Author’s note, or something: I feel odd about publishing a post that talks about haggis during my strictly herbivorous month – you can’t really get a lot less vegan than haggis!
A recent episode of How I Met Your Mother featured a Scottish-Mexican fusion restaurant as an example of ridiculous places that should not exist and things that “do not fuse”.
Funny, not just because it does seem pretty silly, but that in recalling my own recent food adventures, I realised that my opening weekend of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival did in fact feature both Scottish and Mexican “cuisine”.
Amusing as the combination might seem, my experience perfectly represents the rich medley of events that comprise the MFWF, which in turn exemplifies the undiscriminating and incredibly ethnically diverse food culture in Melbourne.
I am so absolutely excited by variety, yet though I was vaguely aware of the MFWF before moving to Melbourne, I didn’t know just how much was on offer. Food festivals back home were one-or-two-day one-venue affairs – I had no idea it could be this incredible, colossal, city-wide celebration of food that spanned two and a half weeks! Several years on, and it’s definitely tied first with Christmas for my most anticipated time of the year. As mentioned in my opening post of the festival, this is my third MFWF run, and I already feel like a bit of a veteran, planning my way around the two and a half weeks while making sure to fit in a diverse range of events.
Each year, the festival has an overarching theme and the individually hosted events that are a part of it try to work with that as the central idea. In 2014, the theme was “Water”.
Tarbert’s Table of the Loch (Golden Gate Hotel)
A mere 24 hours after my first World’s Longest Lunch, I was heading off to South Melbourne’s Golden Gate Hotel with KP for some traditional Scottish fare. This event, called “Tarbert’s Table of the Loch” was run by the Melbourne Venue Company (MWC), who had also organised a themed lunch last year called “A Conquistador’s Adventure”. That event was held in a pub in Port Melbourne, part of a family of pub venues around the city, and was featured in my photo post summarising my 2013 participation in MFWF.
Tarbert is a village in Scotland that is built around a loch (Gaelic for “lake” or sea inlet) and so the meal features several seafood dishes, thus satisfying the MFWF’s water theme of the year.
As it was at last year’s South American feast (A Conquistador’s Adventure, mentioned above), the food was quite delicious overall. It’s a pleasant surprise (for lack of a better word) because these MWC events are catered by the resident chefing talent of the pub it is held at. Often these pubs have a strong, positive local reputation, yet are not exactly famed for their food and the chefs are unknowns.
I am not sure how the MWC managed to find some person or persons at The Exchange Hotel capable of whipping up over a dozen different Central and South American specialties in 2013, but this year one of the Golden Gate Hotel’s very own just happened to be Scottish – a young guy by the name of Fraser, the pub’s head chef.
What’s even more amazing is that they managed to track down a Scottish minister from a local Scots’ church to read a Gaelic blessing before the meat course!
The other guests were a mishmash of personalities – a mix of locals who seemed to frequent the pub and probably saw a flier, people who had travelled in Scotland and missed the food, actual Scottish people who missed their food or were curious, foodies who had found the event online or their friends and spouses who were dragged along. The host or “MC”, if you will, was the very same guy who had dressed up in Spanish conquistador costume last year and was now dressed in a kilt!
Lunch began with canapes of crushed black pudding, crumbed fried scallops and smoked salmon on a sort of plain mini pancake. I thought that scallops and salmon were rather uninteresting choices (though the bite-sized servings were nice enough), but the black pudding was rich and delicious, not too dry, not too overwhelming. Even KP, who normally dislikes black pudding and morcilla sausage and the like, really enjoyed it.
The highlight of all the courses was, almost indisputably, the Cullen skink, which is similar to a rather thick seafood chowder. It was hearty, creamy, flavoursome, subtly smoky and full of fresh seafood-y goodness, topped with one large, perfectly fried potato-and-fish dumpling. Once I had cleaned my bowl, I simultaneously craved seconds and felt like I couldn’t have one more rich, lactose-laden spoonful.
Haggis came next, and it was pretty much a given that this famed Scottish fare would feature in a lunch showcasing that country’s traditional cooking. It was served with “bashit neeps” and “chappit tatties”, which mean crushed turnips and mashed potatoes, respectively – I had to giggle as I suddenly had a vision of myself, furiously BASHing turneeeeeps! There’s not much you can say about mashed veges, except I would describe, for example, bad mashed potato to have a powdery texture and taste, and good mash to be smooth, velvety and quite creamy. This was good mash, and the beaten up turnips were good, too.
