Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Venus In Fur

Circa Theatre, you are really spoiling us with these Ferrero Rocher current productions! Hot on the heels of The Father, along comes Venus In Fur, a two-hander by David Ives. It’s been around since 2010 and has been performed around the world, as well as adapted to a film by Roman Polanski.

As summer is almost upon us, we felt it was high time we revisited Whitebait, on the waterfront. Whitebait is one of Wellington’s premier seafood restaurants, but suffers from an unfortunate location. Ostensibly high-end real estate on Clyde Quay Wharf, it features floor-to-ceiling windows which make it into a greenhouse on summer evenings, as it catches the sun all afternoon and evening. We were first in, as we had to get to the show, so were able to select a table in the shade (they originally wanted to put us in the window). The seafood was excellent as usual, and we had time for a dessert as well, which was also good. We then made the short walk across to Circa with plenty of time to spare.

Venus In Fur is a play within a play, a two-hander about a playwright adapting and directing the 19th century novel, Venus In Furs, by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch – the man who brought us the word Masochism. In fact, this is the book that inspired the term. The play revolves around an actress auditioning for the role, and gradually reversing the power dynamic between director and actress as the plot develops. Whilst at the beginning she makes mistakes and admits to only having glanced through the text”, by the middle of the play it’s clear that not only is she very familiar with both the original work and the playwright’s reworking, she also has (gasp!) opinions about it. At the end you’re left asking whether that was even a real actress? Or was that the embodiment of Venus, returning to Earth?

Great fun, and if you get a chance to see it, do so.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Brian Cox

Brian Cox, famous telly scientist and presenter, has been touring with his talk on astrophysics and related subjects for the last year and a half. This spring, he brought it to New Zealand.

Tor had organised the tickets, and after a careful inspection and confirmation that the venue was indeed the TSB Arena, we decided on Shed 5 as a mutually satisfactory dinner venue. We rocked up early at 5:45, in time to have a cocktail before the usual fine seafood fare on offer. I had a crab and lobster tian followed by groper, and Nicola had bruschettas with salmon and tuna, followed by seafood risotto. We didn’t have time to hang around for a dessert as they’d been a bit tardy in bringing out the mains, so we then crossed over the square to join the queue to enter the venue.

Brian Cox came on stage, and introduced his subject. He’s a polished performer, clearly used to public speaking, and gave a clear introduction to his talk, before getting into the meat of it. In this he was assisted by his co-presenter of The Infinite Monkey Cage, Robin Ince, who provided some comic relief in between the serious bits. Robin Ince, you’ll remember, was the presenter of Cosmic Shambles which we saw earlier this year. Get us with the science-y stuff!

The talk ranged from Einstein’s theory of relativity, and how it is the basis of modern cosmology, to recent discoveries about planets and moons in our solar system, including the Ice Fountains of Enceladus (sounds very sci-fi), which houses conditions found in the early development of Earth around the time that life began here. Other subjects included the fate of the sun in the far future, the Crab nebula, and the length of time it will take for the universe to finally suffer heat death (don’t worry, it’s a long way off). After the break, he took questions from the audience, which had been submitted by twitter or the old-fashioned way, on pieces of card. These ranged from “What’s your favourite planet?” (this one) to “How far will the James Webb telescope be able to see into the past?” (all the way).

All fascinating stuff, and with digressions into philosophy and the nature of science – such as how he has to modify this talk as the science has changed since he started. He manages to explain complex scientific concepts without dumbing it down or patronising the audience. And he didn't mention D-ream once. A very enjoyable evening!

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Father

The Father is a play originally written in French by Florian Zeller in 2012 as, unsurprisingly, Le Père. It is translated into English, and performed at the Circa Theatre. The cast contains a bunch of the usual Wellington acting mafia - Gavin Rutherford, Harriet Prebble, Bronwyn Turei and Simon Leary; with the lead roles played by Jeffrey Thomas and Danielle Mason. The play deals with dementia, as the central character tries to deal with what seem to be – to him and to us, the audience – a series of confusing vignettes.

The central premise of the story seems to be that André, suffering from dementia, is resisting having a carer in his Paris flat, provided by his daughter Anne. Anne no longer has the time or resilience to deal with her father’s illness, and wants to move to London with her lover, Pierre. Or does she? Is this all just part of a plan to get André out of his flat and into a home, so she can have the flat? As the scenes come and go, the same characters are played by different actors, and given different names, which adds to the confusion. Over time, the appearance of the flat and furniture also changes – has he moved in with Anne? Some of the scenes are replayed, sometimes exactly, sometimes subtly differently. Time doesn’t move in the linear fashion we take for granted. As André’s world closes in the furnishings and décor of the flat become a uniform grey, as one by one, the pictures and furniture disappear. The fate of Anne’s sister, Elise – referred to throughout, but never seen onstage – is also gradually revealed.  The play gives a sense of isolation and also the antagonism of André, as he is determined that the world is conspiring against him.

There is no tidy ending, no denouement. It ends with a whimper, rather than a bang.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Kings Of The Wild Frontier

Adam Ant is touring Australia and New Zealand. Wait, WHAT? Adam Ant? Of COURSE I’m going to see him!

Nicola is currently on a World Tour of Las Vegas with her adopted chorus the Waikato Rivertones, so I arranged to go with Tor instead. I made a cunning plan to park up at the far end of town, and booked a table at the conveniently-placed Foxglove bar and restaurant at the waterfront, where I met Tor and Gavin for dinner beforehand. Pork belly followed by a chocolate crepe, since you ask…very nice too.

We then walked around the corner to the conveniently-placed TSB Bank Arena. There was a suspicious lack of activity at the doors, and, as we approached, they failed to open. A quick check of the tickets showed we had the right date, right time…wrong venue!

