Notes from New Zealand: Christchurch

August 31, 2014

Christchurch is heartbreaking and inspiring, in equal measure. New Zealand's second largest city is still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 2011.  Huge swaths of the city have disappeared leaving gaping hulks of vanished buildings standing on every street like ghosts from the past. You walk the streets, haunted by the rubble of tumbled buildings.

And yet there is a spirit of revival here. A cathedral made of cardboard. Shops inside containers. Restaurants in trucks or tucked inside tiny reclaimed spaces.  I walk the city, wandering in and out of places, awed by so much that I see.

And the food!

My first meal is at Shop Eight, where chef Alex Davies is cooking eloquent fare on a couple of burners in a kitchen the size of a postage stamp.  He has no oven. The furniture is made from recycled wood. The flowers on the table are wild, plucked from now abandoned gardens, tucked into jaunty jars. The products – even the wines – are all local. I loved absolutely everything I ate, from bread served simply with a berry vinaigrette to a fantastic plate of local cheeses.

This was my favorite dish:

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Terakihi, a New Zealand fish, with the meatiest, fattest, most delicious shiitake mushrooms I've ever experienced, and a single pungent leaf of kale.  The great joy here was the broth: intense, singing the praises of every vegetable that went swimming through it.

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Those radishes are fried in duck fat, the chicken liver hearts are just-cooked, and the pate is rustic, gutsy, completely appealing.

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Pig head ramen.  Need I say more? Alex gets a pighead every week, fashioning various delicious dishes from the meat. 

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Have you ever seen a more appealing plate of cheeses? The one on the right is a local sheep cheese, the one in the middle is Mt. Grey Barnes Blue, and the one on the left was rich, soft and delightfully barny. The jelly is made from loquats.

The cheeses come from Canterbury Cheese Mongers, where Sarah and Martin Aspinwall are baking fantastic sourdough bread and encouraging (and affining) the products of local cheeesemakers. (That's Sarah.)

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 Lunch one day is at the fabulously named King of Snake.  We start with the equally well-titled hairy oysters – wrapped in kataifi, slathered with spicy mayo, a crisp briny mouthful.

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 Then there are these tuatua – meaty local surf clams haunted by a powerful XO sauce.

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And chili prawns – sweet, spicy, extremely sexy.

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But the restaurant that most exemplifies the spirit here has to be the just-opened Brick Farm, set in an almost vacant lot. Johnny Moore, whose beloved Smash Palace is a boisterous bar and burger place housed in a truck, has reclaimed a bit of land next to the farmers market downtown. The three story-building sits alone on an otherwise desserted downtown block.  It's a handsome space, all brick, wood and sunlight, filled with charming details. An antique cash registers sits on the counter, guarding platters of pastry.  Huge slabs of wood are used as plates. Outside, planters create a small urban farm. Inside, locals gather for brunch on weekend mornings, for raucous bistro food at night.

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Places like this are turning the new Christchurch into a city filled with possibility. After the earthquake people here were eager to go out to eat, reconnect with their neighbors, prove that their city was still alive. Restaurateurs stepped in, opening in the midst of devastation, offering hope.  

Up next: visiting Paradise. A trip to the country around Christchurch (and lots of terrific wine).

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A Japanese meal in New Zealand

August 30, 2014

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My last dinner in Auckland was at the tranquil Cocoro: a lovely, langorous meal that was utterly Japanese in its restrained simplicity.

It began with these two oysters: one a Bluff oyster, too delicious to serve with anything more than a bit of salt and lemon. The other a Kaipara topped with a subtle yuzu foam.

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Next came a little box that opened to reveal a series of small treats: the tuna at the top, velvety curls of raw shrimp,  a sharkskin grater with fresh wasabi and a bit of pickled ginger. At the bottom, both white and dark soy sauce.IMG_4324

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Now there was seaweed-cured snapper wrapped around a nugget of grilled eggplant, topped with a frisk of turnip and served in a puree made from more grilled eggplant.

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Next there was a tiny dish of chawanmushi filled with scallop and crab, and topped with salmon roe:

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Kingfish and fiddlehead fern tempura came plunked into a broth rich with seaweed and spinach. The real treat here – for me at least – was the buckwheat and spinach at the bottom. The entire world in a bowl- ocean, forest, field and stream.   

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Beautifully grilled beef, very rare, surrounded by shiitakes, truffle, Jerusalem artichoke puree and just a tiny hint of bitter greens.

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Dessert was simple and completely refreshing: granita of umeboshi and shiso, with bits of berries and a strong hint of yuzu.  A perfect ending for a lovely meal.

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Notes from New Zealand: Auckland

August 29, 2014

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This is such a beautiful city, perched on the water, the air fresh, green volcanos everywhere you look. Some lucky people take the ferry in from Waiheke Island, commuting in to work with orcas frisking around the boat, leaping, diving.  Others live in wonderful Victorian homes, perched on hills, views of water on all sides. 

