Lauraine Jacobs

Food & Wine Writer

8 August 2015

FIELD & FALLOW by ED VERNER & LAURA FOREST

Sometimes a dining experience is like no other and does all the things that a well thought out meal should do; excite, challenge, satisfy, and perhaps change your thinking. Last night I was privileged to attend Field & Fallow by PASTURE, a dinner that Ed Verner & Laura Forest offered as a pop-up experience.

We drove in the dark and rain along the almost moving southern motorway and then along crazy country roads to Vin Alto Estate. Tough trip, but absolutely worth it.

Ed and Laura have spent a year away from Auckland, and during this time Ed cooked in various restaurants in Copenhagen. The pair refined their ideas and the values around food and came home to stay in the Clevedon Valley where they hope to pursue their dream of food that is simple, accessible and driven by ingredients that are fresh, local and vegetable-forward.

This meal was ten small courses of imaginative food, sourced from local producers and growers in the Clevedon district and that did not require fancy plating but rather an expression of techniques and ideas gathered overseas.

The first courses; two simple sweet cabbage leaves sandwiched with a buttery emulsion; exquisitely prepared and presented on a log with herbs, followed by a tiny onion cup filled with smoked kahawai and topped with delicate egg yolk crumbs. Perfect to go with a refreshing drink of white port and lime.

Then followed a succession of delicate courses that were just a few bites of exquisiteness; first, one of my favourites of the night some buffalo milk curd with lemon thyme and sweet bee pollen in parsley oil, and another refreshing drink - cucumber, celery and parsley juice.

Next a hearty moist loaf of buckwheat and smoked beer with kefir butter and lardo! (Beer with this, of course!)

Venison tartare with chervil and cauliflower, accompanied by ‘toast’ made with the unusual technique of breadcrumbs and butter so it looked like a lacy doily followed.

After that two vegetable courses; gorgeous baby courgettes with local oyster cream, and a sunchoke with an almond and soymilk skin. Another gorgeous drink with that – pear, fermented celery and grilled lemon.

The final savoury course was heavenly juicy pork scotch with fermented pear puree, rainbow chard washed in chamomile butter. And a lovely chardonnay that picked up on all the flavours.

The first dessert came on frozen plates; I have never seen quite the likes of Ed Verner’s fennel, preserved lemon and coffee ice. It really looked like a loofah sponge but when I put it on my mouth it melted away leaving just the flavours. Extraordinary! (Pic above)

The second dessert was a play on apple and caramel tart… shaved macadamia, apple green apple slices (how did he do that?) and warm yeasted caramel, served with a glass of warmed cider with hints of Manuka and pine.

And then finally the lovely surprise of miniature fresh chocolatey brioche direct from the oven to send us out into the dark and stormy night.

A truly extraordinary dinner from a talented pair that I hope we are going to see a lot of in the near future. This had to be the most refreshing dinner I have ever eaten. Mmmmm.

1 August 2015

THE FOOD SHOW AUCKLAND 2015

The Food Show always throws up new food favourites and it’s where trend spotters can see innovative ideas that are fast becoming main stream. So what did I make of the Auckland Food Show 2015?

This is the year of the coconut; coconut oil, coconut water, coconut ice cream, coconut milk, coconut ice blocks, dried coconut and myriad other stuff. Loved the drinking milk from Little Island Coconut Creamery – it is light and delicious and not the slightest bit sweet.

A close second in the trending stakes is the paleo/gluten free/health-laden diet that often encompasses raw and vegan foods. So many good products that fall into these categories were on show and attracting heaps of attention.

My favourite area of the show was the showcase master-minded by ATEED. Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development are doing a fantastic job of helping small start-up and artisan producers who have some very, very good products. They provided a large area which proved very popular and where I spied Naaz, my new favourite curry paste that I have bought at the Hobsonville Farmers Market. I also was delighted to see King of Kiwi super food drinks made from kiwifruit juice, Bonnie Goods’ fabulously oaty oatcakes, Poppy & Olive nut butters – love the almond best, and Dr Feelgood with his amazing ice-blocks. I also loved the way ATEED put the spotlight on the periphery regions of the city – I politely refrained from entering a competition for a weekend in Matakana (I have a home there) and loved seeing the Franklin producers as without them we’d go hungry in Auckland.