D’oh! We should have been at the Opera House! When all else fails, read the instructions. Fortunately Wellington is such a small town that within 10 minutes we were in the correct place, and taking our seats in the circle.

The support act was an Australian singer in the mould of Sheryl Crow or Alanis Morrisette, although with a voice more like Sophie B. Hawkins (so I’m reliably informed). Her name? She didn’t tell us, which is a basic marketing fail on her part. She sang eight songs with her guitar, to almost universal apathy. I mean, we clapped politely, but that was it. A bit of googling in the interval revealed that her name is Diana Anaid. I see what you did there.

And then the main act. On came Adam Ant, and proceeded to play the whole of Kings Of The Wild Frontier,* his seminal 1980 album. In order of the original album, natch, from Dog Eat Dog through to The Human Beings, with its unforgettable “Blackfoot, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Crow, Apache, Arapahoe” chorus. We played this album to death 37 years ago, to the extent that most of the lyrics came back to me and I was able to sing along to nearly all of it. And apart from the obvious singles, there are a lot of other good tracks on this album – Feed Me To The Lions, Killer In the Home, and of course The Human Beings.

Notice anything about the band? That’s right, two drummers. This was part of their original sound, and they’re back with it. At times, actually, there were four drummers, as both guitarists picked up sticks for the beginning of Antmusic, and also provided some additional bass drum from time to time. And with Ant picking up a guitar himself for some songs, they did not make the produced sound you hear from the album – this was big four-guitar-band noise!

At the end of the album, Ant spoke to us for the first time – “Hello, (checks hand) Wellington!” etc. Then they set about the second part of the gig, which was basically a greatest hits plus a few of other songs – he even managed to sneak in, without using the “N” word, some new(-ish) material in the form of Bullshit, from his 2013 album Adam Ant Is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner's Daughter. Which we all bought, right? He also mined Dirk Wears White Sox for Cartrouble, and played Beat My Guest, a bonus track on the cassette (hah! Remember them?) version of KOTWF. Other than that, though, it was songs you know and love, finishing up with an audience-participatory rendition of Stand And Deliver. He then came back out for a three-song encore, starting with Goody Two Shoes, then Fall In, and ending with what was pretty much a heavy metal version of Physical (You’re So), as the guitarist went full Guitar Hero on us.

I left the theatre clutching a tour t-shirt, into a rainy Wellington night. And had to walk the length of Manners Mall and Featherston Street to get back to the car. But worth it, so worth it. If you happen to be near Melbourne on Sunday, I highly recommend going!

* Adam Ant belongs to that select group of human beings who have three ears, like Captain Kirk. In his case, a wild front ear.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Play That Goes Wrong

The Play That Goes Wrong is a play that began its London West End run in 2014, and is now touring New Zealand. It’s playing at the Opera House in Wellington, as well as Christchurch and Auckland. As the title suggests, it does not run smoothly. 

For dinner, we headed to fave haunt Zibbibo for steak and risotto. Tasty grub, as usual.

Now read on for spoiler alerts…

The play centres on The Cornley Polytechnic Dramatic Society’s production of The Murder At Haversham Manor, a 1920’s murder mystery. It starts with a search for a lost dog, and a stage hand desperately trying (and failing) to fix a mantelpiece on the stage set, before the play opens. The sound technician then makes an appeal to the audience to return a missing personal item if they come across it, as it belongs to him. Then the first-time director comes on stage to introduce the play; due to a large bequest they have rather more funds to stage this play than has been the case in the past, leading to such previous productions as The Lion & The Wardrobe; Cat; and James & The Peach.

Finally, the play opens, with the discovery of the body of Jonathon in his private quarters. He is discovered as he is late for his engagement party, due to take place that evening at Haversham Manor. Immediately, things start to go wrong, largely due to the ineptitude and lack of acting ability of the cast. The backstage crew aren't much better, although the stage manager does sterling work with the candlesticks and later takes a fuller part in the proceedings; and it becomes clear that the sound technician has found his lost item. As the set is also working against them, the actors are forced to improvise in order to continue with the play. The main door, in particular, causes the most problems. Most of the rest of the props also fail, in some cases spectacularly. The cast’s consumption of whisky also leads to much hilarity.

At times, we could hardly hear what the actors were saying, such was the noise of laughter and applause from the audience, following a particularly noteworthy escape from the difficulties imposed by their circumstances. The actors obliged by waiting for us to finish and even repeating lines – something they often had to do anyway, as the next actor missed their cue.

As things go further and further awry, the cast doggedly persist to get through to the end, and the denouement of the murderer.

A jolly night out, catch it if you can!

Friday, September 15, 2017


Wednesday night, and time to swap out our usual quiz night for the opening of a new play in Wellington, Anahera, at Circa Theatre.  

We went for dinner at Field & Green, a restaurant that’s been around for at least a year now but we have so far neglected to try. As part of our “let’s go to different places for a change” I thought we’d give it a go. On a blustery Wednesday evening it was pretty well empty apart from us, largely I guess because of its Wakefield Street location not really being a destination space…I mean, it’s all of two minutes’ walk from Courtenay Place. Maybe it gets busier later on. They do a pre-show menu with two choices of entrée and main, followed by a scoop of their own ice cream or sorbet. I had the beef salad to start while Nicola had the cauliflower soup, then we both had the salmon main course. We had to hurry a little as we were getting dangerously close to the 6:30pm start time, but got out and arrived at Circa just as they were opening the doors.