Life here seems casual, easy. First night in town I am whisked off to Depot, the most rollicking, raucuous restaurant, where genial Al Brown plies me with wonderful wines and fantastic food. Almost before we're seated platters of oysters arrive.

 

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New Zealand oysters are not like those of other waters: they’re brinier, meatier. We have Tio Points, with their steely character, creamy Mahurangis and the Te Matukus which are both sweet, salty and creamy. (My favorites are Bluff Oysters, which are just going out of season; they have a crisp character, a bit like the texture of giant clam, and I'm ecstatic each time I encounter one.)

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There are clam fritters – I can’t stop eating them – and spicy lamb ribs, big meaty things with potent skordalia, and the kinds of salads not meant for dainty dieters. This is big food, for big eaters; you are meant to have fun.  And finally we eat pastrami from Al’s other place – Federal Deli – which actually gives classic New York delis a run for their money.

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I’m amazed to come halfway around the world and find this written on a wall.  But did I say this?  I can’t remember when.

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Lunch the next day is at Soul Bar. Overlooking the water, it's filled with extremely chic people giving each other the eye. This is a grown up restaurant, running smooth as silk.  You sit down, relax, instantly knowing you're in good hands. The food – as you can plainly see from the king fish above and the tuna below – is beautiful.  It is also impeccably prepared.  Every one of these dishes tasted even better than it looks.

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The fish and scampi were delicious, but it's the pastas that really impressed me.  Pumpkin agnolotti were filled with roasted pumpkin, bathed in brown butter and edged with curls of  ricotta salata and fried sage.  It's a classic dish, but I've never had a better version.

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 I love these plump, floppy little ravioli too.  They're filled with goat cheese that's been sparked with orange peel and topped with grilled scallions and various permutations of peas. Simple. Elegant. Delicious.

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And this: scampi with brussels sprouts. Underneath, sheer sheets of pasta.  Over it all, a rich shrimp bisque. Sweet, sour, soft, chewy: a serious mouthful.

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Here even a simple dish of broccolini comes spiked with smoked chili, underlined with preserved lemon, embraced by garlic until its rough edges have been muted. 

Breakfast in Auckland isn't your usual fare either. While people in the rest of the world are starting the day with toast, with cereal, with porridge or pastries, Aucklandites have different ideas. At the lovely little Ortolana people are tucking into far more interesting food. Mushrooms, poached egg, scattered cheese, greens.

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And this: gnocchi, cheese, eggs, peas and an entire garden of spring greens.  It's as if Auckland is saying – the world is filled with so many wonderful things to eat.  Why limit the options?

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 And then there is the Japanese food.  Stay tuned…..

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

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Pickled Purple Daikon

August 27, 2014

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The day before I left for Australia, I found a beautiful purple daikon radish at the farmer’s market. 

I didn’t have time to eat it before I left. So I did the obvious thing: made it into pickles. 

For the first few hours, the radish’s incredible purple tie-die color lasted.  But eventually it gave way to the pickling liquid, and the vinegar turned everything a brilliant beetish purple. Less startling – but still incredibly lovely. 

Pickled Daikon

1 large purple daikon radish, sliced

3/4 cup water 

1 1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar

splash soy sauce

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

thumb-sized piece of ginger, smashed with back of a spoon

dried chile

Black peppercorns

Coriander seeds

Warm the liquids with the sugar and salt in a small nonreactive pot, just until the sugar dissolves.

Put the thinly-sliced daikon and ginger into a pretty bowl along with the chile, peppercorns and coriander seeds. Allow to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate.

I imagine that this will be good for about two weeks – but we'll see when I get back from New Zealand. 

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Notes from Melbourne 2: Attica

August 26, 2014

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Melbourne is food obsessed.  To walk down the streets of this city is to encounter lines of people waiting  – for coffee, for ice cream, to get into all the hot restaurants that take no reservations.  Chinatown is packed with people, and if you want to eat well, just get into the longest line you see.  It will be good, because people here care, deeply, about what they eat.

But if you really want to understand what Melbourne is all about, there’s no better place to do it than Attica, the strange and wonderful restaurant that Ben Shewry runs.  There’s not a restaurant like this anywhere in the world – and I doubt there’s another city which would offer it this amount of loving support.   

Because this restaurant is set on redefining the entire relationship you have with restaurants.  It is the Marcel Duchamp of restaurants, a place that demands that you do more than arrive expecting a pleasant experience, one that asks you to use your mind as well as your mouth. If all you’re looking for is pleasure, this is probably not the place for you. The food is wonderful, the wines impressive and the service could not be more appealing, but everything about this place is intended to stretch your thinking. 

