Since this story was published, The Spinoff has learnt Zane Kelsall was the subject of allegations of inappropriate behaviour in Canada. Read more here.
Why the hell have a couple of Canadians opened what could be NZ’s best natural wine bar in the heart of Auckland’s suburban North Shore? Samuel Flynn Scott finds out.
Milford is a very nice place. Decile 10 schools, Maggie Barry is the local MP (so you can bet the gardens are nice), but it’s not exactly hip. So is it gentrification when an excellent new eatery moves into an already affluent, but slightly drab, suburb? Or is it just good luck for the people of Milford?
There is an ingrained snobbery about the North Shore from Aucklanders south of the bridge, even those raised on the Shore. When friends say they’re moving north they give little qualifiers: “We know it’s not cool but the beaches are nice.” “It’s a bit conservative but maybe we’ll tip the balance!” But if you’re paying attention, you might just have noticed that things are shifting. Rents in the city are out of control and more often than not it feels like new bars and restaurants in Ponsonby or Britomart are created in boardrooms.
No wonder new immigrants and young innovators are popping up further out. Daily Bread in Point Chev, Pastrami & Rye in Ellerslie, Satya Chai Lounge in Sandringham: these places seem to perfectly fit their respective ’burbs, but would anyone have imagined such hipsterism (hipster just means anything good made by any human of any age these days, right?) outside of Kingsland or Grey Lynn even five years ago?
And so it is I find myself willingly, enthusiastically driving out to Milford again and again to visit a brand new little bar in the frozen 1992 of Kiwi suburbia. Let me say right off the bat that Cave à Vin is fantastic. I’m in love. If it was in my neck of the woods I’d be there every day. Heck, it had only been open three days and I’d been there three times already. Essentially this is a natural wine bar and restaurant (and hopefully off-licence) of a type New Zealand has never seen before. It will be familiar to those who may have visited Ordinaire in Oakland, P. Franco in London or Le Verre Volé in Paris.
If, like me, you haven’t been to any of those places but like natural wine, then a little excursion over the bridge feels like a bloody relief when the alternative is a 30-hour flight to Paris.
You are greeted when you walk in and approach the counter by two big sinks full of ice: one with oysters in the shell, one with the five or so wines available by the glass, which change through the evening, often depending on who’s in and what the staff think they might like. It might be the Lapierre Beaujolais, made by one of the pioneers of vin nature. Alongside that could be Garage Project’s “Bend Sinister”, a complex experimental skin-contact wine made by Alex Craighead (of Kindeli) and famously described as tasting like “delicious feet” by Marlon Williams. Then maybe a crisp clean Colere sav blanc if you’re not feeling so adventurous and just want something honest and tasty.
Whatever is on glass pour will probably come under the category of “glou glou” (french for glug glug). Wines that are really great, made with great care, low intervention, organic but ultimately smashable. Red, white, rose, skin contact; all served chilled.
Zane Kelsall and his partner Alexis are from Halifax, Canada. They have family in the North Shore and fell in love with the place, moving here with their two kids for a different lifestyle and a new chapter in life. Hence opening a wine bar within two minutes’ walk of their home and their kids’ schools. “We wanted change, and I liked the idea of not having real winters any more.” Zane and Alexis sold up their Halifax cafes, coffee roasting and ice cream business and very nearly moved to Lima, Peru, but instead managed to find themselves building a wine bar among the fabric shops and real estate agents of the Shore.
We sit down in the late afternoon, the day after they opened, to chat about Kelsall’s “food journey” and other foodist buzzwords that I have gleaned from MasterChef. But something rather annoying keeps happening. First off a rep for a – let’s just say huge – company comes in to chat. I think in their heart they know Kelsall isn’t going to stock much of their delicious, sweet product, but Kelsall offers the rep a glass of Halcyon Days Gris-Noir, a deeply thirst-quenching orange wine (the trend these days is to say skin contact but this wine is very orange and quite honestly the semantic battles of the natural wine world are boring as shit). “I’m not usually a white wine drinker,” the rep says, “but this is different, fuller, more complex.” I think I might be witnessing a natty conversion right in front of me.
Next comes the fruit and vege guy. They’d already dropped everything off; he just wanted to double check it was all OK, make sure the new guy in the neighbourhood was getting what he needed. Kelsall is trying to source his own anchovies for ‘fish and chips’; a simple, tasty combo of house-made crisps and sharp white anchovy fillets. Right on cue, the fish guy sends a text with an update on the catch.