Anahera is a new play, by actress/writer Emma Kinane. It deals with New Zealand’s “national shame” which is the high levels of child abuse. Instead of taking the easy target, however, the play is set in the middle-class Wellington home of the Hunter family – successful businessman Peter, high-flying civil servant Liz, and their two children Imogen and Harry. It’s not an easy watch, as what appears at first to be a case of a missing 11 year-old boy develops into a darker and more disturbing tale. The play is set in three time periods – when Harry goes missing, when Harry is a grown-up and trying to deal with the consequences of his childhood, and later when the mother is dying. Anahera (which means “Angel”) is the rookie social worker who attends the house scene whilst the police are searching for Harry. Her supervisor has been called away to an emergency so she is left to deal with the family on her own. As she starts to uncover what’s been going on in the house she decides to take a stand.

The cast are all well-known actors – Neill Rea seen most recently in The Brokenwood Mysteries, and Jacqueline Nairn from Shortland Street, as well as A Slightly Isolated Dog stalwart Susie Berry. The main character is played by Neenah Dekkers-Reihana, who we’ve also seen previously several times on stage, and Harry by Simon Leary, recently in Weed, as well as Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and Stage Kiss.

As I said, not an easy play to watch. But all the same, you should.  

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Morning After

The morning after the concert the night before. Our flight back to Wellington wasn’t until the afternoon, so what to do in Auckland for half a day? We’d done all the touristy things last time we were here (Sky Tower, Kelly Tarlton’s, Waiheke Island) and the weather forecast was a bit iffy so we preferred something indoors, to dodge the showers.

First order of business was to visit something we’d spotted from the windows of Ostro the night before: this is an art installation called The Lighthouse, by Michael Pārekowhai. It consists of a house containing a statue of Captain Cook, with neon lights on the walls. You can look in through the windows and climb the staircase, but you can’t get inside.

After that we went to Newmarket to visit an old house. In Auckland this usually means “built before 1990”, but in this case it’s a Heritage NZ building from the 19th century, called Highwic, and now open to the public. We explored the interior, including the boys’ barracks (dormitory) which was faintly reminiscent of school. The builder and original owner, Alfred Buckland, fathered 21 children with two wives (not simultaneously!), and the house was variously extended to accommodate his family. In a move of striking modernity, it has not one, but two, indoor bathrooms. All very interesting and historical.

We’d dodged the showers, and decided to walk down Newmarket to find something to eat for lunch. Unfortunately there’s not much to appeal on Newmarket’s Broadway, so we continued on to Parnell and found a little café called Biskit which suited our needs.

After picking up our bags from the hotel, we made our way to the airport, ready to head home. The weather was closing in again, so we were looking forward to getting back to the better weather in Wellington. As the plane was climbing out of Auckland, there was a flash and a simultaneous loud bang…the plane had been struck by lightning. We thought no more of it, until the pilot came on the PA to tell us that they’d checked all their systems, all was working fine, but they had nevertheless been instructed to return to Auckland to get the plane fully checked out. At this stage there were a number of groans from the passengers, particularly when we were told that it would take us around 20 minutes to get back. In that time we could almost have been in Wellington!

Back on the ground in Auckland, we waited for further announcements, and were eventually boarded again onto a different plane. We were delayed about two hours in the end, but got home by about 8 pm.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Midnight Oil

Durn Dun DUN! Yes, we’re off to Auckland to See Midnight Oil, as they deign to cross the ditch to two (count’ em!) venues in New Zealand. In their native Australia, they play such places as Alice Springs (pop. 27,972) and Coffs Harbour (pop. 70,000), but they can’t visit New Zealand’s capital? No, Auckland or Christchurch it is, and as the Christchurch gig was on a Monday night, we opted for Auckland.

We got a morning flight and, after checking in at our Adina apartment opposite the Spark Arena, we went to the War Memorial Museum to see the current exhibition of Wildlife Photographer of the Year, on tour from London’s Natural History museum. Pretty much all of it is now professional photographers – the captions contain phrases like “I set up the camera trap in the desired location and after 6,000 exposures over 3 months this was the best picture”. Yes, the picture is great, but is this photography? There is still some amateur photography in the Young Photography sections, and fortunately the number of “tiger splashes through river” photos seems to have diminished.

As the gig started at 7:30, we opted for an early dinner at nearby restaurant Ostro. This is in a block called Seafarer’s Buildings on Tyler Street. I had the seafood options, with seared tuna followed by hapuka (groper to you), while Nicola had beef carpaccio and mushroom gnocchi. Very good food, and the maitre d’ admired my t-shirt as well (it was this one).

A short walk took us to Spark Arena, and I grabbed a t-shirt before we bagged our seats – far end of the arena, facing the stage. The support band were from Wellington, and called The Nudge. They seem to have been around a while.

Then on came The Oils. They opened with Redneck Wonderland – setting the tone of the rest of the gig, this is a reminder that they are, primarily, a rock band, and you’re not in for a quiet night. The set list was specially modified for New Zealand, so Peter Garrett informed us in one of his between-song chats, and included Shipyards Of New Zealand (“yay! They mentioned New Zealand!”). But as any aficionado of The Oils will know, they vary the set list from gig to gig anyway – indeed, they used to have the famous “wheel of fortune”, that they would spin to select what would be played. Whilst they played songs from early and late in their career, the emphasis was on their most successful middle period, with three quarters of the material coming from four albums. They finished up their set with a powerful non-stop run-through of their most well-known songs, from Power And The Passion through Beds, Blue Sky Mine and Forgotten Years, before coming on for an encore including River Runs Red, Dreamworld and Best of Both Worlds.

We left with ears ringing and throats sore.  After two missed opportunities, I’ve finally seen Midnight Oil live!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Pickle King

Last time we were at Hannah Playhouse (for The Marriage Of Figaro) I noticed that they were advertising a forthcoming production called The Pickle King. It is a comedy about love, death, and preserves. That’s enough to get me hooked, so I bought some tickets, and off we went to watch it on a rainy Tuesday night (even though lyin’ Renée had promised sunshine).

