions and then hope for the best.  Not the best places to try tripe for the first time, no matter how much you support the concept of nose to tail eating.

These are not your first choice for prime nosh, but you are still willing to go, because the service is good (or at least friendly), because overall the food is pleasing, the location is great, the kids like it, you need to meet friends there, or you and your friends are on a budget and the pricing means you are willing to overlook a bit.

A good example is SOI at Greta Point.  Last time I went there my steak was over-cooked.  They very willingly cooked me another, which, sadly, was just as over-cooked as the first.  It was time to give up.  I was with a big group, it was just before Christmas. the place was packed, I didn’t want a scene, and it was a “two for” night. The steak was a good size, and still tasty and juicy.  I could still enjoy my meal.  I smiled, paid up and would still go again. I will still suggest it as a place to meet with friends, because on balance  it offers value to the diner, not least of all because of the location. You sit out over the water. I will never forget the evening we were there for a family birthday during an electrical storm with a pod of dolphins swimming past.  Magic.

SOI

With views like this, you can forgive the odd overdone steak.

Then there are the establishments I will not visit again.  On reflection, the fastest way to join this club is through bad service.

My third and final visit to Logan Brown was on a wedding anniversary.  The food, as before, was wonderful, but the waiter serving it seemed to take the view that we should be grateful to be able to eat there.

On the previous two occasions (business lunches both) service was remarkably slow.  On one of these we had been offered the option of a private space, but nobody mentioned the rather significant room fee until we were at the counter and paying the bill, our guests at our elbows.

It was all years ago and very likely just bad luck, but when it’s a special occasion, I’ve sorted a sitter, spent the afternoon working out what to wear, painted the face, done the hair, changed the outfit, done the hair again, put on shoes designed in defiance of basic engineering principles and am going to be laying out good money, do I want to take a punt on finishing the evening wishing we’d gone for a curry down the street instead?

You don’t need me to answer that one.

This group is not large. On the one hand, there aren’t that many places that have really ticked me off, and on the other, the hospitality industry being nothing if not ruthlessly Darwinian, the ones that do have a habit of going out of business.  Sooner rather than later.

Last week the Tinakori Bistro provided an unfortunate exception.  This restaurant has been around since Escoffier was learning to dice onions.  I’d been there with large work groups, and whilst the service was a little patchy, they coped well enough and the food was enjoyable.  On top of that, this is one of the few restaurants of its type where you can order two courses for $30 if your table orders from a smaller “set” menu.

Last Wednesday I met three friends there for dinner.  We all have mortgages, it was a casual weeknight meal and the $30 special seemed ideal.

The first problem arose when my companions all wanted main and dessert, while I wanted  first course starter. Because there’s nothing worse than everyone having to wait while one or two eat their starter, I figured I could have my main with my friends and would have the squid for dessert, as it were.  Not ideal, but it seemed like a reasonable solution.

It troubled our waiter.  I explained the timing issue. Would I not rather eat the other way around?  Yes I said, on reflection, I would indeed rather have my squid with their main, and my main with the others’ desserts. I hadn’t eaten all day, but reckoned the calamari would carry me through until the others were ready for their cheesecake.  It was very early in the evening so it’s not as though they were going to have to keep the chargrill going just for my bit of beef.

Our waiter looked uncomfortable.  That might be difficult for the kitchen, he said.  Well why ask?  As we all know, going out for a meal is all about making dinner easy for the kitchen and waiting staff.  Nevermind, the company was sparkling, and a rare steak Béarnaise would soon be sitting right in front of me.

It was, kind of, not very soon, but the wait was reasonable.  There was Béarnaise, though not a lot. There was also a steak, rather small.  The first cut brought disappointment and a fairly flavourless mouthful.  Grey fibers with touches of pink to the centre.  Perhaps I had someone else’s medium well steak.  Three steaks up on the pass – it’s easy enough to mix up the plates.  But no, theirs looked just like mine.