Nearby, having graduated from the ATEED nest, I spied Mahurangi Oysters and managed to wolf down a few of the saltiest, sweetest plump creamy specimens from Andrew and Lisa Hay’s farm. I brought home their oyster soup and ate the lot for lunch today – creamy and very oystery. I love those shellfish! Also emerging from ATEED’s wing were Culley’s fiery sauces and Genevieve’s unctuous pates – eat the whole jar with a spoon – I dare you!

Other things that caught my eye this year; • Glenbrook handmade cheese • Cloudy Bay Clams • Japanese Wagyu Beef • Maille French Mustards • The Street Food Collective with Judge Bao’s superb pork buns • Laucke specialty flours from South Australia which promise to be a premium flour with more strength than the flour we grow here in NZ. I cannot wait to get baking some bread with their 00 flour.

Finally, how good was that little eat street of deliciousness with all sorts of purveyors cooking up treats so show goers could relax over a plate of superb food. Thanks Food Show for a great outing!

12 July 2015

HOMAGE TO THE JELLY TIP

As Kiwi kids we enjoyed Tip-Top Ice Cream Company's Jelly Tip. It was heaven on a stick, literally, for when you bit into the thick dark chocolate coating the interior was revealed - creamy vanilla ice cream on the lower half and freezing cold raspberry jelly on the top half.

I wonder how many others were like me and tried to eat the chocolate first, then the ice cream and saved the jelly for last. Not an easy feat as if the ice cream and jelly separated there was always the chance of the jelly portion falling off. Not ideal!

This month is Jelly Tip July. Lots of companies have jumped onto the band wagon and created special products that are inspired by the original Jelly Tip.

Griffins made a limited edition Jelly Tip biscuit, the wonderful Whittakers made a gorgeous gooey bar of Jelly Tip chocolate and at Al Brown's Depot you can get a Jelly Tip dessert although I am not quite sure where he got the idea to include passionfruit.

Giapo Grazioli, the ice cream genius, made far and away the most creative Jelly Tip. He introduced a new flavour by adding some Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc to the ice cream in a stunning chocolate cone and topped it with a jelly that actually looks like a raspberry. So clever!

I adore the combination of chocolate and raspberry, so my contribution to Jelly Tip July is the Jelly Tip Trifle.

You can head over to the RECIPE section of this website to enjoy this treat.

23 June 2015

MY NEW FAVOURITE -HONEY & CO

I’m on record as saying that too many cookbooks fall short. It might be that there are no stories, no focus and often no attribution of inspiration and heritage for the recipes. And far too often cookbooks can be a miscellany of recipes the cook truly loves; but the reality is that most of the recipes in many new books are already on my shelves in other books.

So it is really a happy occasion when I open a book to find that everything has come together and the book in my hands is so original, has so much personality and is so good that I almost rush to the kitchen to cook with little idea where to start as there are so many things crying out to be cooked.

Such a book is Honey & Co, by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, and published by Saltyard Books, an imprint of Hodder in London. I was urged to buy the book at the Matakana Village Bookshop when a food and wine writer friend, Fiona Beckett was visiting from the UK. She showed me a recipe, ‘feta and spring onion bouikos’ and said that alone was worth buying the book for. Fiona was right! They are amazingly moreish little cheesy nibbles that I have made on several occasions as they can be rustled up and every single one is guaranteed to be completely devoured within a half hour.

The authors have literally poured their hearts onto the pages. They met in their homeland of Israel, fell in love over food and once married, moved to London to work. Sarit, a pastry chef was charged with setting up Nopi in Soho – an elegant little restaurant that is part of Yottam Ottolenghi’s ever expanding empire. While she was busy Itamar found a suitable space for their own place and together they have made it into a café that now serves lunch and dinner to a very admiring stream of regulars who love the sunny bright flavours of the Middle Eastern food the pair offer there.

