Thursday, August 30, 2012

Capital Jealousy

I've always been somewhat envious of our capital city, with its artsy and compact centre, vibrant in a way that Auckland, even with its greater population, never is.  If I had to move to another city in New Zealand, Wellington would be it.  Oh, Auckland has a few things going for it, for sure: it's not wet and windy, it offers authentically delicious and inexpensive Asian food, and we can get freshly-shucked oysters all the time from the likes of Depot.  I even like the North Wharf area they developed for the Rugby World Cup last year.  But it never ceases to amaze me what things you can find in Wellington, which are not available here.  Heck, they even earn more than we do in the capital.  Here are some things I get particularly green-eyed over, though perhaps half the fun is having to make a trip down the country.

Cafes that Open Late

Who cares that it's freezing or bucketing down outside, when you can just duck into the nearest cafe and warm yourself with a hot drink, maybe even treat yourself to a bite?  If I think really hard, I can come up with maybe three cafes that are open after dinner time in Auckland: Frasers and Circus Circus (both in Mount Eden Village), and Revel on K'Road, if you count 10pm as being open late.  [Added 31 August 2012: okay, there seem to be a few more, but what's the point of having a cafe which opens late if everything around you is closed?]

In Wellington, you don't even have to try.  If you walk along the main streets of Courtenay Place or Cuba Street, you just stumble across inviting and relaxing cafes everywhere, even after dark, often with a vast selection of counter food to whet your appetite.  And they seem to be open till midnight, if not the wee hours of the morning.

Scrumptious options at Fidel's

Wellington on a Plate

Our most recent trip to Wellington was for a three-week foodfest known as Wellington on a Plate (WoaP).  We could only spare a weekend away, not wanting to use up all our annual leave, so we didn't actually end up participating in any of the events, many of which we would have been tempted by had they been set in Auckland.  We did, however, get some good eats in, including the wagyu burger WoaP special at The Tasting Room, and some fresh oysters at the pop-up raw bar from a food truck called the Oyster Saloon.

Wagyu burger - pity about the soggy duck fat fries.

Condiments to have with a variety of oysters, both raw and fried.
Auckland's best effort is the Auckland Restaurant Month, where the biggest draw (for me at least) is the chance to win $10,000 worth of dining.  What about getting some chefs to show you what they do?  The opportunity to try something you've never eaten before, such as muttonbird?  How about a themed dinner, along the lines of the last meal aboard the Titanic?  Or just something quietly over the top, like turduckenqua, four birds nested inside each other like Russian dolls?  No, no, no and no.  For these things, you will need to head to the capital.  But we live in hope.

Moore Wilson's Fresh

Auckland has seen a boom in gourmet food stores in recent years, with multiple branches of Farro Fresh and Nosh springing up seemingly left, right and centre.  These exciting places not only stock a good range of beautifully presented food, but often have items that are cheaper than the normal supermarket!

Much as I love them, Wellington's Moore Wilson's Fresh department reigns supreme.  Just last week, I found something called "salsify" for sale.  This was so foreign to me that I had no idea what it was or what one did with it.  If I had to use the word in a sentence, I would probably have made it as a verb, as in "those corn chips are pretty boring- I think you need to salsify them".  It must be a common problem, because the store helpfully placed a recipe suggestion next to the vegie box.

Box of salsify, along with recipe suggestion.
Then there are the things I have heard of before, but have never seen in real life, like horseradish.  It didn't look like horse, and it didn't look like radish.  If I hadn't read the sign, I might have called these thin brown roots "ginseng".

Produce available includes horseradish and both globe and Jerusalem artichokes.
At Moore Wilson's I also found fresh galangal for sale.  It was even grown in New Zealand.  I have searched high and low for this in Auckland, to no avail.  If we can ship blood oranges from the States over here, why can't we bring in some exotic flavours from the same country?

