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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