I can’t have eaten haggis more than maybe twice ever, so I don’t have of a point of comparison, but I quite liked it – it actually tasted a lot like a rich pate, but with oats through it. Rather than being made in-house, it was instead purchased from a butcher in Dandenong (I think?) which was apparently somewhat well known for it. Ah, there you go, I just looked it up. It’s called Rob’s British and Irishy Butchery. Rob makes authentic British smallgoods that seem to be very popular with the immigrant communities as well as delis Victoria-wide.
The meat dish of lamb backstrap less satisfying than all the other courses – mine in particular was a little more than a touch dry and overcooked, and I seemed to also have a smaller serving with thinner slices of lamb than others at my table. The sauce was, moreover, slightly gritty, though quite tasty. I put it down to having a large number of guests to serve, and perhaps others got very juicy and delicious portions.
At the start of the meal, I let the waiters know that I wouldn’t be able to eat the dessert of Cranachan, which included whisky-soaked oatmeal. They were flustered for only a minute, but went to speak to the chef, and came back to inform me that he’d be able to whip me up one of two other options for dessert – a pannacotta or a sorbet selection. Not yet knowing how rich the meal would turn out to be, I opted for the pannacotta, later wishing I’d chosen the more refreshing sorbet! It was absolutely lovely of the chef and wait staff to accommodate my rather last-minute request for a menu modification during an event with so many people to cater for.
It turned out that some people did not seem to enjoy their cranachan dessert very much, which the host had introduced as being similar to Eton Mess (to which comparison I heard a few dissenting murmurs from the Scottish people present), but I have no comment to make as, unlike with wine, I didn’t want to risk having even a taste. My pannacotta, on the other hand, was beautifully presented and quite lovely.
This event also included a “whisky library” with cushy chairs where guests could sneak off to at any point and sample a Scotch whisky tasting flight – quite a nice thing and added great value to the experience (if not for myself!)
Overall, I really enjoyed the afternoon with good food and varied company – though I didn’t feel it was as fun or interactive as A Conquistador’s Adventure, I recognise it was probably a trickier and less “user-friendly” theme to pull off compared to last year’s theme! KP and I both stumbled home feeling full and satisfied, with the feeling of an afternoon well spent, and that’s definitely what I consider a successful event.
Eat Ocean, Drink Succulent (Mamasita)
Mamasita is certainly an establishment that needs no introduction, being widely known as serving up some of the best authentic Mexican cuisine in Melbourne, and probably the Southern Hemisphere; so I’m not going to dwell in great detail on the food we experienced at this event, which was, as usual, delicious.
This night, Mamasita took on the challenge of hosting a great night and changed things up, bringing out some dishes that were quite different from their usual fare of tacos, quesadillas and deliciously marinated seafood (though we had those, too!)
I jumped at the opportunity to make a booking for this event because, well, normally the restaurant doesn’t take bookings for small groups, and having been a patron in the past, and though having loved it, I’m not all that keen on queuing to get in on the nights I want to eat there. Perhaps it’s my old age.
In the same vein, probably – my main complaint of the evening would be that I ended up with a sore butt from sitting at the bar for over 4 hours – tiny stool, not so tiny butt. This was partially my fault, as I’d been given two options for seating when booking, and while neither were ideal (as I booked late), I chose the bar myself. Nonetheless, I would wager that the bar seating was not designed for long, drawn out events like a 9 course dinner. But hey, at least I got to look at all the pretty tequila bottles all night!
I felt the pacing of the courses was regular but a little drawn out – as it was quite dark and rather loud, the atmosphere wasn’t really conducive to having involved conversations to pass the considerable length of time.
We started off with a canape of braised octopus with peppers, cherry tomatoes and olives, which counted as the “eat” portion of the first course, which was lovely, but was neither introduced in any way nor served at a consistent time across the venue.
Only before the second course of the ever-amazing Mamasita elote callejero (grilled corn) was the event format and theme of pairing seafood (eating “ocean”) and tequila (drinking “succulent”) explained.