Medium Well

Not the actual steak, but about the same shade towards the right.

I cut another piece to make sure (left on the plate – you don’t send it back after you’ve eaten half, and as noted, it was not a large steak), but no appreciable difference in colour scheme.  The waiter brought the last of the vegetables.  I was afraid the steak had been overdone, I said, as I handed the plate back to him.  I relaxed back into the conversation, taking advantage of the chips whilst I waited patiently for my new, rare steak to come back.  By the way, it was either 6 months or they were coming up on 10,000km mark, because the chip fat needed a change.)

Then it happened.  The steak came back.  The same one.  Cut ruthlessly through the absolute middle and unceremoniously turned cut side uppermost, my second piece oddly now missing.  Chef, I was told, said it was rare.

In fairness, the very centre was pinker, but still with the fibers fully opaque and cooked through. And, really, you don’t want to have to work your way through a third of the steak to get to the bits that are medium, or, at a push, possibly medium rare?

I should have taken a picture, but who can think rationally at a time like this?  Chef, I said, needed to return to Chef school.  Did I want the steak or not?, the waiter asked.  Nothing like an ultimatum to make the guest feel better.  If Chef thought that was rare, I was not going to persuade him otherwise.  I told the waiter it wasn’t worth the fuss, set about my now rather cold meal, and vowed never to return again.

Not with the family, and certainly not with my 20 workmates.  No, we’ll be eating somewhere else, if I have to cook myself.

And the irony?  If I do cook myself, the meat will be very well done.  Just the way my team like it.

Rare  Very Rare or Bleu

Left: Steak, rare, the way I like it.  Red, but fibers developing opacity.  Right: Very rare or bleu (blue), what I often ask for to make sure I actually get it rare.  If the waiter looks unsure, I describe it as seared and just heated through, it is distinctly raw in the middle.  I only ask for it this way if I know the cut of beef will be beyond reproach.

Food Revolution Day: Petone Shopping

Lydia and Cafe Figg

It was another full day.

I started it sensibly by not sleeping much the night before because I was too busy blogging. When I did get to bed, the baby needed a feed.  Then not long after it seemed to be time to get up again.

The sainted husband would no doubt have taken the kids to school and let me sleep longer, but it was Lydia’s first school visit and I wasn’t going to miss that.  Plus walking to school is an important part of my latest regime.  Anyway, it had to be done.

No sooner home, showered, dressed, baby fed again etc,etc, but Lydia was back from school wishing she could stay the night there (so she likes it, thank goodness), my good friend and partner in crime Natasha had arrived (refer our recent Paella adventures) and we set off to Petone on serious business.

Naturally it was only once we’d gone too far to turn back that I realised I had left behind my shopping list for next Tuesday’s Vietnamese cooking night.

House of Knives

Still, we each had friends to collect from knife hospital, House of Knives and other places to go.

Natasha is diligent and well organised, so I think hers were probably just in for a bit of a rest and a spot of botox.  My much loved but somewhat neglected chef’s knife was there for more serious work.

We’ve been together for nearly 25 years and in that time there have been plenty of adventures.  Heck, we even go on holiday together. (Have you ever tried to chop anything with what they give you in a motel unit?)  But this is only our third professional sharpening.

We’d been going through a bit of a rough patch.  The steel wasn’t doing it for us any more, probably exacerbated by the recent guest who used the knife to open a beer. Guess how close he came to finding out just what a good knife can do.  The tip was bent. (My family deny all knowledge.) And the heel needed another regrind.  Not even the sharpest blade can cut well if it doesn’t touch the board all the way through.

Natasha’s knives were ready.  Mine had missed the regrind, so had to stay in overnight again.  A bit of a pain, but now I’ve got a good excuse for another trip.

