What do you get a birthday girl who has just packed up her life, put about 90% of it into storage and is lugging around the rest in a suitcase so she can gallivant across Asia for a few months? If it were up to me, I would settle for warm birthday wishes transmitted over the interwebs and a drinks IOU for when we’re next in the same country, but it seems I have better friends. They, very wisely, went for the gift of food; these friends are keepers. I was lucky enough to get those birthday wishes, but with a side of lunch at Wharekauhau, one of New Zealand’s most luxurious countryside estates located in a remote part of the lower North Island.
Wharekauhau is only a 90 minute drive from Wellington city, but after you’ve wound your way up, around, and down the Rimutaka Ranges, you will feel like you’re a world away. The drive is very scenic, however if you’re pushed for time, have deeper pockets, or are royalty, you might want to take the 11 minute helicopter ride instead. Either way, the end result is the same… you will arrive at a small slice of New Zealand paradise where the views are breathtaking and the atmosphere is supremely serene! We were met at the door and taken on a short tour of the main lodge before settling into our table where the outlook was idyllic and the only soundtrack was from the birds outside.
I risk losing my Wellingtonian status if I say this too loudly, so I’ll just whisper it ever so quickly, through gritted teeth, here in my little corner of the internet: I think Auckland has a better restaurant scene than Wellington. Many in the windy capital would consider that statement a serious act of treason because Wellington has always proudly proclaimed to be the culinary capital of the country but right now, I’m not so sure. The rivalry between the two cities means there will always be a battle about who is the best in anything, but after spending some more time in Auckland recently, I think it is definitely inching out in front when it comes to the food scene. It feels more vibrant, more eclectic… just more of everything!
Aucklanders are seriously spoilt for choice; cheap and cheerful, casual and cool, fancy fine dining and everything in between… you name it, they have it. And it’s not just found in the centre of town either. It goes without saying that areas like Auckland Central and Britomart are bursting at the seams with trendy eateries, but there are clusters of culinary genius in suburbs all over the place. Some are well established, others are just developing as the communities change and grow… this is what makes it so exciting! Our short visit was not supposed to be about food, I had done no research and made no plans, but somehow we still managed to eat extremely well. This is by no means a definitive list, or even a very thorough one at that… just a collection of places that impressed us on our recent visit!
There I was sprawled across our couch with a cup of tea to my left, a stack of cookbooks to my right, and Saturday Kitchen bumbling along with its forced laughs in the background; a familiar scene that happens most lazy Saturday mornings in our flat. I was ready to complete my favourite chore of the weekend: planning that week’s menu. What a rock and roll life I lead, eh? I had already spent the last ten minutes debating the merits of using up the rest of my gochujang in a Korean stew from ‘Our Korean Kitchen’, or making Tom Kerridge’s barbeque pineapple chicken for the hundredth time when I had a different brainwave. Flipping through our well-thumbed copy of his ‘Best Ever Dishes’ one more time, I decided to take a break from Tom’s recipes in my kitchen because I would rathertrythem out in his kitchen instead…
The thing is, the recipes in this book are quite involved. We’ve cooked from it many times but have rarely followed all the steps because unlike Tom, we don’t have the patience nor dedication; and yet, most dishes are still rib-tickling winners. So imagine how good his food must be when someone doesn’t cut corners. And with that thought I was sold. Alas, getting a table at The Hand and Flowers, Tom Kerridge’s two Michelin star pub, is easier said than done. It is notoriously hard to book, even harder if you also want a room reservation, as I did. Near impossible if you were looking for a specific day or date. Thankfully I was not; with the end of my work contract and the start of our travels looming, the one thing I did have on my side was flexibility. A random Tuesday night in two month’s time? Mission accomplished.