Beer, wine, and tequila were all practically free-flowing throughout the evening, with great variety and well matched with the food. However, occasionally the introductions to the beverages got lost in the din or the staff simply forgot.
Neither the aguachile nor ceviche took me back to my time on the Yucatan peninsula last year – though I did enjoy them and the seafood was fresh and sweet, the preparation wasn’t what my limited knowledge would have considered authentic.
The taco course came as a surprise – smoked eel. Eel is a fish I have never eaten outside of Japanese cuisine, but it worked pretty well. As ever, you can’t go wrong with a quesadilla if it has cheese in it, but to my even greater surprise, after I was emailed a list of the courses we’d sampled after the event, I found that I had eaten something called “huitlacoche”, which upon Googling I discovered means “corn smut“.
So what the hell is corn smut? It’s like a fungal infection that grows on top of young corn, which doesn’t sound very nice… but essentially, it’s just mushrooms. Grown on corn.
When it came to the sopes, the corn bread base was a little dry or stale but the duck and tamarind together was a tasty combination.
My favourite dish of the night was a warmingly hearty and aromatic seafood cazuela (a sort of soup or stew) of barramundi, shellfish, orange and fennel, served with tomato and garlic chilli rice.
There was only one sweet course – frozen chocolate mousse with dulce de leche, fresh cream, sesame praline and figs – and I wasn’t a fan. But then, I’m never really a fan of rich chocolatey desserts after a big meal.
Though the evening had room for improvement in various areas, the food was delicious and varied, the portions and drinks generous, and I sincerely hope Mamasita holds more reserved events like this. To their great credit, the team sent out questionnaires to the attendees, requesting feedback, and if they can take it all on board for future events, I’ll be even more impressed!
Thus ends my long story of how Scottish-met-Mexican in the context of my life. It may not be as memorable as seeing men with moustaches wearing sombreros and kilts playing bagpipes, but it was a fun weekend nevertheless.
Imagine my disappointment when I found that, for the third year in a row, I had missed out on getting tickets to the World’s Longest Lunch, the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival’s annual signature opening event, this year promising courses by Jacques Reymond, Stefano de Pieri and Adam D’Sylva. The idea of sitting at a half-kilometre long table in the late-summer sunshine being served a delectable alfresco lunch with courses designed by some of the country’s most accomplished chefs not surprisingly excited and intrigued me. I kicked myself for not getting organised earlier, again, and vowed not to miss out next year.
If you’ve never heard of the Longest Lunch, the “longest” refers not to the time-frame of the meal (though it does tend to span the better part of the afternoon) but the length of the table – this year, over 530 metres of pristine white-tablecloth and 1504 charmingly mismatched chairs set along the Yarra river by Alexandra Park.
Let’s backtrack a little at this point.
Years ago, many people knowingly nodded when I informed them I was moving to Melbourne. “You’re just doing it for the food, aren’t you?”
I wasn’t, actually. Somehow, I’ve felt at home in this city since the first moment I set foot in it to visit a friend, and though I returned quite a few times before becoming a resident, I never gave much thought to “why” – when you find a true city soulmate, you plan to move there as fast as possible and don’t really overthink it. I guess if I were to name a few things I love, they would be the focus on culture and art, the beautiful historic buildings, the very old trams, the many events and enthusiastic way Melbournians take part in even the oddest ones, the boutique and outlet shopping, and yes, its world class dining and amazing things to eat on every budget.
So, before I digress any further, my point is – the World’s Longest Lunch is a perfect example of a very “Melbourne” thing, encompassing both the Melbournians’ love of slightly different events and the city’s rich epicurean culture.
My annoyance at missing out was pretty understandable.
Then… I received an unexpected email newsletter in early February from a website (Club Secure) I’d just used a couple of times. Before I could get annoyed at the spam, I saw that it contained exclusive ticketing offers for, among other things, the WLL event which had been sold out for weeks by that time. I snatched up a couple of tickets without delay and set out to find the ideal dining buddy.
The funny and charming Yen from theyennipenni channel ended up accompanying me on the day and we were both pretty excited by the prospect of a day of good food and interesting company.
After same taxi dramas, we arrived at the gardens breathless due to both anticipation and running late and were ushered towards the action by staff who handed us each goodie bags that included straw fedoras. Our places were a breeze to find as we were right down the very end of the table in seats 1501 and 1503. While we wouldn’t be in the “thick of the action”, we had an amazing view of the whole half kilometre of table.