The book is not brassy or bold, but one of those lovely handsome and rather original books that British publishers are currently turning out. (My other current favourites are A Change of Appetite by Diana Henry, Smashing Plates by Maria Elia, and A Modern Way to Eat by Anna Jones.)

Every chapter in Honey & Co starts with lovely tales from the kitchen and about the staff of the restaurant, and every recipe has charming headnotes that tell the story of the inspiration, a little explanation that describes the relevance of the food to the book, or some extra guidance that will help the cook to achieve a great result at home. And even though I have a complete collection of Ottolenghi books, all of Paula Wolfert’s Middle Eastern recipes and the lovely books by Claudia Roden, this book, Honey & Co is my new favourite as it seems to be very, very original, and there is that other mysterious ingredient that’s essential in food but really hard to convey – passion!

As for the actual recipes, where do I start? The vegetable fritters are the best I have ever made, the breads are simply wonderful, the combinations of a little spice and a lots of fresh vegetables and olive oil are mouthwatering and both the ‘Cracked’ and ‘Balls and Stuff’ sections with so many divine ideas are a revelation. Perhaps my all-time favourite recipes that I have cooked so far are pomegranate molasses chicken with bulgar wheat salad; a chicken pastilla, short ribs with dates, date molasses and potatoes; and those cheesey bouikos I mentioned above. I intend to cook almost everything!

And finally, this is the true test; I read this book from cover to cover and could not put it down. And as I got to the very last paragraph of the book tears filled my eyes - the authors offer thanks every single customer, and also acknowledge the "truly lovely reviews" from almost everyone who is anyone on London’s tough reviewing scene. Yes, so generous, passionate and just lovely.

20 June 2015

NO DRYJULY FOR ME

I won’t be doing Dry July this year for several reasons.

Previously when I signed up, I endured prolonged attacks from many in the hospitality industry who truly believe this initiative is damaging to their livelihood. Winemakers craft their product with care and devotion, a ton of good people in the industry are passionate about one of life’s greatest pleasures in moderation, and there are so many people employed in the hospitality industry whose livelihood would be threatened by a massive drop in sales. Lots of these people are my friends and although I am at the very least a strong person and can take criticism, I do not want to be in the position where I am contributing to their demise. That’s hard to argue with.

Secondly, there are now other campaigns like this including JunkFreeJune etc. Even if these well intentioned campaigns have copied Dry July, giving up something every month or so is become a little tedious.

Thirdly, I am not impressed with the “beat up alcohol” messages that the folk behind Dry July regularly send to my inbox. Many of us who enjoy a glass or two of wine and beer on a regular basis without overindulging cannot relate to the constant messages and images of a campaign predicated on the idea that our lives are going to be better without a drink. We are civilised drinkers, we do not behave like this. Dry July is mounting an expensive and extensive campaign and I am no longer convinced of the motives.

Finally, the original thing that drew me to signing up to Dry July was the appeal of a notice in the foyer of Auckland Hospital where it was stated that Dry July was a fundraiser for extra equipment for cancer patients within the health system. My mother was in hospital at the time and I thought, “I can do this! I can give something up for a good cause.” But the fundraising aspect has been lost as the continual preaching about weight loss, hangover free Sundays and much more seen to be the drivers for Dry July, not the more appealing original philanthropic approach.

So I'm not participating. Sorry Dry July!

5 June 2015

AN INVITATION TO THE WORLD'S BEST 50

The World’s Best 50 Restaurants have just been announced and surprise, surprise! There’s not a single New Zealand restaurant on the list, which is actually the top one hundred, despite the name of the awards.

It doesn’t even matter whether anyone here thinks this was predictable, or alternately is asking why, when we have some of the finest ingredients and the most flavoursome wine in the world today, did judges miss some likely contenders from around New Zealand?