Basket of NZ grown galangal at the top of a pile of ginger.
As you can see from my previous post, this foodie haven also has a great range of cheeses, baked goods, and even live seafood.  How about alpaca pie?  Errm, worth considering.  Witloof?  Sure, why not?  Raw milk cheeses that look molten even when sitting in the refrigerator?  Why, yes!  Bring it on!

Sweet Mother's Kitchen (Cajun/Creole)

Wellington has a gem of an eatery called Sweet Mother's Kitchen (SMK).  People will complain about slow service, or being told off for sitting down instead of waiting to be seated, but whatever.  We love this place.  We love the garish decor, the knitted tea cozies, the huge range of dessert pies, the decadent deep-fried delights (think beignets, curly fries and fried chicken), and of course their peanut butter milkshake, which we have not found anywhere else.

Sweet Mother's Kitchen is a place of magic and delight.

Signature tea cozies, with curly fries and key lime pie in the background.

Peanut butter milkshake, and key lime pie.

Situated at the Embassy Theatre end of Courtney Place, SMK taunts you from across the road while you wait for the Airport Flyer.  It offers New Orleans-influenced Cajun and Creole food, as well as the usual Tex-Mex options (which we have mostly stayed clear of, though the taco soup they sometimes have sure sounds interesting).  And as with all popular casual eateries, they don't take bookings.

Fried chicken with dirty rice, coleslaw and sausage milk gravy.
Because we try to turn up at off-peak hours, we generally order the snacks.  We have tried their gumbo, jambalaya, corn bread and po-boys on occasion though, and can highly recommend these more substantial dishes also.

Little Penang (Malaysian)

I don't know much about the history of Wellington, but for some reason, the city seems to have a disproportionate number of Malaysian restaurants.  We've tried a number of them and been disappointed multiple times, but when we heard that a Malaysian friend-of-a-friend travels from Auckland to Wellington just to eat at Little Penang, we had to give this little eatery a try.  According to Man Behind Lens, the passionate people who run this place even go as far as to import bunga kantan, or ginger flower, into the country, for an authentic flavour!  And Shirley at Sugar and Spice raves about pretty much everything they offer.

We discovered authenticity even before we entered the little shop, because the owners obviously run on Malaysian time.  We stood outside the door just after 11am, staring in past the sign which claimed they open from 10:30am.  Fortunately, we only had to wait another ten minutes or so.

What sets Little Penang apart from other Malaysian restaurants is that apart from having great cooked dishes, they also offer street snacks like baked pork buns.  When we turned up, they also just brought out a tray of banana-leaf-wrapped pyramidal packets, which on enquiry turned out to be a fish cake known as otak otak.

Snacks, from curry puffs, to lobak, to baked pork buns.

Vegetable curry with roti canai, and a beautifully smoky char kuay teow.
There is a large variety of delights available in the dessert department also, with a range of bite-sized puddings called kueh, in addition to the more fluid sweet treats such as bubur cha cha, ais kacang and pulut hitam.

We love this place because of the food, but also because you can just drop in.  Well, as long as it's not too early in the morning and it's not Sunday, anyway.

Fisherman's Plate (Vietnamese)

There's a little fish and chip place tucked into a random street in Wellington, that also happens to sell Vietnamese food.  You would never guess it from the name, Fisherman's Plate, but this is the finest Vietnamese we have found in New Zealand, the one and only place we have been to that serves pho with a mountain of herbs, sprouts and other leaves. Not quite the same as what we had in Vietnam—I guess those herbs would be much more costly on this side of the world—but by far the closest we have seen to the real deal.

Beef pho with a satisfyingly large pile of leaves.
I'm not too sure why they bother with the fish and chips, really, but as long as they keep up the good Vietnamese, that's all that matters.


They say the grass is always greener on the other side.  Well, I can see there are plenty of great things in Auckland that aren't in Wellington as well.  I sure wish I could bring the treasures of our capital city home with me though.


  1. OMG thanks heaps for this post! Moving to welly soon, will have to check these places out for sure! :)

    1. Oooh, all the best with your move! Looking forward to hearing about your recommendations when you get to know the city better too.


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