You enter. The dining room is dark, the table bare – a blank stage, spotlit, waiting for the actors to appear.  The first thing you get will be a glass – but a glass so light, it is almost as if it does not exist, as if the wine itself is hovering in air.  A statement.

Then comes the bread – made with an ingredient whose name meant nothing to me. “It tastes a bit like cocoa,” says the waitress, in her difficult to understand accent.  Before the evening is over many beautiful people will have offered you food in a dozen different dialects.  This seems deliberate, as if the chef is saying, “This is what Australia is. We are a nation of immigrants.” 

There is butter, as yellow as a daffodil, and a lovely heap of salt.  And there is a yogurt-like concoction, filled with dried saltbush, a fascinating herb totally new to me. 

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Now a little dish arrives filled with milk curd.  A waiter appears, holding a long honeycomb and scoops some honey out.  I frown. I loathe honey.  I eat it anyway, discovering as I go that I’ve been wrong: this honey is not achingly sweet, but completely lovely. Am I bewitched? Is this honey special? Is it the moment?  I’m not sure, but I happily scoop up every bite. 

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A procession of tiny tastes appears.  A walnut holding a walnut puree and a silky fold of mushroom, delicate as a butterfly wing.  

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A little black dish, smooth against the palm, holding the tiniest carrots, each one lightly pickled, but tasting mostly of the earth.

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An ear of corn, so tiny it would fit right into a doll’s house, the flavor so vivid I find myself eating the silk itself.  I've been drinking an Australian Riesling (Zelo ‘Unico’ 2014 from Adelaide Hills), and as I finish the last drop it resonates gorgeously with the buttery softness of the corn. 

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Sommelier Banjo Plane pours out a new wine -Jauma Autumnal Sun 2011 – McLaren Vale, and I take a sip while contemplating the bright green leaf, the color glowing, that sits before me.  I worry the leaf with a fork, and it falls away to reveal a heart of pure snow crab.  The leaf is sour, the crab sweet.  It is simplicity itself, but it takes my breath away. 

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Now there is a strange pink wine, slightly thick in color. More forceful than your ordinary charming rose, this Attica x Pyramid Valley ‘Pink Wine’ 2012 from Caterbury, New Zealand is exactly right with the latest dish, a version of steak tartare. These are ingredients I've never before encountered: kangaroo, pickled purple carrots, bunya bunya nuts, berries. The flavors leap across each other, each bite different than the next, and I find myself taking a bite, thinking about it, taking another.  Pausing.

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Shewry’s most famous dish is the potato, which he cooks in the earth in which it was grown.  Mint. Herbs.  But mostly the pure taste of potato, and a texture – somewhere between soft and dense – that defies the ordinary nature of a potato.  Ceci n’est pas une pomme de terre.  With it there is not wine, but "cleansing ale" from Tasmania, which underlines the unprentious simplicity of the potato. 

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The meal unfolds, dreamlike. Occasionally I watch small groups get up and disappear. Where are they going? And then it is my turn and I find myself outside, where the chef is waiting to show me not only the garden, but the composter as well. Ben opens it up:all the scraps and uneaten food have been transformed into something like loam.  I put my hand into this new dirt, which smells faintly of mushrooms. It seems almost magic.

This modest New Zealander was raised in a wild part of the country.  As we talk I find that Shewry is a man of amazing modesty, more comfortable talking about his staff and his dreams for them than he is talking about himself. He seems slightly stunned by his own success, determined to do good rather than make good.

Inside again, there is Moon Marsanne 2010 from Nagambie waiting at the table. A waitrees appears with a little package that looks like nothing so much as a piece of a tree.  Inside this paperbark wrapping is whiting, topped with pearl meat.  A marriage of forest and ocean. Pure. Clean. Utterly delicious. 

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The most dramatic presentation of the night is an entire red cabbage, its large ruffled leaves a deep purple. The dish, named 142 Days on Earth is an homage to the venerable vegetable. Inside, another mixture of meat, berries, seeds – all utterly unfamiliar to me – and I stretch (unsuccesfully) to identify the ingredients.  The flavors ricochet around my mouth, tempered by the Sorrenberg Gamay 2013  from Beechworth.  My apologies for the photo; by now it is after 1 a.m. and I am stunned with food, with wine, with the entire experience.

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Now there is a small procession of desserts:

Gingered pears with ice cream, served with Maidenii. What's Maidenii? A local Vermouth, made with, among other things, hand picked wormwood, strawberry gum, river mint, sea parsley and wattleseed. Of course.

Pear ice cream

Finally this playful candy egg appeard.  Filled with caramel. Served in a little grass nest. I love the eloquence of this ending: a nature note, a reminder of the garden, and a nod to childhood, when we all learn to eat.

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