After boldly putting my Wellingtonian status on the line, I thought I better try and salvage what chance I have left of being let back into the city by pointing out that there is actually great food in Wellington. I stand by what I said: Auckland’s restaurant scene is better and booming right now in terms of style and quality, but… Wellington’s isn’t too shabby either. Wellington has always had fantastic cafes and once upon a time when I lived here, I actually liked going out for brunch. It excelled at cheap and cheerful eateries too with Malaysian cuisine leading the pack for the best wallet-friendly hearty dinners, and the craft beer buffs were always well looked after.
The coolest little capital in the world does have some culinary prowess and I was reminded of this once again on a recent trip home. We were back in Wellington for a few weeks over the summer and though we spent a lot of time catching up with friends and family, and taking advantage of the fact we had a temporary kitchen, we did manage to eat out a bit too. Would I be Connie Consumes if I didn’t?! I took many trips down memory lane with my favourite pick-your-own sushi and bagel lunches, leisurely weekend visits to old favourites such as Sweet Mother’s Kitchen (I still love their curly fries) and a few wines on the waterfront for old time’s sake.
But when I scratched the surface, the Wellington I knew almost five years ago had changed; some of it natural, some of it caused by the earthquake… things have been torn down, revamped, reshuffled, reopened… however Wellington is moving onwards and upwards. While it’s sad to see some classics disappear, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the new offerings. These were some of the best places we discovered recently…
The Old Quarter, Dixon Street
In a past life, the space that The Old Quarter inhabits now used to be a cheap and cheerful Malaysian restaurant that I knew well. The food was always decent but the decor could only be described as a bit dated and dingy, the complete opposite to what it is now. The Old Quarter is vibrant and fun, which we discovered is much like the modern Vietnamese cuisine it serves. The menu is diverse and covers everything from bao to salads to curries; all of which were rather appealing so not over-ordering was a challenge. From our selection, we would highly recommend the soft shell crab bao, the duck salad and their bahn xeo pancake – all were presented beautifully and tasted just as good as they looked!
Shepherd, Hannahs Laneway
Times have certainly changed down on Eva Street too, the dark little thoroughfare alley I recall is now home to a cluster of trendy eateries and bars, with Shepherd being the top of my list to visit. I was drawn to their ethos of showcasing the best of New Zealand’s produce and livestock, and I liked their statement of being a New Zealand restaurant. Often when I’m asked what New Zealand cuisine is like, I’m stumped… it’s drawn from so many influences, but the thing I think is always consistent is the use of local ingredients.
A certain someone was less impressed, but I thought aside from one fail, the rest of our meal was decent. The main dud were the beautiful Cloudy Bay clams which had been destroyed by the overly salty pork broth with nduja, the whole dish was verging on inedible. Thankfully, the smoked venison tataki, and heirloom tomatoes with Clevedon buffalo mozzarella were light, refreshing, and far better balanced. Shepherd clearly has a strong vision and ambition, and from just the few dishes we tried, I think there’s a great amount of skill in the kitchen. Judging by the full dining room and their reputation around town, the Wellington crowd seem to love them, so they’re definitely doing lots of things right!
Hanging Ditch, Hannahs Laneway
While you’re in Hannahs Laneway, you should definitely pop across to Hanging Ditch for a pre or post dinner cocktail. This is the kind of place where you and the girls gather for a few sophisticated cocktails while you’re chatting about some far less sophisticated gossip. It felt like a cool place to be; it’s a bit dark and moody, the decor is a quirky assortment, and the booze literally flows from the ceiling… the cocktails are splendid too!
Whitebait, Clyde Quay Wharf
For our final hurrah in Wellington (for the time being anyway, assuming they’ll let me back in) we wanted to go somewhere a bit flash as a treat for us and our parents. The fine dining offering in Wellington has always been small but strong, and while it was tempting to revisit an old favourite, when I came across Whitebait I was hooked in. They promised seasonal, local produce, cooked simply but of course, I also expected a certain level of refinement given the price tag. Whitebait’s location on Clyde Quay Wharf, a relatively new and quiet part of town, provided some lovely views across the waterfront, and the interiors added to the serene ambience.
Our dinner options consisted of three or four courses with snacks, or the full tasting menu; we opted for three which seemed sufficient at the time but be warned, these dishes are small. Even though you can essentially select any two savoury dishes from the whole list, I expected the kitchen to tailor them in size according to their course order… without such treatment it felt like I had two small starters and was left wanting a lot more. The quality of the ingredients I cannot fault, and the execution was dainty and precise; a Chatham scampi crudo was almost too beautiful to eat, and the rock crayfish swam in the most intense fermented tomato bisque. However I found the service to be a little haphazard and slow, and feel it needs to sharpen up to really provide their guests with the fine dining experience they are paying for!
Have you been to Wellington? What’s your favourite restaurant in the city?
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