The answer is simple. Nobody even considered New Zealand, and we probably do not have a single judge residing here, amongst the 1000 chefs, food writers, critics and gourmands who decide the results. And the laughable criteria, that nominating judges have to have been to the restaurants they choose in the past eighteen months, yet do not have to produce receipts, is very suspect given the size of the gourmet and culinary world. Sponsors go to great lengths to get contributing judges to special promotional events staged in the restaurants of top contenders for the list. In other words, freebie eating for the judges to ensure the restaurant gets on the list.

There’s lots of other criticism floating around at present, but I want to be positive and to suggest a few New Zealand contenders that I would put forward if I were a judge. (Disclosure; I was a judge five years ago but was dropped without even the courtesy of a thank you note from the judge who co-ordinated and chaired the Australasia and the Pacific region. And I have eaten in a mere 16 of the current Best 100.) So here goes. Judges around the world take note!

The French Café; Everyone involved in this restaurant strives to make everything perfect all the time, from the warmth of the dining room, the kitchen courtyard with its fabulous vegetable and herb garden and beehives, the exemplary service and of course Simon Wright’s fabulous food. It is food that does not challenge diners but is perfectly sculpted, totally seasonal and tastes of the finest fare our country has to offer. It sets the standard that everyone else aspires to. There’s no doubt this is our very best restaurant.

Meredith’s: A tiny place with the biggest heart. Michael Meredith has something unique – a deep understanding of our place in the South Pacific and there’s not another chef in the world who comes close to the standard, inventiveness and the sheer daring that he exhibits in incorporating the Pacific into his food. Service is immaculate to match the food experience and you have to admire his reaching out to less fortunate through his STEM nights and now the Eat My Lunch initiative.

Sidart; The unique juxtaposition between Sid Sahrawat’s understanding of Indian cuisine and the spices and flavours of fresh New Zealand ingredients make every dinner at his flagship restaurant Sidart an adventure of taste, texture and flavour. It is an exciting hidden gem, tucked away in an almost suspect arcade in Ponsonby, but once through the door, the views over the city, the comfort of the room and the superb friendly and professional service make this a unique choice.

Pacifica; I ate a meal there about three weeks ago and it is one of the high points of my eating adventures of recent times. Jeremy Rameka manages to distil the very essence of New Zealand onto every plate of food. At $50 for a five course degustation of seafood this has to be the very best value on the planet, bar none! A beautifully thought through meal and I enjoyed tastes of kina cream, spiced coconut creamed paua, squid, mussel, local black pudding, pickled tuatuas and more. It is worth a journey to Napier in Hawkes Bay from anywhere on the planet.

There are many others that I love; Al Brown’s Depot, Fleur’s at Moeraki on the North Otago coast, several fine winery restaurants, and of course the wonderfully casual Fishbone in Queenstown. The last mentioned is another not-to-be-missed experience for where else can you get crays or Bluffs in the shell, live from the tank, or the most perfect fish and chips? I hope the Best 50 judges climb down from their fancy-schmancy views and come and try real food in a country that produces some of the world’s best dairy, meat and seafood, and experience our innovation and passion.

(pic above; The French Cafe's Whitebait Sandwich - who knew about this speciality of New Zealand? A whitebait soufflé tucked between slices of the nation's favourite fried white bread.)

9 May 2015

ConversatioNZ - MY CHALLENGES FOR THE NZ FOOD SCENE

No apologies for the length of this post - these are the issues I addressed at ConversatioNZ, an extraordinary event organised by Giulio Sturla of Roots Restaurant in Lyttleton last week.

"It is a real privilege it is to be in Christchurch and at the forefront of another exciting step in the gastronomic awakening of our country. We’re all here to discuss and rejoice in New Zealand’s bounty; most of us here understand, and believe, that we have simply the best food in the world. None of us lives more than 15 km from a farm, no one lives more than 200 km from a vineyard and in a country that is only 1200km long, we have an astonishing 19000 km of coastline. There is no excuse for not knowing what is fresh and what is good. We may not be the most intensive farmers in the world but we understand how to produce the very best food, or catch and forage for amazing produce – produce that is all raised or found growing in the cleanest air in the world as those breezes and winds never stop. We are so lucky.