We’d originally planned to have dinner at Rockyard, but their booking system seems to have let them down so we went next door to Papa Satay House and had a dinner of satay, prawns and curry. At the end of the dinner they were unable to satisfy my request for a short black, so instead we tried their special Malaysian tea, teh tarik, which is a hot, sweet milky beverage which I won’t be ordering again. Other than that the food was fine.

We hurried around the corner in time to take our seats, and then the play began. The Pickle King was first performed 15 years ago, as what was supposed to be the final collaboration (of three) between Justin Lewis and Jacob Rajan. 15 years on, they’re still working together as Indian Ink, and bringing new stuff to the stage. The play opens with a pianist playing in a hotel lobby, as various guests, dressed in white masks and having no dialogue, come and go for about five minutes. The sound effects indicate that there is a strong wind blowing as each comes through the door, one with an umbrella clearly shredded by the Wellington wind. Eventually one of the guests is successful in summoning the receptionist, Sasha, and the play begins properly. The play revolves around almost-blind Sasha, who is fiercely resisting the attempts of her aunt Ammachy to marry her off to anyone who will take her; Jeena, the hotel porter who is a qualified doctor in India, and studying to get recognition from the New Zealand medical council; and a hotel guest, who signs in as Mr. Reaper (initial G. “G for George!” he laughs) and calls himself The Pickle King. Three actors play all the parts, doubling up as Ammachy, hotel guests, the cook Raoul, and the priest; whilst Graham the pianist, who has no lines, is the only one who stays the same throughout. He provides background music, but is often addressed throughout the play – not least to provide “hold music” when Sasha is dealing with customers on the phone.

All of the characters except Graham wear masks of some description throughout; from the full face masks of the hotel guests, Raoul, and Father Matthews, to the partial masks of the Pickle King and Ammachy; down to the noses worn by Jeena and Sasha. Along the way they deal with immigration issues, love, death, and industrial disasters. But it ends well, so I guess all’s well.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Sterling Night Of Truffles

The final event of Wellington On A Plate for us this year was A Sterling Night Of TrufflesSterling restaurant is another newcomer on the Wellington dining scene. It is associated with, but not owned by, the new(-ish) Park Hotel on The Terrace, in what is becoming a newer business model for hotels these days: rather than owning a restaurant outright, they allow the restaurant to benefit from their guests, but have an autonomy which means they don’t have to offer the usual bland hotel-restaurant fare.

ASNOT is, naturally, a menu based around truffles. Our guide for the evening was Gareth Renowden, of Limestone Hills truffle farm in the Waipara valley. Truffles are now available in New Zealand, as several growers have now established farms to grow the various types of truffle. Gareth claims to be the only grower of four different types of truffle in New Zealand – black, white, Burgundy and winter black. Between courses he told us about the history of truffles, the different types, how to find them, and how to use them. He subjected truffle oil to abuse, telling us it’s a faint shadow of the real thing. He also said dogs are better than pigs for finding truffles, for two reasons: whilst both pigs and dogs will want to eat the truffles they find, it’s a lot easier to stop a small dog than a 60 kg sow; and a 60 kg sow doesn’t fit well in the back of your 2CV.

The first course, amuse bouche, was a duck liver parfait rolled in truffle. We were sharing a table with another couple, and unfortunately we wolfed these down before it occurred to me to take a picture, so you’ll have to be content with a description: they were black balls of deliciousness. I’d gone for the wine matches as well so washed it down with a tasty Elephant Hill chardonnay.

Next up was the entrée of seared scallops with a white soy and truffle dressing. The wine match with this was an interesting Wooing Tree Blondie – a blanc de noir, i.e a white wine made from grapes traditionally used for red wine. In this case it is pinot noir, with the juice left on the skins for almost no time at all, resulting in a very pale pink colour. The nose was very floral – reminiscent of a gewurtztraminer, with a hint of strawberries.

The main course was a spatchcocked poussin with black truffle, served with three coloured carrots and kale. The truffle in this case is stuffed up inside the skin of the poussin, to infuse the meat with its flavour as it roasts.

The final course was chestnut millefeuille with bianchetto (white truffle) ice cream. The chestnut cream is quite a savoury flavour so this was not an overly sweet dessert. The Ned noble sauvignon blanc is quite a sweet dessert wine, so I felt that this was a bit of a mismatch…a misstep at the final hurdle. Other than this, I thought the wine matches were pretty good.

So that’s our WOAP adventures over for another year. The only remaining option will be to try the winning burger once that’s announced later this week.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Mr Beefy

Burger Wellington is drawing to a close. A group of us went down Cuba Street to sample the delights of Grill Meats Beer, one of Wellington’s finest purveyors of all thing burger, meaty, and…what's the other thing they do? Oh yeah, beer.

We set out at 11:30 to beat the rush, and it was a good job we did – 10 minutes after we’d arrived, the restaurant was full. We already had a minor cavil with the restaurant, and it’s one I’ve noticed with a few places already this year: whilst restaurants are free to charge what they like for their burgers and beers, there does seem to be a wide variation in these when it comes to the beer. Today’s Garage Project beer match is Loral Royale, which I’ve had before and liked. What we didn’t like was the fact that GMB were charging $11 for a can, where other places were charging a far more reasonable $6 - $8. We boycotted the beer match en masse, and ordered individually from their extensive craft beer menu. I had a Double Vision Smooth Operator – a cream ale, which was unusually flavoured, similar to an old-fashioned cream soda.

