Okay, so here's a thing - prone as I am to hyperbole and exaggeration, let me tell you something: last week, without word of a lie, I ate what would have to go down as one of the finest and most memorable meals of my life.
As anyone who has read this forum before will know, I am a huge fan of Miramar café/restaurant The Larder, and of its chef/owner Jacob Brown. I like his aesthetic - food that is big and bold and flavoursome, prepared with great care and attention to detail and knowledge. I like his approach - a fondness for nose-to-tail dining and offal, and using the whole of the animal out of respect for the fact that it has been killed. And I like the generosity of spirit that colours the food he serves.
So when I learned that he would be preparing a six-course menu, matched with beers from Aro Valley's The Garage Project boutique brewery, I snapped out of my well-fed lethargy and bought some tickets - I'm not missing this one. Not a chance. It is as important to me as not missing a rugby test.
The Garage Project brewery occupies the unlikely premises of a disused service station in Aro Street, and this is the location for the dinner. Upon arrival, Plus One and I encounter Jacob out front of the building, standing by a fire pit, lovingly tending to a whole pig with a squirty bottle filled with a delicious, malty GP brew - presumably the Smoke & Mirrors Bock styled beer with which it will be matched. He seems a bit nervous, and in a state of high excitement - this is a big gig, removed from the comfort blanket and security of his own restaurant and kitchen, and is tantamount to removing the safety net. People will eat what is served, rather than what they choose off a menu - just how many risks is he prepared to take?
P1 has never been a great fan of either offal or shellfish, so I am interested to see whether they will feature in the menu - chances are, they will. Upon entering the Garage, we are presented with a glass of their Honig Heffe Honey Wheat beer, paired with a Weisswurst sausage, with Dijion and celeriac - a glorious match, the pale beer bringing out citrusy notes in the sausage on crostini. The room looks magnificent - the silver vats and brewing equipment lit up, tables decked out for dining in this makeshift restaurant, and electronic musician Jeremiah Ross (aka Module) tickling the ivories as people take their seats and settle in.
Jacob and GP head brewer Pete Gillespie then introduce the evening and the format, giving terrific insight into their thought processes and working methods in preparing this highly unorthodox menu, as they do with each course. Food and wine matching is a well established art form, but food and beer is a relatively new concept in terms of fine dining, even if it has been practised in pubs the world over for centuries. The idea of the hosts introducing each course could be a real drag - were they not both so knowledgeable and passionate about what they are doing in collaboration, and it doesn't at all come over that way - rather, it explains and informs what has clearly been a labour of love, and an obsession for them both.
And then we are into the food. Straight away, offal rears its head in the form of a salad featuring chicken hearts, grapefruit, witloof and gizzards (an organ from the bird's intestines). Served with the familiar Pernicious Weed double IPA (a strong pale ale with more than a hint of the grapefruit that features in the salad), the salad is a perfectly dressed small bowl of expertly cooked offal with the bitter leaves, croutons and grapefruit providing flavour and textural contrast. I am impressed to see P1 cleaning up the innards - expertly prepared, indisputably delicious. They do have a particular flavour to them, but this is so well balanced with the other ingredients that nothing overpowers anything else.
Next, the welcome arrival of long wooden boards laden with little half-shelled mussels dressed with a crumb of Serrano ham, micro greens and tiny, salty pomme frites - an ingenious evocation of the mussels with chips dish moules frites, with the crispy ham providing more salt and depth of flavour. Again, I check P1's reaction - like I say, no seafood fan is she. Again, she is loving it. The mussels are tiny and tender, not rubbery and thick-lipped like those she may have tried in the past. The beer match is a Bier blonde sur blonde - a four-grain Belgian-styled lager that again is a classic pairing.
From there to the dish that I have perhaps most been looking forward to - the Garage-fed pork with malt crackling, star anise and cinnamon. The pig has been reared specifically for tonight, and has been fed on the same ingredients that have gone into some of the evening's beers.
It's difficult to say whether this has infused the meat with the flavour of the hops (when the beer has also been sprayed on to the crackling, and the spicy flavours of cinnamon and star anise are also present), but what I notice is the texture of the meat - where pork is sometimes deliciously unctuous and oozy, coming apart by being pulled at with a fork, this meat is quite firm, yet also tender and juicy. Phenomenal, anyhow - all the processes to which it has been treated creating a unique mouth feel and flavour, worlds away from your run of the mill pork. The Smoke and Mirrors bock beer reinforces the malty flavour of the crackling, and it is served with slices of fresh, crisp apple, cress and a silky puree.
I am, by this point, struggling to see how they will top this, but blow me down if what follows is not perhaps the highlight of the evening. On long wooden boards, piled high with seaweed, appear alternating clay parcels and freshly shucked oysters on the half shell. We are instructed to transfer the oysters to our plates, and then Jacob walks around the room handing out... hammers! We use them to crack into the parcels, revealing banana leaves folded over the tenderest, sweetest slow-cooked beef cheeks you could ever imagine. With a side of simply cooked carrots and parsnips, and a beer match of a hefty oatmeal stout (featuring oysters as part of the brewing process!), this is brilliantly fun, innovative and astonishingly delicious food.
The cheese course that follows keeps the bar high, with a vintage gouda that has an almost caramelly quality, and an aged goat cheese from my friends the Scheckters at On Trays, served with a lavoche crispbread and a dark, rye-style bread made with by-products of the brewing process. The Trip Hop beer that accompanies is bang on - I had actually already heard about the cheese selections from Mr Scheckter - Jacob had visited him in Petone, driving from his Miramar base with a couple of bottles of beer to spend an afternoon tasting through cheeses with the beer - this, people, is how you get a heavenly match. And this is the level of care that has gone into the matching.
I almost feel that dessert can only be a disappointment, but nope, no escape from this blissful cycle of food - a silky, delicate chocolate mousse with sour cherries, with a strong, Imperial Porter beer match. Impeccable.
We finish up with petit fours - a salty, dark chili chocolate, with Double Day of The Dead chili chocolate black lager. Perfect.
By this point, I must confess, I am a bit pissed (Plus One is driving, so has just been tasting the beers, so I have been, um, polishing hers off). We have eaten some extraordinary food, and tasted some amazingly different-tasting, complex and richly flavoured and textured beers.
I am quite emotional about food, and, coupled with all the beers, I feel quite emotional about the evening. When something is really, really delicious, it almost seems as though it delivers pleasure straight to the central nervous system.
We thank Pete and Jacob and his maitre'd partner/wife Sarah Bullock profusely as we are leaving, and I scramble for something to say to emphasise how much I have enjoyed the meal, and the experience.
"Dude!" I tell him; "on one hand, I think you're kind of, like, a genius. And on the other, I think you're just as good as someone who does what you do ought to be!"
It doesn't sound like that flash of a compliment, looking back...
He has a chuckle. "Thank you, thank you - you get it! You get it!"
Whether he means this, or just wants rid of the gushy, drunk fat guy, so he can get cleared up, go home and catch some well earned sleep, this is very gracious of him.
And, you know what? I reckon I do "get it..." I really do.
Were you at The Garage Parks Up At The Larder? Your verdict? Anyone else had any transcendent food experiences lately - maybe at another Wellington on a Plate event? And - are you as keen on food/beer matching as the more conventional food/wine?
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