We had a good look around the store.  Much as I would have liked the crowd sized paella pan, 2 new pairing knives and a black steel frying pan, all I came out with was a bird’s nest icing tip which I hope to deploy in making grass for Lydia’s forthcoming toadstool birthday cake.  (I loathe working with icing, so whatever you’re thinking, please lower your expectations.)

Bookfeast

Having come so far, it would have been rude not to visit Bookfeast, the specialist book store conveniently located in the neighbouring shop.

bookfeastfront

For those who like to read about food and wine, particularly those quaint individuals who still like to flick through a cookbook before they buy, Bookfeast is a veritable oasis.  It’s less of an oasis with a four year old in tow, even they are really very,very good, but I still managed to come out with a book on Vietnamese street food and a list of titles that should solve my husband’s birthday and Christmas shopping problems unto the ages.

Shop owner Sandra Young is always good for a chat and listens very patiently to my standard rant about the lack of good Russian and Polish cookbooks. She tells me she’s reducing her stock of the kind of popular books carried by the chains in favour of the more obscure and specialised books that her customers crave.

If you get a chance, check out her sale shelves.  You might reasonablly expect to see a selection of less loved volumes that have outstayed their welcome, but that’s not the way Sandra does it.  She says if a shelf it getting to full, she just picks out a volume at random to make space for the new one.  Probably not what her accountant wants to hear, but when I go back to collect that knife next week, I’ll be making a bee-line for that shelf.

By now, Natasha and I are feeling weakened, probably more from what we didn’t buy than what we did, and make our way across the road (kind of) to a place Natasha spotted when admitting her knives the day before.

I lived in this town as a child back when still was it’s own town, the meatworks were a big employer, children came to school with no shoes and nobody had heard of gentrification.  These days it’s part of another city council, the meatworks are long gone and while I’m sure the poverty is still there, house prices are up and Jackson St offers you everything from a chocolatier through crepes to curry and back again.

Cafe Figg

Amoungst this panoply, it would be easy enough to go past Cafe Figg.  As we go in, the traffic is noisy and it’s starting to rain.  Inside it’s cosy without being claustophobic.  The food in the cabinet is appetisingly presented, the staff are very friendly and a charming mural ties the autumn colours of the grape leaves overhanging the rear courtyard area to the trees framing the shop on the other side of the road.

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Lydia, who has been behaving well for some time on the promise of a hot chocolate, homes in on strawberry muffin. The range in the cabinet is more than supplemented by a menu, although in terms of presentation, that particular document might look more a home in a greasy spoon.  The new regime dictates abstinence and Lydia declined “help” with her muffin, so there’s not much I can tell you about the food.  I can tell you that they got my hot chocolate just right and that the bathroom facilities were very clean. I think I’ll take Mum there next time we’re on the loose.

By then it was time to head back to Wellington to rescue children from institutions of learning and prepare ourselves for the pizza session to come.  More on that in my next blog.  Plenty more on Petone food shops to come.

Back to School: Paella at Social Cooking

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Paella is a dish that taunted me quietly for years.

People raved.  There were cute pans with brightly coloured handles that would look fantastic resting casually on my stove top and a reason to keep saffron in my pantry.  Paella promised warm hues and tantalising aromas from the home of Sarasate, Casals, flamenco, passion and romance, amontillado and choritzo.

But as a fish-wuss who cooks for even bigger fish-wusses, the thought of cooking anything where you picked food out from around the shells was distasteful.  Perhaps nearly as distressing as the composition of black pudding or watching someone dig around inside a marrow bone.

Why not just leave the ruddy shellfish out?  What if that meant my paella was not all it could be?  No, ladies and gentlemen, it was time to man up, as it were, and take the fish by the shell.

At the same time good friend and fellow foodie Natasha and I were thinking of trying out some cooking classes.    Natasha, always a few steps ahead of me when it comes to knowing what’s going on, had heard of a new cooking school down by Wellington’s waterfront called Social Cooking.  The classes were $99 for one person, so we thought they must be pretty sharp.   Times are hard, but the curiosity was killing us, so we promised ourselves a treat … one day.