Obligatory photos were taken and of the entire length of the table – or as much of it as we could fit in frame – to be Instagrammed, of course, and almost immediately afterwards we were engaged in friendly conversation by our immediate neighbours who turned out to be incredibly lovely and interesting people. In fact, we could not asked to be seated with better company. We seemed to have been lumped in with many people who worked in or were related to the industry.
The food that afternoon was a little bit of a letdown in terms of both dish execution and presentation – perhaps my expectations were simply so high due to the stellar reputations of the chefs involved that they couldn’t be reasonably met in such a setting, catering to so many guests!
First dish to table was smoked hiramasa kingfish, which turned out to be my favourite of the three courses, though I wouldn’t have guessed it at the time. The fish was a lovely, tender texture with a nice smoky flavour, however, some of the diners’ plates (including mine) were missing the tamarind sauce that was supposed to accompany the dish, while others had the sauce and assured us it worked well with the fish. I feel that failing to include an essential condiment was a fairly large oversight, though it was obviously through no fault of Adam D’Sylva’s.
The main was duck tucupi (“tucupi” being apparently a yellow sauce extracted from Brazilian manioc root), which was the dish designed by Jacques Reymond. There was a bit of a show involving the plate of duck and cute little glass bottles of hot broth being served separately, and the diners having to pour the broth over the poultry themselves. The broth was rich deeply flavourful, however, the duck itself wasn’t well cooked – the fat not having been fully rendered and the flesh somewhat chewy and overcooked.
I personally enjoyed De Pieri’s carrot cake dessert well enough, however, being very dense and moist but not particularly rich and indulgent it was not everyone’s cup of tea.
The service (provided by Peter Rowland Catering) throughout the afternoon was slightly brisk (understandably, with 1504 guests to wait on!) but still friendly and capable, and the staff were impeccably dressed in cute uniform. Conversation with our companions flowed beautifully and naturally and the long afternoon flew by in a blink even with long gaps between the three courses.
Wine was interchangeably poured by the staff or sitting in ice buckets at intervals along the table – not being a drinker at all, I’m not sure if this was preferable to full service, but from what I could tell it meant that those who came for mainly for food and company were able to better control their intake and those who wished to get a little tipsy could do so to their heart’s content.
As it approached 4pm and guests started dispersing, the afternoon ended with an optional boat ride up the river to Southbank and as it was a beautiful, sunny day, I jumped at this opportunity and spent the later afternoon walking along the river bank eating gelato.
All in all, the long lunch was a fabulous experience, thanks to the glorious weather, the relaxed atmosphere, the good-natured service and the amazing company.
The challenge of getting through seventeen days of way too many amazing food events may not seem like a real problem to you… but it so is. It’s a serious, very serious, first world problem, and one I face at least twice every year. The Melbourne Food & Wine Festival (MFWF) has just begun and I’m just brimming with excitement about the schedule I’ve organised for us, so indulge me while I share with you the secrets of planning the perfect foodie itinerary. My guide will be interspersed with photos from last year’s MFWF for your viewing (and my drooling) pleasure.
Restaurant Express: Charcoal Lane. Top: Wallaby tartare, horseradish potato salad, egg yolk gel, smoked bread.
Middle left: Sashimi of King Salmon, finger lime & chilli crab, pickled beetroot, radish. Middle right: Tanami spiced Kangaroo Loin, potato gnocchi, pumpkin puree, rosella flower jus.
Bottom: Gremolata & goats cheese stuffed swiss mushrooms, saltbush, golden beets.
There are a couple of main types of food festivals in Melbourne. Events such as Taste and the Good Food & Wine show happen on a single day, or a few consecutive days with much the same programme and food available throughout. These, though not so exhausting, can be challenging to tackle in their own way if you want to experience everything in the limited timeframe available without totally breaking the bank – but I’ll get to these another time.
A Conquistador’s Adventure (The Exchange Hotel, Port Melbourne). Centre: Scallop ceviche. Right: Crab tostados.
A Conquistador’s Adventure. Left: Chicken, lime and avocado soup with fried tortilla. Centre: Big bellied beef empanadas. Right: Stuffed calamari with quinoa and broccoli, pepper and piso sauce.
