Address: 100 Carlton Gore Rd, Newmarket
Phone: (09) 302 0465
springtrees.co.nz

I have only once eaten Szechuan food, named for the province of the same name in the southwest of China, near Tibet. It was at a place called HP8, now closed, in Nuffield St, Newmarket.

Even though I've developed a tolerance, verging on fondness, for chilli in this job, it was something of a challenge. If Szechuan is not the Chinese word for "bloody hot", it should be: liberal use of chilli and a peppercorn also named for the province, makes for a fiery kick so distinctive that the local lingo has a single word, "mala", which means "so hot it makes your mouth numb".

So when I asked Hunan native Peimiao Li from Auckland Food Tours to recommend a place where I could take her to lunch (as a thank you for the considerable assistance she gave me in the preparation of this week's cover story), I felt a stab of alarm, verging on panic, when she recommended this place's "very good Szechuan food".

In fact, the experience was far less harrowing than I had feared. The biggest challenge was the liberal use of MSG, which left me with a thirst that took me 24 hours to slake.

Advertisement

In a featureless building near the Domain (though the rooftop parking is a bonus), Spring Trees occupies a largely grey room, picked out with propitiously red lampshades. If you follow the plush red runner carpet to the loos, you will pick your way between opened cartons and sweating kitchenhands heaving crates of crockery or vegetables into the working spaces.

The menu helpfully includes pictures of all the dishes (less helpfully, the names run down the page so you have to keep turning it or your head to read them).

But it's not one of those greasy laminated bills of fare; rather, it's a big, plush, hard-backed affair, chock-full of dishes you won't find at your local Cantonese takeaway.

It includes a page where the prices are either absent or not in numbers I recognised: it would pay to ask before pointing at some of those dishes.

HP8's "spicy lung slices" and "pot-stewed duck necks" were nowhere in evidence and as I waited for Peimiao to make our choices (I'd left the ordering to her) I was silently hoping that palate-cooling options like crispy celery on ice or the conservative pan-fried dumplings with their lacy lattice base might put in an appearance.

No such luck. Of the five dishes that came, only one lacked the menacing red sheen of chilli oil: small rolls of dasheen (taro), looking like spring rolls with sesame-seed ends, turned out to be positively sweet.

The most noticeable, in a section called Szechuan Snack, was a bowl of noodles, swimming in a chilli broth and topped with a tablespoonful of beef mince, which cost (this is not a misprint) $2.50.

If there is a cheaper dish in a restaurant in this country I would like to hear about it.

It would satisfy a diner with a small appetite, and I saw no evidence of a minimum-spend policy.

The rest, costing between $12 and $15 were quite splendid and (unless I've hardened up since 2008) only a bit more than moderately fiery. Shin beef and tripe (euphemistically called honeycomb); poached pork fillet (labelled spicy hot, but by this time I was daring them to bring it on) and shredded pork with spicy garlic, which delivered a sinus-clearing hint of both those flavours.

It was a restrained and impressive introduction to Szechuan food, even if Peimiao said, slightly dismissively, "It would be way more hot in China".

Dishes: $2.50-$38

Cheers

- By Joelle Thomson, joellethomson.com

New Zealand has a history of one grape, one basket and heavy reliance on one theme. Today, that theme is sauvignon blanc. It makes up 75 per cent of Marlborough's vineyard land but not so long ago (1983), muller-thurgau occupied four times the land of any other grape. Winemakers in Central Otago have invested 80 per cent of their energy in pinot noir. Central is a tad cool, so that makes for a lot of pale ruby, super fruity, light-bodied reds. It can be tricky to find those extra special pinots. But they do exist. And one of the best places to find them is at blind tastings where big spittoons accompany the invitees. Here are three top wines from tastings last month.

Wines of the week

2014 Earth's End Central Otago Pinot Noir, $29 14 per cent

Mount Edward winery is in the Gibbston Valley and home to winemakers Duncan Forsyth and Anna Riederer, who focus on making smooth, savoury, earthy pinots, such as this outstanding wine.

2013 Mount Edward Central Otago Pinot Noir, $45, 14 per cent

Flavours and aromas: rhubarb, beetroot, rose petals; spices (cloves, nutmeg, licorice); good complexity, smooth and lingering in taste.

2013 Doctors Flat Central Otago Pinot Noir, $48, 13.5 per cent

Bannockburn-based winemaker Steve Davies is a perfectionist, which shows through in this super concentrated pinot, which bursts with big fruit flavours and earthy overtones. Tasty.