We drank our beers, we chatted, and cast increasingly anxious glances to the kitchen. People who’d come in after us were getting their burgers. Where were ours? I went and inquired of the waiter, who said he’d “check with the kitchen”. We surmised this to mean he’d forgotten to put the order in, or lost our docket or something, as it was a further 20 minutes before our burgers materialised. No apology, no explanation, no round of drinks on the house. I’m not impressed, GMB.

GMB’s burger is called Mr. Beefy. The WOAP website describes it: Cheese-stuffed pasturefed beef patty with Tuatara London Porter-braised beef brisket, bell peppers, jalapeño hot sauce and pilsner cheese sauce. It looked like this:

The Garage Project beer match was ignored.

The burgers, when they finally arrived, were good. The patty was cooked medium rare, the brisket was in strips of beef atop the patty, and the whole thing smothered in cheese sauce. It contained the correct amount of lettuce for a burger – zero. The flavour was good, there was a hint of spice from the jalapeno sauce (it could have gone a couple of hotness notches higher, in my opinion). I was concnerned at first about bun integrity, but I should have known that seasoned pros like GMB wouldn’t be offering a substandard bread, and it remained intact to the end.

So what was wrong with it? Well, firstly, it was almost an hour after we sat down that we got any food. That is unacceptable, and I’m deducting marks from what was otherwise a pretty good burger because of it. Secondly, their beer pricing is iniquitous. And finally, I felt that the brisket should have been pulled, rather than served in slices. I awarded it an 8.

A Pig's Tale

One of the delights of Wellington On A Plate is getting to the special dégustation events put on by some of the best restaurants in Wellington. Tickets for some of these are very hard to come by – you need to have your browser tabs set up at 12:00 and start clicking away as soon as they go on sale – and even then, you miss out on some. For example, we didn’t get in to The Larder this year.

One that we have managed to get, though, is Zibibbo’s A Pig’s Tale. We’ve been to Zibibbo dégustations for the past five years now, from Quack Around The World to Sustainable Seafood. This year, we’re being treated to a festival of pig. Chef Adam Newell has explored all the parts of the pig to bring us five courses of porky delight. The menu was definitely meat-heavy, with barely a vegetable to be seen. He didn’t make us a dessert out of pork (unlike Jacob Brown at The Larder, who managed to give us a sweet elk dessert when we ate an elk a couple of years ago), but all the other courses included a pork element:

Before we started, Nicola Newell, wife of the chef, stood up and gave a short talk about her adventures with raising pigs for meat. The pork we were eating today was not from her pigs, she hastened to point out, but from Longbush, a well-known Wairarapa free-range pig farm, who supply a lot of the pork used during WOAP – you’ll often see their name on the pork burgers which are a mainstay of Burger Wellington. She gave a quick update between courses one, two and three, before handing over to husband Adam to give his chef’s-eye view of dealing with pork, detailing how every part of the pig is used.

We started with a terrine of smoked hock with trotter, matched with a sparkly rosé from Central Otago. As starters go, this was actually fairly substantial, together with the herb focaccia.

Next up was a more delicate item: a slice of crispy pancetta, served with a Hawkes Bay viognier.

The third course was a raviolo of pork shoulder with truffles, served in a consommé also made from the pork bones. It was served with a chardonnay from Gisborne. This wine had no nose (“how does it smell?” ba-dum, tish!) at all, and at first tasted quite bland, but after taking a slurp of the soup, the flavours were released in a fruity bloom. Some clever wine matching going on there…it’s almost as if they know what they’re doing!

Those were the three courses that could reasonably be called entrees. Now for the main event: first of the two main course items was pork belly, with black pudding and a red wine-glazed apple. This was served with a 2014 Fleurie. It is remarkable how different French wines smell compared to their New World counterparts.

The final meat course was pigs cheeks, with artichoke heart and chorizo croquette, and a Martinborough pinot noir from Nga Waka vineyard.

There was a distinct lack of vegetableness amongst the courses – a leaf of kale here, an artichoke there – which may have helped…although there was plenty to eat, as most of the courses where very rich. That’s what you get when you serve non-stop pork.

The final course was petits fours, which, as Adam explained earlier, did not contain any pig. They, too, were tasty.

So that’s the Zibibbo offering for this year. I’m sure we’ll be back to dine before next year’s offering, which I look forward to already.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Quincey Conserve

As Burger Wellington draws to a close, there are a couple of burgers left that I am keen to try: one is the Haggis, Neeps ‘n’ Tatties from One80. I thought I’d hop on a bus down to Oriental Parade at lunchtime, and give it a try. Just a quick check on the WOAP website before I set out put the kibosh on that plan: available Monday to Sunday, between 6pm and 10pm. Bum.

Next, I took a look at Concrete. Their burger sounds tasty, so I headed to their website to check availability…fully booked for lunchtime today, no tables until after 2:00pm. Strike two.

My third choice was MOF Bar And Kitchen. MOF is an offshoot from Ministry Of Food, a well-established Wellington eatery near the Beehive, and thus favoured by the political and civil servant types who hang around there. This new(-ish, I think it’s been there a couple of years now) is on The Terrace, on the site of the former Atlanta Café. I left on the dot of 12 for the five minute walk, and was fortunate to get a table. Just as well, because 15 minutes later they were turning away anyone who didn’t have a booking.

Their burger is called Quincey Conserve. There was no sign of a medical examiner on the premises, so I deduce that the quincy part comes from using quince. And yes, it’s right there in the description: Beef with Kāpiti Kikorangi blue cheese, quince and red sauerkraut in milk bun, with homemade potato crisps and MOF retro onion dip. It looked like this:

First thought: put it straight on the plate before serving it please. Second thought: a bit stingy with the crisps, isn’t it? I bit into it, and a substantial portion of sauerkraut, not to mention the blue cheese, shot out of the other end of the burger. The patty was cooked well done. Burger integrity was good (milk buns are fairly sturdy). Overall, I felt this burger was unbalanced – and not just the way it looked on the plate. There was far too much sauerkraut, and also too much cheese. Not enough crisps and too much dip. The sauerkraut itself was OK, but if you hadn't been told there was quince in it you'd have been none the wiser.

