Wellington on a Plate is four years old and is becoming a mainstay of the windy city's midwinter calendar. James Belfield tickles his tastebuds with a tour around our capital's culinary hotspots.
It's not often the Australian is floored. But as the beautifully bewhiskered (and super stylish) gentleman proffers his hand in introduction, she stammers, blushes and takes an age to recompose herself.
Our dinner date is Lorenzo Bresolin - capital restaurateur, cheerful and copious raconteur, and a dead-ringer for a piercing blue-eyed and beaming-smiled version of Dr Seuss's Lorax. We're dining at his Crazy Horse steakhouse - one of three restaurants (the others are Scopa and Duke Carvells) he runs with a variety of partners including his brother Leonardo, who's taking time out to enjoy the first forays of parenthood.
They are the sons of flamboyant Wellington legend Remiro Bresolin, who ran Il Casino for nigh on 30 years until his death in 2007, "brought pizza to New Zealand" according to Lorenzo, earned a knighthood from his Italian homeland and about whom Winton Peters (no less) said "his views were worth knowing".
We're actually not here to profile the Bresolin clan and their impact on Wellington's culinary landscape - although there's clearly a colourful book just waiting to be written on the subject - rather we're here to preview Crazy Horse's Visa Wellington on a Plate menu and chew over a few of the goings on which will make the capital surely New Zealand's tastiest destination for a fortnight this August.
Now in its fourth year, this fledgling festival has grown from a few dozen participating eateries and events hurled together in a matter of weeks in year one, to a soaring extravaganza which includes 109 restaurants and cafes, and more than 100 events.
The centrepiece is undoubtedly Dine Wellington when, to prise folk away from their log-burners and wintry TV schedules, chefs and cooks around the region put on a range of set-price lunches and decent dinner deals which highlight the best food that New Zealand has to offer.
But there's also a host of shows from burlesque to bakeoffs to add the ultimate garnish to the capital's platter.
People the length of the land have already booked their annual leave to coincide with Beervana - the 11th running weekend fix for craft beer hop-heads; the sweet success of last year's first New Zealand Chocolate Festival sees it return for another weekend's residence. Also back for a second year, is the Masterclass weekend featuring top chefs such as Julie Le Clerc, Ruth Pretty, Michael Meredith and Logan Brown's Shaun Colston.
Our Crazy Horse entree of baby beetroot, candied walnuts, beetroot jelly and a stunning frozen goat's feta "snow" is just leaving the table when Lorenzo launches into his take on one of the festival's mainstays, Burger Wellington, in which restaurants vie to create the ultimate burger.
That last year's event was taken out by a vegetarian version and second place to a dessert patty featuring banana and kaffir lime hasn't passed him by, and he's extremely quick to point out exactly how the voting works, could be improved, and the sheer numbers in his restaurants.
He's particularly keen to push Duke Carvell's entry into this year's event, amusingly called Tongue in Cheek and will feature, yes, tongue and pig's cheek.
During a 200g grass-fed Wairarapa eye fillet - far earthier and, well, meatier than you'd expect for the cut and perfectly balanced by a surprising Urlar pinot noir from Gladstone - Lorenzo moves on to Crazy Horse's Beef & Burlesque night.
His aim is to weave live music, burlesque entertainment, a five- course meal and matching wines into a single, coherent event. If it's anything like how our dessert of Whittaker's chocolate and peanut ganache pudding mixes with the salted caramel icecream, it's a sure-fire winner.
Crazy Horse The Steakhouse isn't open for lunch but has a $90 three-course dinner menu for Dine Wellington with each course matched with wine from Urlar Estate. Beef and Burlesque will take place on August 24 and costs $150.
Burger Wellington entry: The Crazy Horse Burger. A prime beef patty with lettuce, beetroot, tomato, gherkin and horseradish mayo on a housemade brioche bun.
One of the key elements to Dine Wellington is that the produce is sourced as locally as possible and the dishes highlight regional cuisine. As the Aussie and I preview Artisan Restaurant's festival menu in the Bolton Hotel it becomes apparent that this is excellent news for a certain Porirua-based chocolate factory.
James Henry Whittaker started his business in Christchurch in 1896 but shifted to the North Island shortly before the First World War - a move Wellington on a Plate's pastry chefs must be extremely thankful for.
Not only is our grilled pears, Kikorangi blue and Beehive bacon starter and Wairarapa Beef Wellington main finished off with a Whittaker's dark Ghana and walnut brownie, but the restaurant has decided to tap into the chocoholics' delight for its Burger Wellington entry.