Fate intervened in the form of one of those email voucher offers.   A class with wine and dessert, it told us, would normally cost us $234, but we were special and could go to the ball for a significantly more palatable $92.  We pounced on the voucher and waited patiently to sign ourselves up for a paella class.

The first troubling sign came with the reminder (kind thought) sent to get my “taste buds rocking”.  It was my “night to cook – baby”.  I was thanked for “getting social” with them.  A reminder to us all never to draft anything after watching Austin Powers movies.

The Big Night

I was running about 25 minutes late, but apparently so was the class.  I arrived just as the demonstrator’s paprika-dusted prawns hit the pan, or so I gathered.  Despite my 6 feet (height not appendages), I couldn’t see into the pan and the overhead mirror added nothing.  Prawns par-fried, we went on to explore the mysteries of the sofrito: onions, tomatoes and garlic, three beings in one.

Grated Tomatoes

The grating of the tomatoes was about the highlight of the evening.  You want finely chopped tomatoes in this dish, but not their skins.

Blanching the tomato, we were told, would take too much equipment .  If you halve a tomato cross ways and rub cut side down against the grater until you’ve worn through to the tomato skin, you can save the blanching, if not your knuckles.

My Polish aunties blanched tomatoes by dropping one into a good sized mug and covering it with boiling water straight from the kettle.   Give it three minutes, refresh under cold tap water and slip off the skin. Probably not how they do it at the Cordon Bleu, but it works.

I can report that the grating method is also effective, and trust that you will feel empowered by the choices now at your disposal.

Tinned vs Fresh

In response to a question, the demonstrator asserted that use of tinned tomatoes would not be right.  They should be fresh, regardless how expensive, and, in all likelihood, how out of season.  I wonder.

Whilst tinned tomatoes were not acceptable, bottled garlic (sponsor’s product) was.  Likewise the not very Spanish or smoked looking paprika.

The rest of the demonstration barreled along amiably, albeit with the assistant constantly hopping out the back for plates and bits that had been forgotten.  We learned to spread the rice out into a thin (c. 1cm or 1/2″) layer (hence the big flat pans),  to let it cook without stirring until you can see the rice through the cooking liquid, then how to cover it with paper until the cooking is complete.

The demonstrator explained how to cook paella without the specialist pans (damn and blast), how to check up on progress without creating a starchy mess, and what to do if the rice wasn’t cooked through. We went through how to score the squid and how to check the mussels were still alive, but not how to clean them.  There was no discussion about the types of rice suitable for paella.

Unusually, we were not able to taste the demonstrator’s paella before we went on to cook our own.   This was apparently reserved as dinner for the demonstrator and her assistant.

Hands On

Natasha and I agreed that cooking the squid for 10 or more minutes seemed like a bad idea.  The demonstrator suggested a slow simmer in stock while the rest of the paella was cooking.  We settled  for pre-cooking the squid on a hot pan along with the prawns and were rewarded with great flavour.    The squid and prawns were added back for the last five minutes of cooking, but could have gone in a bit later.

Did I mention our glass of wine?  No?  That’s because so far we were still waiting for it.  When it did arrive, it had all the bouquet of a bottle you find hiding in the back of the fridge about two weeks after a dinner party.  We drank it anyway.  There were only two bottles of water set out for 20 people in a small shop front and 10 lots of paella cooking away furiously.  We had to drink something.

On the hygiene side, the hand washing facilities were inadequate and we came across dirty glasses, plates and cutlery over the course of the evening.  At the other extreme, thank goodness for the paper protecting our rice as one of the presenters merrily sprayed the bench cleaner around right next to where our pan was cooking.

It all went along much as promised and produced, I must admit, a very tasty dinner.  The crust on the bottom of rice was just delicious.  As for the mussels, they were tender and sweet and lent a delicacy to the dish not remotely reminiscent of low tide.  Definitely something I will try again at home.   I can only think how much better it will be with homemade chicken stock. What we had tasted distinctly as though it came from a cube.