The Garage Project beer match was Hapi Daze, which I was entirely happy with.

We set our standards so high, don’t we? What you might think would be a perfectly acceptable burger is reduced by the quality of the competition. But this is a competition, and therefore I have to award this burger a paltry 6.  

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Flying Bambi

Another sunny day in Wellington, and today I managed to make it to The Hangar. I’d set out early, as experience has shown that many venues, especially those that don’t take bookings, fill up early at lunchtime. Also, I’m out again tonight for a degustation menu, so an early lunch is clearly indicated.

The Hangar is the home of Flight Coffee, a Wellington brand that’s been around since ages ago (OK, 2009). Again, it’s a place I’ve not been to before, as it’s up the end of Willis Street that I rarely get to. But it’s less than 10 minutes on foot, so no problem.

Their burger offering is the Flying Bambi. Iit’s a venison burger, naturally, described like this on the WOAP website: Flight coffee-infused venison patty with wild mushrooms, pumpkin relish and Kāpiti Aorangi brie in a Clareville Bakery honey wheat bun. It looks like this:

You’ll note no mention of any fries, and I’m OK with this. The Garage Project beer match is Trois Fleurs which is not my favourite of the brews available this year, but I’ll drink it. What can we note about this burger? Firstly, the patty: it’s pretty substantial, almost spherical. This made it a bit tricky to eat, and also left me with the inevitable real-estate problem. Whether it was coffee-infused I couldn’t tell.  The pumpkin relish was tasty, but the cheese was almost unnoticeable. The bun maintained integrity to the end, but I inevitably left some of it as I’d run out of meat. Perhaps flattening the burger a little more would have led to a more satisfying burger experience.

Not a bad burger. I scored it a 7.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

New Hope

Sunshine at last! I decided to go for a walk at lunchtime, down to Dixon Street, to find The Hangar - home of Flight Coffee, one of Wellington’s premium coffee brands.

Only, I got The Hangar mixed up with Memphis Belle (home of great coffee, but no burgers). After a quick check around, and a consultation on my trusty burger spreadsheet, I decided that Eva Beva would be a good location for a lunch burger. It also fits my professed desire to spread my wings and try new places. In I went.

At lunchtime, it was not crowded – in fact only a couple of other tables were taken. This isn’t generally a good sign, but I pressed on. I ordered their burger, which is called New Hope. I don’t know if the bar’s owners are avid Star Wars fans, or there’s another reason behind the name…no further information was given. The WOAP website describes it like this: Beef patty, grilled portobello mushroom, Garage Project Aro Noir beer onions, pickles, Zaida's milk bun. And it looked like this:

That's a burger!

As you can probably make out, this is a big wide burger bun. And housed inside it is a big wide burger – no real estate issues here. It’s topped with cheese (unmentioned in the blurb), onions and mushrooms, and there was the inevitable tomato and lettuce combo beneath the burger. The bun was correctly toasted inside, and the patty cooked medium rare. The whole thing was served with fries dusted with herb salt. This, my friends, is a burger! The milk bun soaked up the juices from the onions, mushrooms and beef with no integrity issues.

The Garage Project beer match was Death From Above, a fruity and powerful American ale.

As you know, I’m one to be picky, to find fault. But as I consumed this burger, it became increasingly obvious to me that this was what a burger should be all about. There wasn’t anything fancy, no gimmick, no unusual sauce, relish or garnish; just a well-cooked burger, in a bun, properly proportioned, with fries. I can find no fault with this burger. It is a 10, a king amongst burgers (hey maybe there’s some kind of marketing idea in that…).

So maybe that's why this burger is called New Hope. Because, after all the frippery and gimmicks, there's a new hope for burgers.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Score

It’s a cold Monday morning, and I’m after a tasty burger for lunch. Throwing aside all thought of places I’ve not been to before, I decide that what I really want for lunch is a beef burger. Despite the wide range of protein fillings available during Burger Wellington, fully one third of the entries have gone for beef in one form or another, whether smoked brisket, prime angus, or slow-cooked cheek. Also, I’m keen to try the third beer brewed specially for the Burger Wellington competition, Hazelnut Bruin. I put all the parameters into my trusty burger spreadsheet, and out pop five choices. One is in Lower Hutt, which is no good as a lunch time venue. Of the others, Burger Liquor looks the most promising.   

Their burger is called The Score, and is described on the WOAP website thusly: Aged beef patty, double-smoked bacon and tomato jam, cheddar, shredded lettuce, and Marmite or Vegemite mayonnaise - which ‘mitey’ spread will reign supreme. That’s what it says on the website, but it appears they’ve had a change of heart…or should I say, bun? For now it isn’t the mayo that’s “mitey”, but the bun itself: the bun is black with the yeast-based spread of your choice. I’ve eaten many a burger at Burger Liquor – they’re one of Wellington’s top purveyors of burgers outside the two week madness that is WOAP – so I expect it to be of a high standard. I also expect it to be sufficiently different from their normal burger to rate being in this competition. I’ve noted that this burger is not served with fries, so I ordered a side of paprika fats.

Their burger looks like this:

As you can see, the bun is black. As you can also see, the side of fries has failed to materialise. The waiter said “fries will be along in a minute” but this turned out to be closer to 5 minutes, by which time I’d finished the burger. “Sorry about that” said the waiter, “they’re on the house”.