So my first challenge; To think about why our New Zealand food stories are being told so poorly and infrequently. I had dinner at the French Embassy in Wellington last month and the Ambassador proudly told us the primary reason people visit France is for the food and wine. That embarrassed me. When did we see our official Tourism Department and the Minister of Tourism, John Key no less, exhorting people seeking an exciting culinary experience to visit New Zealand?

Yet without exception we all know visitors arrive, fall in love with our food and wine and tell us they did not know it would be so good. They have no idea before arriving!

Our economy is underpinned by food production with more than 50% of our exports coming from land and sea and yet it seems all we promote is extreme adventure, amazing scenery and Hobbits. I am sick to death of those bloody Hobbits. Do hobbits seek out delicious fresh food and aromatic zingy sauvignon blanc? I doubt it. Thankfully I did spy a Los Angeles camera crew in the Matakana market a couple of weeks ago. They had been commissioned to shoot a Facebook video campaign for the American market on New Zealand food and wine experiences. The motivation for this came out of a survey that the local New Zealand Tourism Bureau in LA had done on perceptions of NZ. Several people had enquired during that survey “Are there any roads in New Zealand?” Hopefully this food driven video or series that I fell across may go viral, but it is still just the thin edge of the wedge.

The print media is not much better than this shameful and neglectful attitude of creating our food tourism thrust. Where are the stories about our top chefs, our artisan producers, our farmers and the foraging and growing? Our food magazines are losing readers hand over fist and are filled with recipe features, with few stories behind the food or any explanation of the history of the recipes. They have not kept up with the appetite for the likes of Lucky Peach, Fool, Cherry Bombe, Toast and more with their insightful stories of food and producers.

Our newspapers mainly stick any food stories in the business section, and the internet isn’t cutting it. There may be a few food and travel bloggers out there, but right now we seem to be focussed on Zomato and Trip Advisor where a bunch of unqualified eaters post their gripes just to make your life miserable. Hopefully, they occasionally offer you a few kudos for great experiences.

Truly respected restaurant critics are few and far between as most give boring accounts of what they ate on a particular night and seem to forget dining out is an experience focussed on food but bringing so many other things into play. Few bother to research so they can tell the story behind the restaurant philosophy and provide information about the chef, the food sources and the atmosphere. On TV Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules serve up food as a competition, complete with tears, shouting and trips overseas to find food, much of which could and should be easily discovered and shot here. So hallelujah for Choice TV and for the Food Channel as they carry shows where the food stories and personalities are actually well worth watching and learning from, albeit shot on the international rather than local stage.

It took twenty years of imagination, ambition, risk and enormous sponsorship that is not easy to find for Annabel Langbein to succeed, and to tell our food stories here and take her series internationally.

Our supermarket scene, dominated by two companies, does not deliver shopping experiences that encourage customers to think about the provenance of their food and to be selective when they can. We are not really getting to grips with food stories. It is all very challenging.

My second challenge; What are the things that make our food so special, - special enough to possibly start us moving closer towards a unique New Zealand food culture? Can we identify anything tangible that sets us apart? What is New Zealand food? David Burton of Wellington who is undoubtedly our most talented and respected food writer published a scholarly book '200 Years of New Zealand Food & Cookery' in 1982. He revised it more than 25 years later and re-issued it in 2009 as 'New Zealand Food & Cookery', complete with updates and many more stories. I would like to think every chef in our country owned a copy or at least had a chance to read this book as David lays down the foundation of our food - the whitebait, lamb, kina and koura, scones and mutton birds, and a host of other uniquely kiwi stuff. His recipes are hardly cutting edge but the basics are all there. It is simply, New Zealand food.

My third challenge; To find a way to tell the world about our food. The media currently barely touch on it so we are going to have rely on chefs and producers to tell the stories. Chefs and creative artisans are always the people who set the trends in food. Today’s stunning idea becomes the nation’s dinner in about 3-5 years’ time.