The MFWF belongs to the other type – it’s a massive, city-wide affair, with countless separately ticketed events across numerous venues over a couple of weeks or more.
Coming out of the MFWF alive, without being left with a depressing bank balance and without having packed on 20 kg is no task to be scoffed at if you love food and new experiences as much as I do. Many Melbournians are aware of the MFWF being on, but aren’t aware of how to get involved or don’t really care enough. In many cases, they probably want to check out some events but have no idea where to begin finding out what’s “good”! Take a look at the festival website and you’ll understand this dilemma. “Spoilt for choice” is an understatement. If you feel overwhelmed by the wealth of information, this guide isn’t for you (just look at the pretty food porn pictures). If you like lots of information but just don’t know how to get organised, keep reading!
A Conquistador’s Adventure (The Exchange Hotel, Port Melbourne). Left: Peruvian warm purple potato and pumpkin salad. Right: Beef asado with green chimichurri
A Conquistador’s Adventure. Left: Pork belly with black eyed peas. Right: Chicken sudado with saffron rice
Even though I’m passionate about food, as with everything that requires planning, I tackle the task methodically and systematically. Let’s go.
Over the past three years, I’ve started the process in early February, although I would actually recommend starting in mid-January and booking some of the signature events even earlier than that. I keep making this same mistake and so many amazing events are sold out by the time I inquire about them.
Left: WTC Urban Picnic (WTC Wharf). Centre: Queensbridge Square and Urban Coffee Farm. Right: A taste flight at the Urban Coffee Farm, on this day featuring Dead Man Espresso
Queuing for a taste flight at the Urban Coffee Farm
First, I set a budget. How much can we responsibly spend over the entire festival period, and how much extra can be scrounged up by saving in other, unimportant areas of spending, how much will we save in groceries considering we are eating out several times per week (and do I really need to buy that pair of shoes this month?)? Once I have a solid number, I move on to the next step.
Hay Fever (The Woods of Windsor). Left: Hay ash butter, yeast free organic sourdough. Right: Hay smoked kingfish, citrus emulsion dressing, pickled celery, avruga caviar.
Hay Fever. Otway Pork Belly, variety of mushrooms, hay and dashi infused consomme.
Hay Fever (The Woods of Windsor). Left: Gippsland duck breast, curried cauliflower, wilted witlof, hay baked sweet potato and heirloom beetroots. Right: Nutella Paddle Pop, pineapple ice, hay infused ice cream.
The MFWF website allows you to search events by date and region. Ideally, now that we have a car (we didn’t during last year’s festival), I want to look at all of the events across Victoria, just in case, and all of the dates, but I start by filtering on Melbourne Metro, as I only really want to be going regional on weekends. I go through the full list of events, open every single one which looks remotely interesting in a separate tab, and after every 10 tabs or so, read the descriptions and decide if it’s interesting enough to go onto the initial shortlist. There are lots of deciding factors and a lot of side-research is often involved – price and location, of course, the “theme” of the event, and much more importantly, the reputation of the restaurant hosting it and/or the chef featured. Host restaurants that have been on my go-to wishlist are also prioritised. Anything that doesn’t make the shortlist has its tab closed immediately, with one exception – I leave open the page for the Restaurant Express lunches. I’ll get to those later.
Restaurant Express: Punch Lane. From left to right: Lime cured kingfish, short grain rice, fig & shiitake salad; Beef carpaccio, eggplant croquettes, shallot & black pepper dressing; King salmon, fennel, prawn and avocado salad, white peach dressing, bisque sauce; Pork loin, basil & eggplant, crisp puff pastry fritters.
The shortlist is a spreadsheet and the fields include the event name, a link to the event page, the price and any optional notes (such as “difficult to get to”). At this first stage, there will probably be time clashes, but that’s ok. Each event gets highlighted a different colour based on how much I want to attend it to help me prioritise clashes later on. The list is sorted by date, as the search results are sorted by date anyway.
Forage & Feast – Mornington Peninsula and Lamaro’s Dining Room (South Melbourne).
Getting to the end of the full list of events for Melbourne Metro may take me a couple of sessions of a couple of hours each. Worth it. I then move on to the regional events, again opening them in tabs, only clicking on weekend dates so I am not tempted to drive 4 hours out of Melbourne on a Tuesday night for something particularly enticing. I slot these into my shortlist spreadsheet into the chronologically appropriates rows.