The Garage Project beer match was Hazelnut Bruin. Bruin is a style of Belgian beer, and is, unsurprisingly, brown. This is my first taste of it and I’d be happy to drink it with any of the other burgers – rich, deep, malty, and no lightweight at 5.8% abv.

When I picked up the burger, it was immediately obvious that the addition of vegemite (for that was my choice) had made the bun more friable, and it was with difficulty that I held it together until the end. It did stay in one piece, just about, with some tactical nibbling, but it wasn’t the robust bun experience that I desire. Also, there was a real estate problem, with a mismatch of patty to bread area. That said, the burger was well cooked, by which I mean medium rare, and the bacon jam was tasty and sweet. The cheese was lost somewhere in the mix. The burger itself seemed to be their normal beef burger.

A good burger, cooked by people who know burgers. But perhaps their pushing of the envelope led to a less satisfactory burger than their usual. I scored it a 7.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Buffalo Burger

Local favourite The Larder is no longer open in the evening, so we decided to go on Saturday lunchtime to sample their burger. They don’t take bookings either, but I had called ahead to reserve two of their burgers – there’s nothing worse than turning up at a restaurant to find that they’ve run out! Fortunately we’re well known to the staff there, so no problem.

We rocked up at 12:30, and the place was heaving. There was a 20 minute wait for a table. No matter, we sat outside and had a coffee while we waited. In fairly short order we were brought inside and ordered two of their finest Buffalo Burgers. The description on the WOAP website is: Grilled buffalo patty with caramelised onions, pickles, Monterey Jack cheese, iceberg and Larder BBQ sauce and fries. It looks like this:

The Garage Project beer match was, once again, Loral Royale. Is it coincidence that all the burgers that I like are matched with this beer? Let's see what next week brings!

The plus points: the buffalo patty was substantial, and cooked medium rare, as a good burger patty must be. The fries were crisp and served with a garlicky aioli, not the advertised BBQ sauce. The bun was toasted inside, and kept its integrity up to the end. On the debit side: the fries were bought string fries, and the addition of lettuce and tomato was a bit ordinary.  Another good burger, but apart from the patty ingredient, not much to really distinguish it from the crowd. I scored it 7.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Pōhutu Me Whenua

It’s a much nicer day today than yesterday, and I took myself out for a walk along the waterfront to Karaka Café, housed in Wellington’s Wharewaka building. I’ve been there for coffee, and maybe eaten there once before, but it certainly isn’t one of my regular haunts so it qualifies under my self-imposed rules – OK, guidelines – for this year.

Their burger is called Pōhutu Me Whenua Karaka Surf And Turf Burger, which is a bit of a mouthful. (As was the burger! I thangyou, playing here all week.) Pōhutu Me Whenua translates as “surf and turf”, unsurprisingly (or "splash and land", if you use Google Translate). It’s described on the WOAP website like so: Venison patty with chilli tempura squid, smoked beetroot pickle and chilli jam, Pandoro beetroot bun, with kūmara fries, and it looks like this:

The Garage Project beer match is Death From Above, another staple from their range, and a powerful one for a lunchtime, at 7.5% abv. I am familiar with this brew and found it tasty as ever.

The burger was pretty tall but squashed down to be manageable. Unfortunately this led to some of the liquid being squeezed out of the beetroot relish, which formed a puddle on the plate. Beetroot is a key ingredient of any kiwi burger (even McCrapshit’s put it in their kiwi burger), but it’s a tricky ingredient, as you don’t want any of it on your shirt. I felt that the relish here was a bit too liquid. The venison patty was pretty substantial, and cooked well done, which was a pity – as it had clearly been handcrafted by the café, they could have risked a bit more rareness. The squid rings were tempura, but not chilli, so far as I could tell. The beetroot bun was a pinky-purple, and held its integrity until the end. The kūmara fries were lacking in crunch, and the alleged chilli jam appeared to be sweet chilli sauce from a bottle. This was a reasonable burger, cooked to café standards. With a bit of care and attention it could have been a great burger. As it was, I scored it a 6.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Doll's House

A Doll’s House is Ibsen’s famous 1879 drama about the male patriarchy and Nora’s growing desperation, which finally (spoiler alert!) results in her leaving her husband and children.

This version, first performed in 2015, has been updated from 19th century Norway to 21st century New Zealand. The couple now live in a converted barn that they are gradually fixing up themselves, living off the grid and raising their children. The other characters have also been updated, and the story revolves around a workplace injury, rather than promotion in a bank. The moral maze is as deep as ever, as the story gradually unfolds and we discover whose version of morality matters most to whom. The play does, however, continue to emphasise Nora’s powerlessness in the face of circumstances, and her ultimate act of defiance and independence. As the action unfolds around Christmas, all of the supporting characters make demands on Nora, who is increasingly unable to cope with the conflicting pressures. Secrets and lies come out at the end, culminating in her departure.

Sophie Hambleton, who plays Nora,  is a kiwi TV and film actor, and the supporting cast are all stalwarts of the Wellington stage and screen. The production moves away from the “gloom, gloom, I sit in my room” of more traditional Ibsen stagings, and at times is moodily lit and sound-effected to help stir the drama.

If you think you don’t (or won’t) like Ibsen, forget that. Go see this version.

Almighty Thundershizzle

I haven’t had a lamb burger so far this year in Burger Wellington. It’s time to fix this.

As I looked out of the office window, rain was coming down in huge wind-blown sheets. A typical Wellington winter day was in progress, so one of the key considerations for my burger choice today is that it must be nearby, and not involve crossing open spaces (in these conditions, umbrellas are pretty well useless). I consulted my trusty burger spreadsheet and find – yes! – Thunderbird Café are doing a lamb burger. I called them up and made a reservation.

