Above the skeleton of an ancient Maori village, in a tiny unit in Wellington’s business district, Eamon O’Rourke and Mark Halton are distilling gin. A machine churns out labels and a bottle washer spins. The room is hot with smells I don’t recognise — indigenous herbs used as botanicals.
Here at Denzien Urban Distillery — part urban distillery, part gin R&D lab — the pair use the bitter leaves of kawakawa (Maori ‘bush basil’) and peppery horopito to flavour their gin, which is made with Wellington rainwater that’s purified by a busy machine in the corner of the office. Bottles are sold from the distillery door, but Eamon and Mark plan to offer tastings “soon”, pairing their spicy gin with juniper-heavy pork pies from the cafe next door. “Not sure when,” Mark admits. “We have to walk before we can run. We closed last Sunday because we’d had a big night the night before; I changed the opening hours on our Facebook page and on the window display. We’re figuring it out.”
This ad hoc sensibility is part of Wellington’s DNA. Stretching up the steep hills that overlook the Cook Strait and South Island, it’s a city shot through with adaptability. Wellingtonians wanted a sandy beach, so they created one by trucking in sand from Dunedin, a city on the southeast coast of the South Island; homeowners on the steep terraces of the western hills have built their own mini cable-cars to haul shopping to the front door. Even flying into Wellington, the windiest city in the world, is an exercise in optimism: on its approach to the runway, my plane overshoots above the Pacific and is forced to execute a hairpin turn against the strong gusts off the Cook Strait. “We might make it,” the pilot announces, calmly.
But I haven’t come here, to the world’s most southern and most remote capital, for the good vibes alone. Pocket-sized Wellington is home to more restaurants per capita than New York City, having opened at a rate of roughly one per week in 2017. You’ll find everything from fine dining establishments to a cat adoption cafe, plus enough craft beer bars to make London’s Bermondsey Beer Mile look positively parched.
Spread across two floors of a little yellow cottage in the centre of town, Jano Bistro is a Wellington institution. It’s molecular, it’s seasonal, it’s French haute cuisine… and it’s both vegetarian and gluten-free.
The tasting menu starts with an ‘eco farm salad’, which is much more opulent than it sounds. Waifish micro leaves pop against bright petals, glossy black olives and a luxurious dollop of deer milk foam. Next, cauliflower florets are coated in a thin sesame and black garlic crust that crunches like a toffee apple, and when I bite into a buckwheat tart I discover succulent oyster mushrooms and walnuts.
Actually, Jano isn’t strictly a vegetarian restaurant, but it subverts the usual paradigm: most dishes come with a meat option only if you ask for it.
Pumped by a palate-cleansing coffee kombucha, I tell chef Pierre Alain Fenoux that this is vegetarian food cooked by someone who actually likes vegetarians. The reason? Jano closed last year for a 10-month renovation, and when it reopened last November, Pierre-Alain explains, “so many people came to us with dietary requirements that we just decided to have an intolerance-friendly menu.”
Pierre Alain cooks everything himself, while his partner Diana waits tables, washes up and tends the kitchen garden. To keep things simple, there’s no a la carte menu, just the degustation, and the restaurant only seats 15, with two sittings per night. How did they know it would work? “We didn’t,” admits Diana. “This is the first time I’ve owned a restaurant.”
“That’s the Kiwi ‘she’ll be right’ attitude,” laughs celebrity chef Monique Fiso the next day, when I ask her about Wellington’s bold restaurateurs. The star of Netflix cooking competition The Final Table, Monique meets me at her new fine dining-meets-Polynesian-cuisine restaurant, Hiakai. Having trained here in New Zealand, she spent a spell cheffing in Michelin-starred kitchens in New York before earning international acclaim on The Final Table, which she remembers chiefly for its high-octane cooking.