Forage & Feast – Mornington Peninsula and Lamaro’s Dining Room (South Melbourne). Top left: Cheese tasting at Red Hill Cheese. Top centre: Port Philip Estate. Top right: Wine Tasting. Bottom: Beautiful, fresh produce sold straight from the farm.
Forage & Feast (Lamaro’s Dining Room ). Top right: Confit heirloom beets, toasted grains, St Brandon goat’s curd. Bottom: Two Tastes of Quail – tempura five spice quail, Asian slaw, soy lime caramel & BBQ quail, fried cauliflower salsa, grilled nectarine.
Once I’ve confidently covered every event on the website, whether ruling it out or shortlisting it, I look at my list more carefully. I add up the sum of the event prices, and of course it’s ridiculous. I take a copy of the sheet, and on the duplicated sheet, I write the sum formula at the top of the page. I then started deleting entire event rows from the page – first, out of any scheduling conflicts, I delete the one(s) that appeal less, then the events I can most easily do without experiencing go next – and watch that sum number go down until it’s no more than a teensy bit over the budget I set earlier minus $80 (get to that later).
Smokin’ with Gavin Baker (Little Hunter). Left: Raw watermelon on dashi ice, dandelion, sweetened bone fruit, umami powder. Centre: Smoked Goat’s Milk Custard, pickled walnuts, peas and their shoots, verjus. Right: Chatham Island Blue Code, tobacco and wood smoke, native sea grasses, grapes.
Smokin’ with Gavin Baker (Little Hunter). Left: Wessex Saddleback slow roasted over orange wood, kale, cider vinegar. Right: Smoked Burnt Butter Ice Cream, chargrilled corn mousse, popcorn crumb, fried silk.
Now I start making reservations or buying tickets. Keeping in mind that not everything will still be available and I might have to replace some events with backups, I start with the ones I’m most desperate to attend followed by the ones I can book online without calling anyone up. If I come across an event that’s sold out, I can go back to one from my initial shortlist (remember, I made a copy before I deleted ones) and replace it with something of a similar price range. Because the one I replace it with might not be in the same time slot, I might have to jig the schedule around a bit to suit (some events have multiple sessions on different days, some having those are good for this situation), so it’s all in constant flux until I have everything booked in.
Lights Out (The Bohemian).
“Restaurant Express” is run every year by MFWF in partnership with a number of top restaurants across Melbourne – you get a two course lunch plus a glass of wine, and tea or coffee for $40. Although once upon a time, it was only $30, this is still an excellent deal as some of the participating restaurants are of a very high calibre and often quite expensive usually. It’s a good opportunity to sample the food at these establishments before deciding if it’s worth going back for a more substantial meal. Now, often after the whole booking process, I end up with more left over in my budget than just the initial $80 I set aside – if this is the case, I can choose between whether we want to go to two Restaurant Express meals or three, or whatever depending on what is left. As there are dozens of restaurants participating, I choose where to go based on location (CBD is good for a Friday business lunch while the inner north might be a good weekend option) and days of availability (as some restaurants only offer the express menu on certain days of the week). Once I’ve made my choices, I make the lunch reservations, usually online – restaurants don’t take any payment upfront for Express lunches.
Restaurant Express: PM24. Left: Pan Seared Salmon Fillet, crushed potato, wood sorrel, lobster vinaigrtte. Centre: Rotisserie Sirlon, shallot beef jus, potato gratin. Right: Ora King Salmon Gravlax, cucumber remoulade.
This is an imported/archive post.
It’s been far too long since my last post and what better time to jump back into things than after one of the most anticipated foodie events held in New Zealand – the Taste Festival?
This year I managed to make it to two jam-packed Taste sessions. I had just bought half-priced tickets through work when a mate whose winery was exhibiting told me he had spare general admissions. Yeah, I tried half-heartedly to get rid of my second pair but anyone who wanted to go already had tickets, so I was “forced” to go a second time. Darn my #firstworldproblems.
Taste has got to be my absolute favourite annual event held in Auckland, including anything in the non-food world. The mild late-spring weather, the enthusiasm of hundreds of food and wine lovers, the outdoor seating, live music and lounge-y chilled atmosphere with the buzz of the city just outside combine to make the perfect social and gastronomic experience!