Called Sweetness Incarnate, it promises Whittaker's chocolate marquise with a poached meringue, mango puree and lime jelly on a doughnut bun, served up with shortbread shoestrings.
But it's with The Art within Artisan, where head chef Sahil Hussain has really tapped into a local personality. Bolton Hotel managing director Warwick Angus just happens to be the nephew of great Kiwi artist Rita Angus and Hussain has crafted a five-course menu by matching Angus's paintings to food.
Hussain says he "called in" Jill Trevelyan, who wrote Rita's biography, to get some background into the foodie facts about the artist who moved from the South Island to Waikanae in 1950 before settling in Wellington five years later. She called the city home until her death in 1970.
To cap off the evening, the Angus family are editing down some of the hours of film footage of Rita to create a film of the artist both at work and play.
Artisan Restaurant's Dine Wellington lunch menu is $35 for a choice of two courses plus a glass of regional Wellington wine. For dinner the offer is a free dessert with each main. The restaurant is hosting two events: Be Grilled, a six-course degustation menu highlighting the kitchen's manuka grill with matching wines for $140 on August 24; and The Art Within Artisan Rita Angus-inspired five-course menu for $150 on August 18.
Burger Wellington entry: Sweetness Incarnate.
The third dessert of the weekend and I'm making a note to call my broker to investigate the chance of buying into Whittaker's.
This time we're at the newly stripped-back Hummingbird in Wellington's humming Courtney Place and this time the chocolate pudding is accompanied by salted caramel and creme fraiche.
The restaurant has experienced something of a rebirth since owner John Coleman passed the reins over to sons Drew and Jed.
All the old wood panelling has been ripped out to be replaced by an incredibly hip chipped-plaster and taxidermy look and there's a pretty sturdy wall out front to separate diners from the throng of drinkers which, even on the cool and windy night we're there, range up and down the street.
The four-course tasting menu features a sourdough with housemade butter and ubiquitous EVO followed by a great beef carpaccio served with smoked mushrooms and Jerusalem artichoke crisps. A glass of Martinborough's Te Tera pinot noir bridged the gap nicely between the carpaccio and a lamb dish which was the high point of the evening.
Hummingbird Eatery and Bar isn't open for lunch but its Dine Wellington dinner menu features four courses and a glass of regional wine for $60.
For those who can't hold out for the Beervana weekend, then there's a great new addition to Wellington's craft beer geek chic collection hidden in a small alleyway in Edward Street Precinct. Little Beer Quarter has an eye-watering range on pump and in fridge. A request to find something this writer hadn't tasted (and I've spent a fair time cultivating a beer-drinker's figure) revealed a brand new brewery and a new favourite stout.
The real find of the meal is the wonderfully named Beeramisu dessert, the LBQ's play on the Italian staple tiramisu but made with Kereru Moonless Stout, Kapiti mascarpone and two great powders of chilli and lime chocolate and cinnamon.
To cap off their Wellington on a Plate beer-fest, LBQ have partnered with new city brewery The Garage Project run by Pete Gillespie and brothers Ian and Jos Ruffell to create a brand new brew called Hare of the Hog to accompany the restaurant's entry to Burger Wellington.
LBQ's Dine Wellington lunch menu is two courses plus a glass of wine for $25. Dinner $35 with a matching beer.
Burger Wellington entry: Hare of the Hog. A beer-braised hare, smoky bacon with watercress and a beer and beetroot relish.
For a finale (a brief break from the chocolate marathon), I meet up with festival co-director Kate Jamieson, Ti Kouka restaurant chef Shepherd Elliot and Carrello del Gelato director Nathan Meyer to sample Nathan's award-winning gelati and chat about the relationship between Wellington's producers and chefs.
Elliot says he's obsessed with finding great local produce and speaks lovingly about finding perfect streaky bacon and a small Greytown saffron producer, but it's gelati on the table so that's where we settle for a backstory.
Last year, in its first New Zealand Icecream awards, Carrello's mango sorbetto scooped gold, but when Shepherd put together his menu he opted for coconut gelato to complement (surprise, surprise) a Whittaker's dark chocolate tart served with a chilli olive oil.
Ti Kouka's Dine Wellington lunch and dinner menus include two courses and a glass of regional wine for $35.
Burger Wellington entry: Shepherd's Flock Burger. A spicy lamb and ricotta patty with minted yoghurt, roast beetroot, lettuce and mayo.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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