Herald on Sunday Rating: 2/5
Address: 90 Cable St, Wellington
Ph: (04) 802 8935
Lindsay shouldn't have set the bar so high. He was the cook at the lodge on Kapiti Island where the Professor and I stayed overnight on Anzac Day.
Kapiti Island, as you may know, is a bird sanctuary and the Professor, who has an irritating way with these things, was the only one in our group of half a dozen who saw a little spotted kiwi on our little-spotted-kiwi-spotting night walk.
"Do you see it?" she asked me, pointing into a ratty piece of scrub. I squinted myopically and said yes, even though I couldn't, because I didn't want to feel left out. It turned out no one else could either, and the Professor spent the rest of our stay looking nauseatingly smug.
But I digress. Lindsay is one of several good reasons why you should stay overnight on Kapiti rather than make a day trip. As the sun sets, he fires up the generator, sets his radio to some god-awful commercial station and makes magic in the kitchen.
We had pipi and paua - the latter as tender as good rump steak - for nibbles; chicken and vegetables richly roasted in the coal range for dinner; seafood chowder, pumpkin salad, bacon-and-egg pie and about a dozen other things for lunch the next day. As we ate, Lindsay made sure everybody was happy before he served himself.
It certainly whetted my appetite for eating the next night at Hippopotamus. But given the choice now, I would take Lindsay's cooking every time.
Hippopotamus is superbly located on the third floor of the Museum Hotel (the one that was wheeled across the road to make room for Te Papa), which is now called the Museum Art Hotel, with good reason: the lobby and public spaces constitute a free art gallery, whose treasures include several high-spec Italian motorcycles but are mainly devoted to some striking New Zealand art (Brent Wong, Nigel Brown, John Pule).
It's a great introduction to the evening and the entry into the dining room is similarly dramatic. But most of what followed on the night we visited was ordinary or worse - astonishingly poor considering this was a Cuisine magazine restaurant of the year finalist last year.
Hippopotamus is perhaps an unfortunate name for a French restaurant, since it is the brand of a 150-strong chain of fast-food-style steakhouses in France that are more McDonald's than Cobb & Co. The Wellington place by contrast styles (and prices) itself as top-end fine dining.
There's nothing wrong with the room, which has a sparkling harbour view and a decor of old-world grandeur flecked with whimsical touches: a stuffed pheasant on an ornate sideboard; chandeliers and Chinese-lantern lampshades.
But the food, which started with cold bread rolls and a very ordinary amuse bouche of smoked eel pate, rarely impressed and often depressed.
The Professor chose a "signature dish" entree of Kikorangi tortellini (as designed, it included prosciutto, but was labelled vegetarian), and the inadvisability of using such a strong cheese was compounded when the pasta envelopes disintegrated at a touch and turned the whole thing into an ugly cheesy broth. The accompanying walnuts were well past fresh and all I can say of the microgreens is that they did not come from a potager.
My entree of braised pork cheeks was an odd concoction, dominated as it was by large cubes of apple jelly. The pork, compressed into small roulades, was tasty enough, but the plating, which scattered the meat, including tiny pieces of sweetbread, across a white expanse of porcelain, was irritatingly self-conscious and stopped the dish cohering into an intelligible whole.
Our mains, of lamb rump and beef rib were both expertly cooked but let down by details: the smear of sauce - sorry "absinthe jus" - was quite insufficient for the amount of lamb, the chips with the beef were pallid and the broccoli, hopelessly undercooked, sat in a pool of buttery water that looked like it came from a dishwasher. Of the desserts, the chocolate mousse pleased the Professor because it was so tasteless she couldn't bring herself to eat it and thus was spared an attack of post-chocolate remorse.
In short it was a meal quite devoid of what a Frenchman would call je ne sais quoi. Lindsay could teach them a thing or two, I tell you.
Need to know
$ = $20-$40; $$ = 40-60; $$$ = $60+.
(Price guide reflects three courses for one person without drinks)
Ambeli in Majoribanks St and Matterhorn in Cuba St are reliable Wellington options.