The fastest way to do this is through menus and labels. So this is not just about putting uniquely New Zealand food on the menu or in the jar, but writing in such a way that diners and consumers are left in no doubt that this is the real deal they are eating and buying into. I love it when a menu gives the diner a sense of place by explaining where the food has come from, who grew it or who the artisan was who supplied the product. I am sure this will resonate with the growers too, as for far too long food has been a mere commodity and by telling the stories our farmers will take far more pride in their work. Facebook and other social media sites are the perfect vehicle for spreading the word. Be proud of what you do. Get it out there!

You can change the world: It was only about ten years ago that there were two sorts of oysters here; Bluffs and the rest. Now any restaurant worth eating in will provide the provenance of the oysters being served. Discerning diners are starting to notice that the taste of an oyster depends on where it was grown - Tio Point, Te Matuku, Clevedon Coast, Mahurangi, Orongo Bay, Bluff and many more. Other farmer/producer grown initiatives have seen the success of producers like Curious Croppers, Lot Eight Olive Oil, any number of artisan cheesemakers, and many more.

Also to bring attention to our food, be strong about being ‘local’. All around New Zealand specialties of the area can be found – it would be well worth ensuring that local restaurants have such specialised local foods on the menu and displayed on blackboards and walls, whenever and wherever possible. It would be a shame for a diner in Hawkes Bay not to be offered the local lamb with Gimblett Gravels syrah or lovely fresh stonefruit grown there with a peachy local chardonnay. In Marlborough it should be a given that mussels or salmon from the Sounds are on every menu, offered matched to local sauvignon blanc; while in the far North imagine not being able to try the local snapper and crayfish and the pinot gris that thrives there. I could go on and on but I am sure you get the picture?

The biggest challenge and final challenge is to develop cutting edge food that attracts the attention of the world. We are ideally placed to do this as we literally live on the edge of the world with very few of the food traditions like the Chinese, the French or the Italians are forced to adhere to.

If you look at who has garnered world attention with new startlingly original cuisine directions in the past fifteen years, it was first the Spanish who released a ton of newfound energy once they shook off the shackles of decades of domination under Franco’s regime. Ferran Adria became a name known on kitchens world-wide with his revolutionary techniques, and soon there were a host of other Spanish chefs literally tailgating him.

Then came the Nordic revival. Before Rene Redzepi, the food in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland was caught in a time warp, probably similar to the cookery as it had been for centuries. Along came Redzepi, foraging and producing a rather spartan but exciting new wave of food that others soon embraced and emulated. These countries were nowhere near the forefront of the world’s culinary calendar but look at them now.

Today we start a discussion to answer these challenges. We can look to the Pacific for inspiration as Robert Oliver and Michael Meredith have done and reflect on their work; (Michael’s demonstration of what a chef can do with a coconut at the South Pacific Food Forum in Fiji three years ago was one of the most original culinary workshops I have ever attended.) Robert’s book Me’a Kai showcases Pacific food but not as we knew it.

And we can look at the work of food heroes like Peter Gordon and Che Barrington who are embracing concepts of cooking; both food, techniques and the ingredients of our neighbours in South East Asia; reworking them with fine New Zealand ingredients. There are grand ideas to build on.

I remember sitting in Martin Bosley’s restaurant and being served just one oyster – nothing special about that, but it was spilling out of a perfect little flax woven Maori kete. The connection to gathering and the food was right there on the plate. It brought tears to my eyes.

I loved seeing the collaboration dinner as posted on Instagram between Michael Meredith and Matt Lambert in Auckland last week. Matt showed one of their courses: feijoa, horseradish and raw surf clams. As I read that you probably go “What?” But it looked amazing in the photo and I so wanted to try that. Pure New Zealand. That is the future we know we are chasing.