Dessert consisted of a small scoop of partially melted ice cream with a previously hot chocolate sauce congealed around the edges of the mismatched bowls.  And there was coffee, if not quite enough coffee cups.

The social aspect of the evening would have been greatly enhanced if only we had all been able to sit down for dinner, but as there was only table space for 8, the rest of us ate by our benches, once again contributing to the sense of cooking in a student flat. Pretty much everyone was there with someone else.  I imagine it would feel quite awkward if you went on your own.

We had pretty much been, gone and eaten by 8:15pm.  As we waited for the nice AA man to come and revive my car battery, we watched the remaining attendees trickle out.  That they had done by about 8:30pm, well before the advertised 9:15pm finish.  Makes you wonder why they didn’t pack in more time on the fundamental techniques and ingredients.  

All said and done, I really did enjoy the evening.   Always good to spend time with Natasha, I tried some new ingredients and learned to cook a tasty new dish that I would not have tried at home by myself.

Will I cook this dish again?  Yes.  Would I go to another class? They won’t have me back now anyway.  Would I be happy to pay $117 for the pleasure?  You must be joking.  Did the class represent value at $46 per person? Just barely.

Click here for the recipe.

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Natasha and I beaming over our diced onions.     

Seafood Paella:  Finishing Touch of Parsley

A finishing touch of parsley.

Paella on a Plate

Time to eat.  Two servings took quite a large pan.  Pan size has to increase with the number of servings or you miss the all-delicious crust.

Saigon Taste, Wellington

I’m planning a Vietnamese themed cooking night with some foodie friends in a couple of weeks.  By way of background research (yes, sometimes life is hard), three of us got together for lunch at Mount Victoria’s Saigon Taste.  Yum.  I’d definitely go back.

We ordered and shared 5 dishes:  summer (fresh) rolls, chicken salad, hanoi style noodles with fried fish & sesame rice paper (Bun Ca or 38a), fish & pineapple hot pot and hot and sour beef and seafood soup.
If you’d like a closer look, there are pictures on the menu. The soup was a blackboard special, so don’t go crazy looking for that.
Whilst the summer rolls and salad were both billed as starters, the servings were very generous and would make an ample lunch.
Both dishes show-cased the fresh, clean flavours Vietnamese cooking is famous for.  I was particularly impressed with the judicious use of Vietnamese mint.  I once put it in a salad at home, used the same quantities as I would of regular mint and consequently renounced the pungent herb for all time.  Now I’m thinking I might plant some.
The Bun Ca was something of a revelation.  The fish was lightly cooked and crisp on the outside without being greasy.  Together with crispy wafers of sesame rice paper, it sat of a full bowl of noodles, vegetables and dressing.  I was interested to learn more about the seasonings that gave the fish a sweetish almost vanilla-ish flavour and got as far as working out that there are two kinds of Bun Ca.  As soon as I googled Bug Ca Ha Noi, you start to run out of English language hits pretty quickly.
I found that comforting.  I’d think of begging Papa Saigon Taste for his recipe, but since his English was only marginally more proficient than my Vietnamese, I might have to resign myself to ignorance.
The hot pot is only for those who really  like very strong oily fish flavours.  Since I sometimes blanch at the thought of sardines on toast (yes, I’m a fish-wuss) it was not for me.  That’s not to say it wasn’t well prepared.
The final dish was the hot and sour soup.  I don’t recall we discussed this one much.  I’m not sure my friends could really taste much after the hot pot.  And we were all pretty much stuffed full.  Pleasant enough, but not a stand out and I’m not sure that the cooking method did much for the squid.
The service was gentle, unobtrusive and prompt.   On the last point, they weren’t very busy, so who knows how things work on a busy Saturday night.
Three of us ate a big and varied meal for a princely $61.