Monique is intensely likeable and down to earth, and despite being a flagbearer for Kiwi gastronomy, she doesn’t like to be pigeonholed. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re showcasing traditional Maori cooking,’” she tells me over coffee. “But it’s not really traditional; 200 years ago they weren’t there with a nitro machine, making kawakawa leaves into powder.”
We try, unsuccessfully, to nail down what defines the country’s cuisine, and why the capital has become a gastro-paradise. “Wellington has always been a super foodie place,” Monique explains, “but that dipped after the recession. A lot of the people who were into fine dining were in the government, and during the recession it wasn’t good for them to be seen having posh dinners and crayfish lunches.”
Five years ago, her unashamedly fine dining restaurant wouldn’t have worked, Monique tells me. “People would have said” — and at this point she affects her broadest Kiwi drawl — “‘they’re using tweezers to plate things, what are they thinking?’ That’s starting to change, because, thanks to social media, people are seeing things on the other side of the world that they want to eat.”
Perhaps that’s why Hannah’s Laneway, a warren of graffiti-ed cafes and artisan food shops near the bay, is known locally as Little Portland. At Wellington Chocolate Factory, an organic, fair trade chocolatier, I boast about a plate-sized salted caramel cookie I just bought from nearby Leeds Street Bakery. “I can’t go down that street any more because of those cookies,” says the cashier as he rings up my craft beer chocolate bar, made with hops from Nelson, a city on the South Island (the Chocolate Factory also sells cocoa nibs to a local craft brewery, which infuses them in a stout).
Before I leave, he asks if I’ve been to the peanut butter store next door. I haven’t, so Fix & Fogg is my next stop. This basement-level hatch sells juicy doorstop sandwiches made using small-batch peanut butter seasoned with sea salt. When I tell a shop assistant I’m on the hunt for local specialities, she tries, enthusiastically, to send me back to the chocolate shop.
It’s with a similar zeal that Philipp Doerr, head chef at Charley Noble, greets my news that Jano Bistro is also experimenting with deer milk (his airy bistro serves it pureed with cauliflower alongside grilled wild venison). I sit at the kitchen bar to watch my king salmon gravlax — served unfussily with horseradish — take shape. Venison and deer milk made their way onto the menu here after Philipp went hunting on the South Island, and he has profound respect, bordering on obsession, for sustainable, fresh produce.
“Look,” he says, “we’re right next to the Antarctic. Greenpeace is based here. We know our planet is dying — New Zealand is such a small country, you see things changing more quickly.”
This commitment to sustainability is why, Philipp suspects, so many chefs are turning to local ingredients for inspiration, from the botanicals in Denzien’s gin to the kawakawa in Monique Fiso’s chocolates and the kamo kamo (a squash) served with Charley Noble’s lamb shoulder. It’s a situation that suits Wellington well.
A taste of Wellington
Hillside kitchen & Cellar
Here you’ll find light, feel-good food featuring ingredients foraged from the hillsides around Wellington. Tasting menus might include the likes of samphire and sweetcorn salad, or strawberries and cream with elderflower-encrusted crisps. Dinner is a fancy affair; brunch is legendary — expect sourdough toast with local peanut butter, or truffle-fried eggs with mushrooms. Seven-course menu NZ$82 (£43) per person, excluding drinks.
The seasonal menu at this city-centre restaurant is all about big, robust plates (for example, hanger steak with chimichurri, asparagus and roast potatoes). And, as you might guess from its name, Glass is also distinguished by its wine menu, in particular its natural wines. NZ$40 (£21) for a main course and a glass of wine.
Fork & Brewer
Wellington’s craft beer scene is exceptional, and this Tardis-like brewpub has over 40 beers on tap. It’s dotted with tanks bearing labels like ‘Miso Stout’ and ‘Yoghurt & Bruesli’, while each dish (hearty, beer-friendly food such as fish tacos and hop-salted Cajun fries) is paired with a beer. NZ$30 (£16) for a main and drink.
As featured in the March issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).