Thunderbird Café’s offering is called the Almighty Thundershizzle. That’s a name that will take some living up to! Last time I went to Thunderbird for a burger was in 2015, and then they produced a Mothertruckin' Monster of a burger, so overstatement and exaggeration seem to be the order of the day for them. It’s described like this: Lamb and chorizo patty with chilli con queso and Anaheim chilli red pepper chow chow in a Pandoro chilli corn bun. It looked like this:

The Garage Project beer match is Trois Fleurs. This is one of the festival brews by Garage Project, and this is my first time trying it. It’s made with calendula, camomile and elderflower – the three flowers of its name. It's also a saison style beer, which isn't my usual first choice of beer. There's a reason why: I don't like it. And I wasn't a great fan of this one, so I'll bear that in mind when looking at beer matches for the rest of the festival.

As I have noted on previous occasions, the wait staff at Thunderbird aren't humanities graduates,* so when my burger arrived it was certainly uncontaminated with fries. If I'd paid more attention to the description I'd have realised this and ordered some. There was a substantial amount of what I assumed to be chili con queso, and also a ginormous slice of pickle on the top - strangely absent from the description. The waiter apologised for the lack of cutlery as she gave me a knife and pastry fork, but I told her I probably wouldn't need them. The burger squashed down to a manageable size and, although a bit on the wet side, bun integrity was good through to the last bite. The patty (I detected no chorizo in it) was cooked medium rare, and was quite substantial, but sadly lacking any good flavour. I guess the whole thing was somewhat overwhelmed by the spiciness from both the chili con queso and the chow chow - I'd have liked a bit of chargrilling caramelisation from the grill to add a bit more flavour.

This was a good burger, but it wasn't a great burger. I gave it 7.

* The engineering graduate asks: "how does it work?"
The science graduate asks: "why does it work?"
The humanities graduate asks: "do you want fries with that?"

Hop'd To It

Tonight we’re off to see A Doll’s House at Circa Theatre, so I thought I’d mix up my burger-eating a bit and go for a pre-theatre burger. If you look at the WOAP website, you’ll see that you can select your burger protein from a drop-down list. This year there are several burgers categorised as “not your usual”, a catch-all category for those establishments experimenting with an unusual patty protein. Amongst those is München, who are offering a rabbit burger called Hop’d to it burger. Other contenders in this category include alpaca, buffalo, and goat.

München occupies the space formerly known as Chicago Sports Bar, on the waterfront. I’ve been there for beer (once) but haven’t dined there, so it meets my criteria for this year of going to new places. It’s part of the ever-expanding Wellington Hospitality Group of pubs who seems to be taking over the city.

The burger is described on the WOAP website like this: Braised rabbit patty with fennel, radish, cos, Tiamana wheat bier dressing, crispy onions and plum chutney in a Brezelmania rye bun with root vegetable crisps. It looks like this:

The Garage Project beer match is – at last! Something different! – Garagista. This is a brew that’s been around for a number of years and is a staple of the brewery.

A note on the Garage Project beer match: each year, they brew a number of new beers to be matched with the burgers. This year they’ve made three, although they have done more in the past. It’s not compulsory to match your burger to one of their beers, but a lot of places do, as they strive to win the overall competition. Some places match their burger to an existing Garage Project beer, as is the case with München. I’ve yet to try either of the other two festival beers, but hope they’ll be matched with a burger I try later in the festival.

How was this bunny burger? First thing to note is that the meat is not formed into a patty, even though  it says so in the description, so it's a pulled meat sandwich rather than a burger. The meat itself was a bit dry, and I only discovered the plum chutney as I bit into the final mouthfuls of the sandwich. It was tasty when I got to it, but there needed to be more...as Manu Fieldel would say, "Where's the sauce?" If there was a wheat bier dressing it was very well disguised...I could taste no hint of it on the slaw. The whole thing was somewhat bland and needed a bit more flavour. The root vegetable crisps were a selection of potato, kumara, carrot and parsnip, and were nice and crispy. Bun integrity was also good - helped, I suspect, by the overall dryness. Too much liquid is the enemy of buns!

Overall an interesting adventure,  but I feel that with a few tweaks they could have made something far better. I scored it a 6.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Three Little Piggies

OK, time to mix up the burgers. Today, I’ve gone for a non-beef burger. Dillinger’s is a new incarnation of what used to be a fairly run of the mill café in Midland Park. I’ve been there for coffee, but not to eat, so it qualifies as a “place I’ve not been to before” on my not-really-very-strict guideline for tasting burgers this year. In fact, I’m revising the rule from “places I’ve not been to before, unless they’re previous winners” to “…or I really like the sound of their burger”. Which has me covered all ways, I think. I will try to get to some other new places, though.

Dillinger’s (Dillinger’s’? double possessives are confusing!) burger is called Three Little Piggies (presumably as it’s pork three ways) and is described like this: Apple-smoked pork cheeks with bacon, mustard slaw and baconnaise in a Brezelmania potato bun. Mmm, baconnaise! It looks like this:

The pork cheeks had been slow-cooked, then pulled, and reformed into a patty with the bacon, which meant that you’re not chewing on a lump of meat (no matter how tender), nor is it a pulled-pork sandwich, which is a different thing. The patty was a little on the dry side. There was a large, thick slice of apple (thankfully cored) under the patty, and a generous helping of slaw, which also delivered a good kick of mustard. Held together with a spike, this was not a burger for picking up and eating – knife and fork were deployed immediately. The fries were ordinary catering string fries, as was the tomato sauce, so no points for effort there.

The Garage Project beer was Loral Royale, so I’ve had that three times in a row now. I’ll see if tomorrow’s burger is served with a different beer.

A good effort, but not at the gourmet standard of the first two burgers I’ve had this year. I scored it a 7.