One of the first London life lessons I learnt was that one should plan ahead to avoid disappointment, which makes it even more hilarious that one of the last lessons I learnt was that even the best laid plans can be thrown into disarray. All it takes is one mistake, one mishap, or one big misunderstanding and the next thing you know, Oxford Circus tube station is closed and the restaurant you had your heart set on visiting for months decides to follow suit. And all because two drunkards got into an argy bargy, some noises were heard, and Chinese whispers ensued… but that’s another London life lesson right there.
So that was ‘goodbye big blow-out meal at Bonhams’ and ‘hello to plan B…’ which consisted of changing out of the glad rags, throwing a ‘why are people so silly’ tantrum, heading down to the cosy local bistro, and frantically scouring Opentable for a decent Saturday night reservation. I wasn’t hopeful but my luck was in and hey presto… hello to The Frog E1! Both of Adam Handling’s amphibian offerings have piqued my interest for some time now but they just kept being buried deeper and deeper in ‘the list’ so I thought Friday night’s woes might actually be Saturday night’s blessing in disguise.
This time last year I defied convention and proudly proclaimed that I had no fears about turning thirty. I was excited to start a new decade and experience all the thrills and inevitable spills that come with it, particularly as we had an inkling that it would most likely be our last year in London and I wanted to make the most of it. A year ago, I believed that I was entering my thirties content, happy, and hungry… and now that I have merrily made my way through the ups and downs, that statement still stands. Content with what I have in my life, happy with what I have achieved both online and offline, and hungry to eat, explore and create more. To me, this is what it means to grow up, not grow old.
For the last five years we have celebrated my birthday abroad either jetsetting to Hong Kong enroute to the Philippines, catching sunsets from the Malecon in Havana, or wining and dining in two of my favourite countries in Europe – Spain and Portugal. Last year’s celebrations were particularly special as they involved not only a certain someone but some of my closest friends in what has now become one of my favourite cities, Seville. This year we are back in the Southern hemisphere after packing up our London life and I was preparing myself for a low-key celebration back in New Zealand but true to tradition, we made the last minute decision to head abroad and we are currently in Melbourne!
As I hoisted myself into position at The Test Kitchen, a slight apprehension began to creep over me. What does one open themselves up to when they choose to dine in a restaurant where a ‘test’ is so crucial to the concept? Who is being tested here, the diners or the chefs, I wondered? A dear friend of mine thrives on ‘interesting’ dining experiences, so I imagine that he would be in his element, playing guinea pig to chef Adam Simmonds and his team. Whereas I, despite my fascination with ingredients, provenance, culinary wizardry, still dine by a much simpler litmus test – does it taste good and would I want to eat it again?
I would prefer dishes to have been tried and tested before they got to me, but then a certain someone rather pointedly reminded me that I also enjoy giving my two cents worth and this time the chefs actually welcome it. Touché. With no response, I pulled myself together and settled into my seat, which by the by, was not designed with petite people in mind, bracing myself for what was to come. The opening gambit, a small bowl of roasted pearl barley was an easy pass. Parsley gave the nutty barley a green glow and freshness, the garlic was faint yet warming, and all finished off perfectly with crispy shallot rings!
Bordeaux is the only city in Europe I have visited three times; technically not a single time was of my choosing, but each time made me fall in love with it even more. The first visit was a fleeting one, just a couple of hours while we changed trains from Toulouse to San Sebastian and after which we vowed to return. I left a certain someone behind on the second visit, running off to spend the weekend with my girlfriends indulging in too much good wine and great gossip. And finally, the most romantic visit of all was enroute to a beautiful wedding just outside of the city. Three strikes Bordeaux, and you are still very much not out…
Dare I say, Bordeaux is almost the perfect weekend package – it has enough showstopper sights and attractions within the city to keep you interested while also being the perfect base for exploring the wine regions of Saint Emilion and the Médoc. I find the muted tones of the city chic and alluring, I can pass a couple of hours window-shopping both high-end stores and pretty boutiques, and in between all that, I eat and drink. A lot. I may have always ended up in Bordeaux quite by chance but where to spend my precious meal times is something I try not to leave to random selection.