Then an older couple come in wanting to check out the menu. They look to be in their 70s but they rather like the sound of the braised pork cheek (it’s unctuous, unrelentingly flavoursome and only $23, bargain) and would very much like to try some natural wines. They live close by and will be back later. Another woman comes in to buy every cookie they have. She’s tried them already (remember this place has only been open 24 hours) and now needs THEM ALL. Not every type of cookie, every darn cookie. Pretty soon after that another woman comes in, again she’s local, and just pokes her head around the coffee machine.
“What beans have you got?” she asks. “Supreme, everyday from 10am.” Kelsall replies hopefully. She sighs a deep sigh of a person long held hostage by their neighbourhood coffee options. “Great choice. I’ll be back… a lot.”
Kelsall bakes his own (sort of) sourdough, cookies and pastry. The pain au chocolat might be the best in Auckland. The (sort of) sourdough isn’t made with a starter, or a store-bought yeast. Rather it is bulk fermented over 24 hours with, drum roll please, natural wine. The raw, unfiltered wine provides enough funky stuff to bring the dough to life. It’s a trick Kelsall learnt on his travels in the coffee business (a job that he tells me took him to countless remote corners of the world) from San Fran “no-knead sourdough” legend Jim Lahey. But Lahey only suggested a touch of wine to reignite a lazy starter; Kelsall wanted to try using only wine and it worked. The yeast in each loaf will be different every time, a cosmic combo of the wild yeast in the airs of Milford and the native yeasts of whatever region the previous night’s leftover wine happens to come from.
The sourdough is dark and bitter at the edges (which I love) and is a perfect match with the insane dish of prosciutto brown butter parmesan. This is the devil’s work, essentially three very fatty things together on one plate to make an even more delicious orgasmic orgy of fat. It’s what your stoner flatmate might make you at 2am if your stoner flatmate just happened to have really good charcuterie in the fridge. Kelsall tells me he “straight up stole that dish from Le Vin Papillon in Montreal.”
Le Vin Papillon is a natural wine-focused bar and part of the Joe Beef clan, the famously decadent good-time Montreal restaurant group made famous by their charming appearances on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Joe Beef’s owners David McMillan and Frédéric Morin have both given up drinking and have recently been talking a lot in the press about the drain hospitality can have on you, and how important it is for young restaurateurs to find balance. Cave à Vin has the decadence of Joe Beef on the one hand, but on the other it’s a place where Kelsall can have kids at work with him. You can eat charcuterie and Comte cheese with a glass of Poulsard in the evening, or have a kale salad and a filter coffee in the day.
The evening menu is a collaboration between Kelsall and his chef Conor Mertens (who with his chef partner Carly Black runs the Chimera pop-up events), and they’ve kept it simple and bold, influenced by Kelsall’s travels through South America in the coffee trade and Mertens’ time cooking in Japan, all in a comforting blanket of French Canadian butteriness. Yes, it’s good sharing food, but I never heard any staff utter the dreaded “have you dined with us before?” (note to serving staff of NZ: everyone on earth knows about share plates at this point). There is no prescription to how to approach it, but just ordering everything is probably a good place to start.
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Kelsall is still waiting on final approval for the dual on/off licence. Takeout wine will be $20 cheaper per bottle than dining in. “I have the minimum mark up I can afford on the wines, then I add $20. Basically when you dine here it’s retail and a corkage fee.” That means you can drink incredible wines like an Unkel “Sangiovese” (an Australian wine by NZ winemaker Rob Burley) for $60 a bottle where you’d most likely pay $80 to $90 on Ponsonby Rd (if you can find anywhere sharp enough to sell it). The wine list has plenty of super desirable (some might annoyingly say “unicorn”) French wines but that is balanced out by the best range of New Zealand and Australian natural wines you will find in any shop or on any list in the country. Hands down. It’s not even close.
Will it work in Milford? “I’ve been so impressed by how much locals know about natural wine and how excited they are. We don’t want to impose ourselves here, we want to be part of the community.”
We never really get to conduct a proper interview, but the tasting morsels, the tasting wines, the chatting with other customers (I was delighted to spot Scotty Pearson, the drummer from Elemeno P, on the night of the soft opening – turns out he’s not just the nicest drummer in the land but also does fitouts for natty wine bars on the Shore), never ends. If you’re in and around Takapuna this place will be your new local; if not it’s worth the trip. Every suburb needs one.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.