Wellington: Capital take on burgers and beer

By Don Kavanagh

Wellington's food festival is a treat for the palate. Don Kavanagh reports.

Oriental Bay on a sunny day in the middle of a food festival is a lovely place to walk off a few calories of over-indulgence. Photo / Wellington NZ
Oriental Bay on a sunny day in the middle of a food festival is a lovely place to walk off a few calories of over-indulgence. Photo / Wellington NZ

The Prime Minister may beg to differ, but reports of Wellington's demise as a city have clearly been grossly exaggerated.

John Key famously described the capital as "dead", but August's Wellington on a Plate festival proves there is life in the old town yet. The menu covers fine dining, beer and burgers and even a few Hobbits thrown into the mix.

Wellington on a Plate is in its fifth year. In 2009, 42 restaurants took part; this year it's 110. The festival has been another shot in the arm for the capital's reputation as a place that puts on a good party.

Its main thrust is to celebrate Wellington's culinary diversity, but it is also a determinedly local affair: menu items are created with local produce and washed down with local wines and beers.

"Local" in these circumstances means produce from Wairarapa and Kapiti Coast as well as ingredients sourced from the city itself. A sneak preview of what to expect meant a fantastic, if frantic, few days flitting from bar to cafe to restaurant, dipping a fork into sumptuous dishes, from Wairarapa-raised beef to Island Bay-caught fish.

I was there primarily to have a look at some of the entries in the Burger Wellington competition, which is part of the festival. In this event, 69 Wellington eateries present their best burgers to the hungry public, who vote.

A panel of judges taste the finalists' burgers to decide the overall winner.

Burgers may not strike most people as fine-dining options, but Wellington has managed to turn the humble burger from something you wolf down after a night at the pub into what can only be described as dinner between two pieces of bread.

My first burger was from the excellent Duke Carvell's, in Swan Lane, a place where hospitality tradition runs deep, especially through owner Lorenzo Bresonlin's veins. His family had the much-lamented Il Casino, and Lorenzo's other interests include the great Scopa. The burger at Duke Carvell's was a stunning creation: confit lamb shoulder patty, Zany Zeus halloumi, pomegranate-pickled red cabbage, tahini yoghurt and cos lettuce, with za'atar-seasoned shoestring fries. It was like a Greek banquet in a bun, with the cabbage offering stunning texture.

Next we were off to Ti Kouka, a stylish cafe on Willis St, where I tried a gorgeous "burger" that consisted of Wairarapa black pig bacon, roasted pork belly and pulled pork shoulder, with pickled cucumber, hoisin mayonnaise and iceberg lettuce, all wrapped in a steamed bun. Not only was it sweetly savoury and full of interesting flavour notes, but chef Shepherd Elliott also gave us a preview of his Forage, Fish, Wine and Design festival menu, featuring exquisite seafood presented with the best of locally grown - and foraged - produce, matched with impressive wines from Vynfields in Martinborough.

The Hop Garden's burger is a thing of beauty, well, medium-rare beauty anyway. Hop-smoked beef with Moore Wilson Fresh Linkwater aged cheddar, red onion and gherkin relish in a Pandoro mixed-grain bun, it sings across the tastebuds and works brilliantly with beer.

Speaking of beer, this is the perfect reason to visit Wellington during the festival. As well as the foodies, craft beer lovers are also catered for by the Garage Project Burger Challenge, which will match burgers with some of Garage Project's excellent beers. The winner gets a beer made especially for them.

Garage Project - and it is, literally, in an old garage in the Aro Valley - is one of Wellington's jewels, producing envelope-pushing brews such as the stunning Death From Above and Aro Noir.

It has been turning heads in the beer-drinking community and it is good to see beer being placed front and centre in this festival, given beer's affinity with food.

The festival also encompasses Beervana, the country's biggest, best and most important beer festival. With more than 200 beers available to taste, your favourite beer will be there, whether you're an ardent hop-head or an enthusiastic malt-mouth.

So, regardless of whether it's excellent food, fine wine or the best of beer that attracts you, Wellington is the place to be; it's heaven on a plate.

Don Kavanagh was hosted by Wellington Tourism. Wellington on a Plate is on from August 9-25. Tickets on sale from tomorrow at: wellingtononaplate.com

- Herald on Sunday

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