I loved the event in 2010 when it was called Taste of Auckland, and liked the idea that it would now be extending to participants from other parts of the country, but I couldn’t help but worry that some of my preferred restaurants last year had decided not to participate this year. However, generally speaking, I feel most of the restaurants, including ones I hadn’t heard of, stepped up and delivered delicious world-class food. Considering the scale of the event and that it’s held outdoors, the venue is also well organised and clean, and a nice place to spend time in.
My first visit was Thursday night, which turned out to be the best night to go, and the weather was fantastic. Wednesday’s Gala night had been jam-packed due to a GrabOne voucher deal, and it rained. Friday and the weekend sessions were also immensely popular, but I was after a balance between ambiance and good service and the dishes I wanted not selling out! S & I sampled a satisfying 12 dishes (shared each so we could try more), and that wasn’t including the random free samples of cupcake, sorbet, and other things floating around.
I work next to Victoria Park, so the following day I returned with a friend in the afternoon for “lunch” and tried another 5 things. Almost too full to return to work, we ended the sunny afternoon with some scrumptiously refreshing wine sorbet and gelato from Giapo.
Half Crayfish Tail with Café de Paris, Butter, lemon & Vivian salad
I really wanted to write about Taste last year, but by the time I got around to it, the details were pretty fuzzy and I didn’t feel like I could share anything valuable. So this year I was a smart-ass, and I took notes! Not actually at the event, but immediately afterwards. So here is an overview of what I thought of all 17 dishes I sampled…
|TE WHAU VINEYARD & RESTAURANT – Waiheke Honey & Lemon Bavarois, Lavendar-Apricots, Macadamia Praline
||4.5 / 5
|Some might have called this a little heavy handed for fine dining but I thought it was amazing. Rich and creamy without that stuck-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth feeling, all the components coming together quite harmoniously – even Stuart who is not a praline or honey fan was impressed.
|COCORO – Tiger prawn and courgette filo tempura, tartare and Worcestershire sauce, Tonburi and Wasabi Tobiko field and sea caviar
||4.5 / 5
|Listing all the ingredients on paper, this sounds like a complex dish, however, everything went together so well, it was like the chemistry at a lively dinner party between close friends, to use a pretentious comparison. As great as the flavours were, the textures were really the highlight. The satisfying crisp of the unique tempura “batter”, the warmth of the courgette and near-perfectly-cooked prawn, and the pop-in-your mouth roe…
|CAPE KIDNAPPERS – Steamed baby Paua, crisp vegetable salad, sesame and soy dressing
||4 / 5
|Light, naturally sweet and delicious
|THE GROVE – Half Crayfish Tail with Café de Paris, Butter, lemon & Vivian salad
||4 / 5
|The only real issue with this dish was that there wasn’t enough of it. The buttery richness of the café de paris sauce did not take away from the subtle sweetness of the small crayfish tail. As delicious as it was, the dish was simple and probably will not ultimately be remembered for originality. They were serving up so many of these, though, that I had to wonder how many shellfish had to give up their lives for this festival.
Tiger prawn and courgette filo tempura, tartare and Worcestershire sauce, Tonburi and Wasabi Tobiko field and sea caviar
Waiheke Honey & Lemon Bavarois, Lavendar-Apricots, Macadamia Praline
|RESTAURANT SCHWASS – Corned Duck, bacon, egg and pea salad
||4 / 5
|One of the best duck dishes I have had lately. The paper thin strip of cured bacon was delectable as well, and it was a good pairing. Was a little bit of salty on salty, but for the portion size that wasn’t an issue at all.
|TRUE SOUTH DINING ROOM – West coast white bait Thai infused fritter, pickled cucumber and lime crème fraiche
||4 / 5
|Maybe I’m a sucker for whitebait, but this might be the best whitebait fritter I’ve tasted. The Thai flavour and lemongrass really does pop out and the crème fraiche was beautiful. Less sure about the cucumber, but it didn’t detract from the dish.
|CAPE KIDNAPPERS – Hawkes Bay Natural Lamb – Goat’s Curd dumpling, jerusalem artichoke puree
||3.5 / 5
|I love lamb, and this was succulent and well seasoned, but I could not have identified the puree as artichoke-based if not described. Goat’s curd dumpling was awesome.
|COCORO – Southern Glory Oysters, Yuzu Ponzu vinegar, Kabosu citrus foam, Karengo seaweed dust
||3.5 / 5
|I had never tried this type of oyster before, but I liked its plumpness. The Japanese flavourings did go well with it but was nothing exceptional.
