Hummingbird Eatery & Bar, 22 Courtenay Place
Phone: 801 6336
Open: Tues-Sun, 3pm till late Fully licensed
Price range of mains: $28-$36
Cost: $129 for two (excluding wine)
Wine list: 3.5/5
With most trades and professions, it seems the longer you stay in business, the more credibility you acquire. This is only fair. But for restaurateurs, life's not fair at all. The drama of evening service may be sweet, but life-expectancy is short.
For in an industry where novelty and change are of the essence, "old-established" seems more like a turn-off to certain customers, namely those fickle reef fish who dart in shoals from one new eatery to the next. And, to be sure, there's never a shortage of new Wellington openings about which to venture an opinion.
In its heyday in the early years of this century, Hummingbird was so fashionable John Coleman was forced to put a doorman out front to control the numbers of customers entering, so difficult was it to squeeze through the crowd around the horseshoe of the bar to reach the inner sanctum. Even on a Sunday night, live jazz night, the joint would be jumping.
Last Sunday it was jazz night as usual, but alas the trio was playing to the brave applause of an audience of nine.
"What a shame," said my sister, Sally, visiting from Nelson.
And she's right, it is a shame, because the food here is still really good.
The Coleman family having sold to Nick and Gina Mills of Show Ltd, the Hummingbird kitchen is now under the direction of the group's executive chef, Sahil Hussein, who moves between Hummingbird, Public and Spruce Goose. He was cooking at Hummingbird on the night we visited, which was good in the sense that I've followed Hussein's career with interest ever since I discovered him buried away at the Copthorne Hotel five years ago.
Nevertheless, it was a pity that Hummingbird's new head chef, Helen Turnbull, was not on duty, for it was her food that I had specifically come to eat. This was on the strength of her having previously been head chef at Rata in Queenstown, where I dined extremely well the other week.
Turnbull now co-writes Hummingbird's menu with Hussein, and actually I did get to enjoy her fare by proxy, for when I invited Hussein to come out to see us after dinner, he revealed the two greatest hits of our evening had been of Turnbull's creation.
The first was an outstanding roast mushroom pate.
The second was the braised pork belly, which Sally (an artist, foodie and seasoned restaurant patron) reckoned was the best she'd yet tasted.
It had been rendered of nearly all its fat, yet remained gelatinous and rich. To the side there was the obligatory apple sauce, while on top was braised red cabbage that had been sweetened and soured most delectably with pineapple juice and red wine.
A custard of corn and popcorn is frozen in cubes, which are then battered and deep-fried, emerging with yummy, runny centres - a novel, savoury version of the chocolate fondant.
Onion tarte tatin was what it was - a savoury tarte tatin made with half a large onion - only it should have been advertised as such, in which case I probably wouldn't have ordered it. On the menu it had been described as "caramelised onion tart, creamed celeriac and roasted hazelnuts", leading me to expect something like Nice's pissaladiere (focaccia topped with caramelised sliced onions, olives, garlic and anchovy).
It clearly pays to check with the waiter first about these things.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY:
Roast mushroom pate with rye bread and grilled gherkins Its heroes are the old faithful portobello and button mushrooms, but what really sets this pate apart is enriching it with mascarpone, flavouring with thyme and garlic, then setting it in gelatine.
- The Dominion Post