I have to declare my longtime love of Wellington. I lived there for 25 years and despite the challenge of its infamous weather, I never lost heart.
New Zealand's capital is like a big village, sizeable enough to support countless ventures but small enough to have a heart. It could also be our culinary capital, home to more than 400 cafes and restaurants. The Visa Wellington on a Plate Food and Wine festival has 110 of them for this year's event, running from August 10-26.
A central stream of the festival is DINE Wellington. Participating eateries' set lunch and dinner deals, giving punters a chance to sample each establishment's food at a reasonable price. Menus and prices are published in the festival programme.
Many are also entering an Extreme Burger battle, to be decided by public vote. Each of the festival's three weekends hosts a special event, opening with master classes from August 11-12. Craft beer fans will flock to Beervana at Westpac Stadium from August 17-18, and you can finish with something sweet at the NZ Chocolate Festival at the Hotel InterContinental on August 24 and 26.
I got to sample the range at four of the restaurants taking part.
192 Cuba St
"Wellington used to be the City of Suits, now it's been taken over by the people," says Steve Logan.
Yes, his restaurant does still cater to "suits", the food from chef Shaun Cloustons is precisely executed and there's no stuffiness in this former bank dining room. Try the Lot 8 Citrus Oil Ice Cream. Shaun will also be presenting at the Masterclass series.
70 Courtenay Place
Newish, this modern Asian establishment is all style and a lot of substance. In the red-lit courtyard you can dine and watch old Bruce Lee movies. Try Vietnamese chef Le Minh's Organic Tofu or his Son-in-Law Eggs.
103 Cuba St
Cuba is Street Cool Central with great eating spots from the bottom to the top. This area encapsulates a lot of what Wellington is about.Try Plum's Extreme Burger entry based on a Tuatara beer-battered, long-line gurnard fillet.
282 Jackson St, Petone
Duncan McKenna's food is rooted in classic technique but plated in a contemporary way. You would be mad not to make the trip up the motorway to visit him.
So go to Wellington in August to eat and be merry. You will need to wrap up warmly, but be warned, no matter how many layers you don you will not be protected from Wellington's magic at capturing hearts.
Sunday morning is market time down beside Te Papa. The Harbourside Market has been open since early light and fruit and veges are glowing in the morning sun. Breakfast might be the best masala dosa outside of India or I might wait to get over to the City Market and grab a bacon and egg special from chef Martin Bosley.
Coffee is a must and in this city, where every nook and cranny hides a coffee outlet there is a choice of suppliers. Meat, fish, deli goods, nuts, eggs, honey, Thai food, Mexican food, Cambodian food, pizza and hot dogs are all available, but to my mind this is the place for your weekly supply of fruit and veg.
The City Market, a little further over, showcases more artisan products - French cheeses, breads, pastries, preserves, craft beers, chocolate, cakes, more meat and fish.
If you miss the markets, Moore Wilson's (cnr Tory and College Sts) is a Wellington institution in its truest sense. This family business opened in 1918, wholesaling to the hospitality trade. Down the track they expanded into Moore Wilson's Fresh, which is a must visit for any foodie. If it's fresh, fabulous, NZ-made, tasty, unique or tried and try, I bet they stock it. The staff are like one big family and regulars are part of the whanau.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
As home to the diplomatic corps and with people of foreign descent in Government and business roles, Wellington has a relatively cosmopolitan population. A French connection has always been strong. Madame Louise is still a hallowed name in restaurant circles. The Copper Room and Le Normandie, introduced diners to genuine French food and sophisticated style. This was the 60s and eating out was due to change. A BYO license is now possible. Pierre Meyer opened Pierre's in the 70s, the place to eat for Wellington's cognoscenti.
French food went under the radar in this political town when the French government sabotaged the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland.
But in 2012, once again Wellington offers the best francophile dining options.
Here are my three favourites:
Le Marche Francais
Level 1, The Woolstore, 262 Thorndon Quay
This fabulous place is run by an amazing Frenchwoman who has cooked all over the world in French embassies, most recently in Wellington. Enjoy one of the best Croque Monsieurs I've eaten, with a salad, for around $12.
146 Cuba St
Classic French bistro, taking part in DINE Wellington.
10 Murphy St, Thorndon
Le chef hails from Perigord, and this has to be one of the most charming "petit" dining rooms in the country. More than one step up from bistro food, you will not pay anywhere near Michelin prices for truly exquisite offerings. It is modern French served with Parisian style.
* Grant Allen was hosted by Positively Wellington Tourism. For more click here.