Top: Steamed baby Paua, crisp vegetable salad, sesame and soy dressing; Front: Hawkes Bay Natural Lamb – Goat’s Curd dumpling, jerusalem artichoke puree; Right: West coast white bait Thai infused fritter, pickled cucumber and lime crème fraiche
Corned Duck, bacon, egg and pea salad
Southern Glory Oysters, Yuzu Ponzu vinegar, Kabosu citrus foam, Karengo seaweed dust
|MONSOON POON – Malaysian Sago Pudding with coconut cream and palm sugar syrup
||3.5 / 5
|This was really extremely yummy and just the right amount of creaminess and sweetness for me, the sago was al dente, but I am not giving it an extremely high rating because it was simple and easy to make at home
|CRU AT SALE STREET – Popcorn Pork – Canadian scallop, Tete de proc, corn puree, freeze dried corn
||3 / 5
|Great concept, scallops cooked just right, but the pork could have been just a tad more tender and moist. Corn puree was slightly too corny and grainy – I am a fan of the taste of corn paired with this pork but possibly could have been lighter
|TRUE SOUTH DINING ROOM – Pressing of Southland rabbit, Riesling jelly and toasted walnuts
||3 / 5
|All the individual components here were tasty. The rabbit fell apart in my mouth, and was extremely gamey, which I love, and the Riesling jelly was light, sweet and delicious, but I didn’t feel the two paired well or complemented each other at all.
|THE WHARF – Raukumara Wild Venison Loin – Sea salt cured venison, baby fennel, watercress, pomegranate, feta, honeygar dressing & Borich flower
||3 / 5
|Venison was great and went well with the pomegranate, but I wasn’t a fan of the fennel as it wasn’t cooked and that strong fennel taste overpowered the venison a bit
Left: Malaysian Sago Pudding – with coconut cream and palm sugar syrup; Right: South Indian Venison Curry – Canterbury wild venison slow cooked with garam masala, cumin, coriander & chilli
Raukumara Wild Venison Loin – Sea salt cured venison, baby fennel, watercress, pomegranate, feta, honeygar dressing & Borich flower
|COCORO – Charcoal grilled Sumiyaki grain fed Angus beef eye fillet, garlic teriyaki sauce, carrot and Gobo burdock puree
||2.5 / 5
|Pleasant but the meat was not as tender as could be hoped
|MALAYSIA KITCHEN – Nasi Goreng with Lime and Sugar BBQ’d Chicken
||2 / 5
|Better than the laksa (see below), but still a far cry from some of the best Malaysian you can get in Auckland City. The Malaysian Kitchen was so busy both times I visited that I wonder about the quality control.
|MONSOON POON – South Indian Venison Curry – Canterbury wild venison slow cooked with garam masala, cumin, coriander & chilli
||1.5 / 5
|I had never seen venison in an Indian curry. I thought it lacked the tenderness it should have had. Venison is so lean and it would be difficult to cook it over a sufficient amount of time for an event like this. The spice/flavour was fair but unremarkable.
|MARVEL GRILL – Mixed Grill – Lamb cutlet, eye fillet, pork hunter sausage with roasted garlic watercress & merlot jus
||1 / 5
|Didn’t really do anything for me. All of the meat was slightly overcooked, the marinade was ordinary and the pork sausage was uninteresting in flavour
|MALAYSIA KITCHEN – Kuala Lumpur Chicken & Prawn Curry Laksa
||1 / 5
|One of the blandest, most lacklustre laksas I’ve had for quite a long time. At food court prices for a quarter of the average food court serving, and with quality not even on par with the better quality food court Malaysian… it’s not worth it. I adore authentic Malaysian food, but the quality at this festival has been pretty disappointing and I can only wonder if Rick Stein regrets putting his name to this kitchen.
From next year, I’ll be keen to check out a couple of the other Taste festivals hosted by various cities around the world and see what they have to offer!