And we cannot look to the future without honouring the past and some of the original ideas of great New Zealand chefs who have gone before us, cooking up a storm. But the biggest storm may yet be about to be unleashed. I look forward to your questions but even more I am excited to hear today from so many of the exemplary chefs and food producers who may have the key to New Zealand becoming the next big food destination for sophisticated and hungry travellers."

Nga mihi.

22 April 2015

WHERE ARE AUCKLAND'S TOP RESTAURANTS

I attended the Metro Restaurant of the Year awards this week and was pretty impressed with the line-up of winners. If you seek a fine meal in the city head out and buy the latest mag as all the good places are listed there, including a snazzy little booklet that is a real keeper.

Depot rightly deserves the accolade of supreme winner but I bet it was a hard choice between that very casual noisy place with fabulous food and runner-up, the utterly elegant French Café, also with fabulous food. My other thrill was that Metro recognised something I have known for a long time; Cocoro, the authentic Japanese restaurant in Brown St, Ponsonby is one of the hidden gems of our city. It deservedly has Metro’s top rating, five stars, along with being awarded Best Smart Dining Restaurant and Best Drinks Service. Their amazing chef, Makoto Tokuyama, is one of my culinary heroes for his inventiveness and attention to seeking out the absolute freshest, organic and ethically grown and raised products.

Other standout accolades were Mark Wallbank and Che Barrington for Restaurateurs of the Year. They really did put themselves on the line by opening Woodpecker Hill, taking three timely risks; southern barbecue, whisky and bourbon dominating the bar, and daring to open in Parnell (more about that later.) In that category Sid Sahrawat must have come close as he has been a constant fine dining star at his little Ponsonby gem, Sidart, but has made a bold and clever move to open his casual and excellent Cassia in the inner city. As my daughter, Miss Moet, said, “Cassia presents all the flavours of India, but you can never find food that good in India!”

There were many more well-deserved accolades of course, and that line-up and selection has me thinking. About 20 years ago I declared the North Shore a “culinary wasteland.” At least in 2015 Metro has found two restaurants on the shore worth including in their top fifty. But the concentration of the other top places is confined to the inner business district and waterfront and the inner west of the city, apart from two places in Parnell, two in Mt Eden, one in Bombay and an astonishing six on Waiheke.

So now that singular culinary wasteland has become the culinary wastelands (plural) of the bays and eastern suburbs including Newmarket and Remuera, the far west, the complete area of South Auckland, and the far flung eastern reaches of the city beyond the Tamaki River, and still most of the the North Shore. Do those people eat out? I bet they do. If only Mark Wallbank, Sid Sahrawat and others like them were willing to take even more risk. What will 2016 bring?

16 April 2015

IT DOES NOT GET BETTER THAN THIS

There’s only one restaurant in New Zealand that has earned the Moët et Chandon designation; ‘Privilege Account.’ So it was very fitting that a few media personalities gathered at lunchtime this week at The Grove to meet Moët’s winemaker, Marc Brevot over three or four tastes of the latest releases matched to the simply superb fare of Chef Ben Bayly.

Champagne is glamorous, squeaks of luxury and, need I say, is delicious. The art of making the non-vintage version of this bubbly treat has changed however in recent times. The world’s most popular Champagne, M&C Brut Imperial, is the wine that does not have a particular year to identify it, but nevertheless is released each year. The winemaker must retain the same flavour profile from year to year, despite the variance and impact of differing weather each season brings. So the challenge for M. Brevot is to blend different vintages of the wine to achieve that.

Over the three course degustation meal, Moët et Chandon Brut Imperial non-vintage, 2006 Grand Vintage Rose champagne, 2006 Grand Vintage 2006 and Nectar Imperial were served. A wonderful yeasty aroma hung over the table and we were not disappointed. These wines were seductive, although interestingly my favourite of the line- up was the non-vintage; it was soft, delicate and oh-so-easy to drink.

