I lived in Wellington for six months and left in March, excited for the travels ahead while planning to upload this post about my Wellington dining experiences. Then, a pesky little pandemic happened, no biggie, so I decided to postpone it as it’s rather like rubbing salt into the wound – look at all these amazing restaurants YOU CAN’T GO TO BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO STAY HOME AND STARE AT THE SAME FOUR WALLS ALL DAY. Or something like that. Now, four months later, New Zealand can forget those dark days devoid of eating out, although the borders are still closed so anyone who is abroad can just salivate and think calming thoughts as you read on.
Dear reader, I bet you’re burning to ask – what is New Zealand food like anyway? Well, let me tell you.
New Zealand food is a hybrid of various identities. Much of its influence is British (as they swiped our beloved fish and chips and claim they do it better – I beg to differ), which itself is heavily influenced by European, particularly French, cuisine. What sets New Zealand apart is the number of Asian restaurants. While Britain has adopted the Indian curry as our national dish, New Zealand boasts Vietnamese, Japanese, Malaysian, Chinese, Indonesian as a core to their culinary heritage. They also have a glut of fresh indigenous produce such as kūmara, avocados, kiwis, and vineyards full of grapes, as well as fields upon fields of sheep and cows. As an island, it is infamous for its enormous and meaty fish, particularly Akaroa salmon, and my head chef joked that UK fish are used as bait. Ouch.
There is something for everyone: noodle bars, Lord of the Fries, pizzerias, sushi take-aways, bagel cafes, as well as high-end restaurants. These eight restaurants are very different, yet all were fantastic. Some were great value for money, others were a fancy ‘it’s-my-birthday’ one-off. But what they all have in common is the love and care for excellent food. Wellington fed me well.
Like my previous accolades to Manchester and London’s good food, these are not the only amazing restaurants in Wellington! Unfortunately, my finances couldn’t stretch to everywhere on my list, including Ortega Fish Shack, Monsoon Poon, Salty Pidgin and The Larder. All the more reason to go back.
Writing this tribute to my six months in Wellington has instantly transported me back there, thankfully without the 30-hour flight, and I could be walking up Cuba Street right now, avoiding that terrible splashing fountain, or strolling down Mount Victoria at night watching the city lights twinkle. It’s funny how our senses trigger memory, and what can be more powerful than the taste and smell of good food.
If you stood across the road from A Taste of Home and assessed its small, unassuming façade, you’d never know that that evening there would be a queue of people snaking out the door. You also wouldn’t know they’d won the Outstanding Street Food Experience award at the Wellington Hospitality Awards. You wouldn’t even know what food it sells. Once inside then you will learn how delicious and plentiful their hand-pulled noodles are; fathomless bowls of goodness. It’s a tiny place, one room with no tables, just an L-shaped bar hugging the walls. Gaylord and I ate there one quiet afternoon, burying our faces in deep bowls full of their classic noodles drenched in chilli-garlic oil topped with pork wontons and pork belly. It is a hidden gem, famous simply by word of mouth.
128 Vivian Street, Te Aro
Havana appears to have salsa-ed right out of Cuba. The two ramshackle old cottages with faded paint are squashed between enormous glass-fronted office buildings. Down a narrow walk-way you stumble into a Cuban paradise. The shabby-chic dining room is bedecked with crystal chandeliers and portraits of Che Guevara. I could go on about the delicate vintage cocktail glasses but I’m here for the food. The tapas isn’t traditionally Cuban but Gaylord and I were speechless as we ate prawns with garlic and chilli. Yes, anyone can cook prawns but these punched with salty, juicy flavour, and you mop the prawn around the bowl to catch all the oil at the bottom. After a good start, the mains rose the occasion. There was crispy-skinned chicken with roasted grapes, and pork belly seared to perfection with apple and fennel. We nursed our cocktails in those perfect coupes and fantasised about our next visit.
