Foodies put Tron back in gastronomy

TOP NOSH: Two of Chim Choo Ree’s co-owners, Kimberley Higgison and Cameron Farmilo, have helped Hamilton to the city’s third regional restaurant award.
TOP NOSH: Two of Chim Choo Ree’s co-owners, Kimberley Higgison and Cameron Farmilo, have helped Hamilton to the city’s third regional restaurant award.

It was the best of times, it was the wurst of times.

Seriously, there was sausage. Two, gluten free, consumed with pumpkin, broccoli and potato by Joan Kurmann, aged 82. She was standing in the Friday sun waiting to go to lunch with her daughter. Hamilton, she said, had many excellent cafes.

"In my day, you never had coffee. I never had coffee until I met my husband. He's Swiss. They're mad on coffee."

On Monday, Hamilton's Chim Choo Ree was named New Zealand's best regional restaurant in the Cuisine Good Food Awards. Last year, the city's Victoria Street Bistro took the title; the year before, it went, two blocks south, to Palate.

We went to The 'Tron with empty stomachs and great expectations. It was the best of times, it was the weiss of times.

At midday, at the Good George Brewing and Dining Hall, in the industrial suburb of Frankton, they were brewing the latest in craft beer. A "sour funk weiss" ale called Lotus Flower had been on tap for three days.

"If it's not your thing, then whatever you have next will taste great," said bar manager, Carey Milicich. "It's giving the locals something that's trending outside New Zealand. Sour beers are the thing in the craft beer market in the States."

But was it too soon for Hamilton, where there was also a bar that advertised "cold juggs (sic) and great racks" served by "a beautiful Juggs waitress"? Milicich didn't think so. Coming up next month, a French-style beer.

"Hamilton attracts a certain sort of person who I don't think has any desire to have a super refinedness. It's like people like to live here, because it's laid-back and friendly. We are the butt of many jokes on TV. But at least people are talking about us."

Later that same night, on TV3's 7Days, Paul Ego said at the National Agricultural Fieldays, held in Hamilton, farmers would probably want to eat caramelised asparagus after the tractor pull.

Jesse Mulligan, comedian and food critic, grew up in Hamilton.

"Mainly there was Pizza Hut and a smorgasbord called The Old Flame. Although one of my earliest memories is of my parents taking me to a restaurant where they turned the lights off and played a slideshow illustrating different breeds of cow while you ate your main. I'm not sure that it lasted very long."

Latest Census data confirms the city's median age is 32.2 or slightly younger than the national median (38 years) and the median income, $27,700, slightly lower than the national equivalent ($28,500). A quarter of all people aged 15 years or over earned more than $50,000.

"Half the city is under 30," said Mulligan. "There's a lot geared towards kick-starting your night out with some good tasty eats. Increasingly though, there are some very good chefs in finer establishments, trying to push into more modern, experimental areas." Two big companies dominated the scene, he said. "It's like the Bloods and the Crips, except with fewer drive-by shootings and more late night kebab shops."

We didn't feel like a kebab. Or a burger. In July last year Hamilton reportedly set a new global record for the Wendy's chain - 20,000 burgers sold in opening week.

Outside Wendy's Old Fashioned Burgers (Here to stay! Baconator Mushroom Melt!), a staffer said she couldn't comment, "Though I will say our food is excellent."

When pressed, she confirmed she had the chicken club for tea last night. Her friend looked guilty: "I had Hell's Pizza. I had Wendy's the night before though." Did she eat at home this week? "Butter chicken, on Monday."

It was the best of times, etc.

At 1pm, we went for lunch. Chim Choo Ree had just sold its last pork belly. The tuna tartare, $19, and on the menu since opening day, was recommended. It came with miso mayo, ruby grapefruit and wasabi tobiko. Creamy, but satisfyingly chewy, and textured with small pops of molecular-gastronomied caviar. We had started with chickpea chips. Crispy, salty exterior; lush, thick-soupy interior.

"Who ordered the rice pudding?" asked co-owner Kimberley Higgison. "You're the winner." She was a smiling, everywhere-at-once, hospitality-industry superstar who was embarrassed to say what she had eaten for tea. "Pineapple lumps. A cup of earl grey tea. Plain, buttered toast . . . at midnight."

We would recommend the rice pudding. Monday's win, said Chim Choo Ree chef and co-owner Cameron Farmilo, was a shock. He originally studied business computing and learned cooking on the job in Australia.

"You can't just keep being conservative for the usual diners," he said. Pig's ears and mackerel were among his recent experiments.

What was the ethos of this place, light and airy, with a newly decorated wall featuring pages from a book about colourful birds and their young?

"We put that up this morning," confirmed Higgison. "We were ready to look at something different. It's just stuff we like." She warmed to her theme. They're in this place, alongside third co-owner Morgan Glass, "because we like to eat".

A large group of women (good hair, statement necklaces) were there to celebrate Jo Steven's 40th birthday. She ordered the confit duck and cracked wheat salad with barberries and almond cream. Her friend was leaving with a take-out bag of the same for her husband.

"We've been down here from Auckland for six years," said Stevens. "One of the things that impresses me most is what it has to offer. It's not just one or two places, we've got lots of options."

Finlay Irwin's café Mavis & Co turned into Clarences, a tapas restaurant, at night. He'd recently opened Made to Order in the city's Wintec House.

"I think Hamiltonians are very unassuming. But I think a lot of them have travelled, there's a lot of wealth in the region, and while there's still very much a traditional element of ‘hey, give me a steak' I think people do know what good food is and they're definitely willing to try different foods."

Next week, the Restaurant Association's 2014 Hospitality Industry report will confirm that, last year, sales in the Waikato rose 7.5 per cent to surpass $500m for the first time.

On the street, we asked more people in this regional foodie hotspot what they'd had for dinner.

Julie Burns, 53, artist: "A small bowl of rice with peas and carrots and half of one of those tins of chilli tuna. Basmati rice."

Karoraina Phillips, 15, student: "Mince, spud, bread, tomato sauce. Cordial - lime."

Glen Crompton, 44, co-owner of Rocket Coffee: "Farfalle pasta, broccoli, anchovies, fresh basil and lemon." We'd gone to Rocket Coffee first thing. The 67 per cent Brazilian and 33 per cent Bolivian roasted-on-the-premises blend started off tangy and mellowed into something chocolatey.

"It sweetens as it cools," said Crompton. "We're medium roasting. Instead of letting the roaster dominate the bean, we want the bean to tell its story."

They had decided this place would not sell biscotti or muffins or, actually, any food. Their coffee was sold to wholesale accounts, and Monday to Friday, from 8am-4pm, to anybody who came to this out-of-the-way roastery. Coffee was a democratiser. Suits, hoodies, polar fleeces. "We always worked on the ‘if you build it, they will come to it' thing." They'd been making coffee since 1995.

On Friday, customer Chris Wootten, 62, was enjoying a flat white. The night before, she had made chicken and prawn laksa for tea. Hamilton's food scene was vibrant, she said. "These guys have been around forever. And the fact that they're still here, says everything you need to know, really."

Sunday Star Times