As for The Grove‘s kitchen, it was in top form as usual. Three courses that were all heaven sent via the genius of Ben Bayly. First a stunning sweet and soft house cured bresaola which literally melted in the mouth and served with soft quail’s egg, and an amazing sorbet that had a hint of wasabi. Next rabbit ballotine surrounded by little nuggets of crayfish with celtuce (a sort of asparagus/celery/lettuce) and topped with a crisp wafer filled with farmed French caviar. Now that’s real luxury in my opinion and it was truly tasty.

Finally some poached Marlborough figs (pictured above) with a stunning fresh cheese that had been infused with fig leaf, and blackberries. A dish that reeked of autumn, right on target in a week where the summer finally conceded it could not go on forever.

What a treat. Champagne and some of the best food on earth. Thanks Moët et Chandon, Marc Brevot and the team at The Grove.

7 April 2015

WOULD YOU LIKE ZOMATO WITH THAT?

A “withering attack on Zomato” were the words used by a Herald on Sunday reporter who had garnered information from a leaked private email I had written to a PR maven.

In actual fact this was a very polite note in which I had declined to attend the “Restaurant Summit” dinner organised by Zomato. What I had actually said in private was, “I cannot attend as I do not agree with commercial sites like theirs that rely on unqualified and unpaid restaurant reviewers to contribute. Our restaurants and the hospitality industry put themselves on the line every day, and spend years and large amounts of money gaining experience, training staff and building their business. Unqualified amateur diners who are rewarded with stars for the sheer number of reviews they post, but usually are lacking in expertise and have no knowledge of the industry, can completely destroy the trade and reputation of good restaurants.”

There’s no doubt that in this age of social media, everyone wants and probably is entitled to have their own say and opinion. Trip Advisor, Yelp and now Zomato are all very powerful tools for the consumer. So much so that MenuMania, started locally to provide information about restaurants, actually sold their site to Zomato. I have no idea how much money changed hands but it illustrates just how powerful Zomato plan to be if they can snap up anything vaguely resembling their own site.

It is easy to spot incorrect profiles, damaging comments and criticism from people who for the most part are hiding behind pseudonyms on these sites. Most of the contributors really want their own moment in the sun, or are taking revenge on something or some situation that may have been easily fixed. But when you read such ignorant comments as the following it’s no wonder restaurateurs despair.

“Please go here if you are desperate for food and have no where else.” (This was written about a restaurant in the heart of Auckland’s CBD where anyone can find almost one hundred eating places.) “The only disappointment was the wine list. It would have been great to see more local wines, not just Villa Maria and possibly an organic choice.” (The wine list had 20 local wines by the glass, and not one of those was Villa Maria.)

So what can the industry do about this? One restaurateur told me that he never reads these things. “If you do not read them, they do not exist,” he said. Well that’s okay for his well-established business where diners are often turned away, but it doesn’t work for small cafes and eateries if damning and ignorant comments sit on the site forever.

I suggest restaurateurs and chefs should demand incorrect facts be removed, insist information is refreshed and kept up to date, and when criticism is misguided, go onto the site and add your own reply (but keep it dignified.) The industry also might consider lobbying Zomato to only accept posts from people who are prepared to reveal their names rather than hiding behind some fancy moniker.

And above all restaurateurs should never ever hand out free drinks or food to amateurs who demand them “because they are going to review” you. Tell the customer that is a form of blackmail, which it is.

These people are amateurs, often with no idea of how a restaurant is run. They think they are entitled to post reviews and that is fine if they genuinely know what they are talking about.

Perhaps the saddest thing in NZ right now is we also have very few restaurant critics who set great examples by knowing their job. So called critics in many of our publications are good writers, writers who dine out. But unfortunately the picture they paint about restaurants is often very much an egocentric view of what they ate on the one night they visited the restaurant. They do not take time to engage with the owner or chef, to comprehend the philosophy behind the business, recognise the costings and they don’t really try to make sure their audience gains a real understanding of what to expect on any visit in all areas, be it cuisine, wine, ambience and service.

I have no idea how we can fix that, and I was appalled that my email was leaked to a Sunday paper!

This was originally written for Plate, the magazine of the NZ Chef's Assn.