32a/34 Wigan Street, Te Aro
I have already written a tribute to Viva Mexico but another won’t hurt. For a time Laura and I appeared at the tiny restaurant’s door once a week, grinning manically as yes, we were back thanks to those deadly margaritas and because we fancied the head chef. Each time we were greeted like Rodri’s best friend and he would slip out of the kitchen to serve us personally. Aside from his charming smile and the occasional flirty wink, we were there for his food too. Chilaquiles loaded with beans, cheese, guac and pink pickled onions, queso fundido which was simply oozing melted cheese with chorizo, and tacos piled high with battered fish, carnitas, or chipotle cactus. There’s a reason there’s a picture of Rodri on my Instagram. Swoon.
210B Left Bank, Te Aro
You will have come across hundreds of fusion restaurants in your time. Apache is different. If you’ve never tried French meets Vietnamese then I urge you to give it a go. Gaylord, my token Frenchman, was eager to sample their menu, full of French classics with a twist. He treated me to dinner there on my birthday and, as we swilled wine in large glasses, we devoured calamari dipped in lemon mayonnaise coloured like charcoal. To follow, we shared dishes of poulet au caramel scented with peanuts and kaffir lime leaves, and an outstanding bœuf bourguignon – slow-cooked beef cheeks with red wine and 5-spice gravy. Who would have thought French and Vietnamese were a match made in heaven.
122 Wakefield Street, Te Aro
My friend Chloe and I were considering fish and chips for dinner, when my housemates mentioned they were going to the local Indian. And by that momentary twist of fate, I found my favourite takeaway in Wellington. It’s a tiny room and the same man is always by the window, pounding and pulling away at circles of oily dough and slapping them to the walls of a deep tandoor oven. These huge homemade naan breads are bundled into paper bags which become grease-stained on the walk home, crispy on the outside and steamy and soft inside. This place is famous for its butter chicken; succulent pieces of tandoori chicken in a vibrant orange tomato sauce, ready to be mopped up with that naan.
19 Cambridge Terrace, Te Aro
I researched Rita before I arrived in New Zealand. Call me keen but it sounded like the restaurant I would open one day. With only a handful of tables, it’s a difficult place to book, and pricey at $75 a person, not including drinks. But that’s all the bad news! The menu changes each week in keeping with seasonal produce, and every night there is one three-course meal for everyone. Gaylord and I dined on seared tuna with tomato consommé, the tuna vibrant pink, followed by slow-cooked beef with creamed corn (I asked for the recipe the corn was that good), and dessert was crème caramel with poached summer fruit. The dining room and kitchen are open plan so you can see the chefs in action. Cutlery is stored in a drawer under your table. It has an aura of a casual Friday night dinner at a friend’s, but everything you eat is exquisite. And I still think about that creamed corn.
89 Aro Street, Aro Valley
The mood is dark and brooding in Dragonfly. You walk through the black maze of corridors to your table, all of which are hidden in booths or niches. Anything could happen there in the dark. It appears mysterious, even the menu unfolds intricately like origami. Aside from visiting their tropical courtyard for cocktail hour, I ate there for a treat with my chef colleagues, Caitlin and Sidi. I recommend visiting this ‘modern Asian’ restaurant with fellow foodies – you order three different desserts, kaffir lime brulée, blueberry sago, and plum and tamarind tart so you can sample as many as possible, and you discuss the recipe for the Salmon Two Ways because Caitlin owns the cookbook, and you each savour every bite of the Zucchini Yuzu Salad because it is sharp, crunchy and utterly delicious.
70 Courtenay Place, Te Aro
All I’ve ever wanted in life was to be one of those VIPs who walk into a heaving restaurant, shake hands with the head waiter and be assured there is a table waiting for me. At Rasa, Gaylord and I had this service. We ate at this small Malaysian restaurant so many times we were eventually part of the furniture. Our first visit was to tame our curiosity and sample Malaysian cuisine, the second, third and fourth visits were because it was delicious. With influences from India, China and Indonesia the menu features familiar dishes such as nasi goreng, laksa and korma, sharing spices and heat, noodles and soy. Every time I would try something new, goat or paneer, meanwhile Gaylord loved his trusty lamb korma, all served with a perky cone of rice and some squidgy rotis. If you don’t go for the food, go for the waiter. He’s a gem.
200 Cuba Street, Te Aro
Olive, Wellington Seamarket, Mr Go’s, Maranui Cafe, Scorch-O-Rama, Midnight Espresso, Beach House Cafe and Kiosk, Highwater Eatery