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KaiDecember 30, 2018

‘Like putting a magic spell in my mouth’: The Spinoff’s 2018 food and drink highs

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The Spinoff Food whānau and friends reveal the best things they put in their gobs this year.


Earlier this year, before she had told anyone outside of the family she was pregnant, my sister gamely came along to a wine tasting I was holding and inhaled the aroma of each wine deeply from her boyfriend’s glass while sipping on her own fizzy water. Because I am a nice sister, I chose a cheese she could eat at least – a maasdam from Farro Fresh that had been aged for 18 months. It turned out to be an absolute boon for all of us involved as it was one goddamn cracker of a cheese. It was firm with a bit of crunch, and a tangy, mouthwatering flavour with a nutty sweetness that put me in mind of caramel and sweet spice like nutmeg, and even a bit of pineapple. It matched impeccably with the Soave we were tasting.


Dumplings with extra chilli, bao and plum juice at Testbed 2 Arts Center, Yuzhong, Chongqing, China. Price: 44 yuan for two meals (NZ$9.84). The perfect example of why China is a culinary champion. We’d come to Yuzhong District in search of craft beer, and rather than pairing it with a kebab or burger we found the Chongqing Happy Meal – perfectly steamed bao, dumplings so spicy they sobered us right up, and homemade, tart and tangy plum juice to return us to a happy equilibrium.


When I bike home from an important cultural event in town, late at night, there is only one shop that is sometimes open. The No Name Fish Bar on Colombo Street. If the lights are on, I go in and deep dive into the deep-fried. On my most recent visit, I stumbled across something truly magnificent: the corn and bacon patty. Apart from corn and bacon, I don’t know what goes into it, and I don’t want to know. What I do know is that as I ambled my way home, this yellow disc, almost translucent with grease, sublimated into happiness. I had found a new favourite. Corn and bacon has long been a winning combination; by bringing them together into that most underrated of chip shop staples, the meat patty, it has been elevated to another level.

Testbed 2 Arts Center, Chongqing (Photos: Sarah Austen-Smith)


The Huia blanc de blancs is the best sparkling wine I’ve ever had. It’s like putting a magic spell in your mouth. Sidart’s cheese ice cream palate cleanser between savoury and sweet deg courses was the perfect way to signal the transition to dessert, so good it made me cry.


Spaghetti with girolles at The River Cafe in London and the Burmese tomato salad at Ballymaloe.


Can I have a few? Firstly the corn arepa with salmon roe and lardo at Auckland restaurant Inti (now sadly closed). Amazing bursts of flavour. I can’t wait to see what Javier Carmona does next. And Christchurch restaurant Gatherings’ pop-up at Orphans Kitchen was brilliant: I loved the thinly shaved raw pumpkin with lime and chestnut cream. I also loved a dessert at Clooney of mandarin, sorrel and milk skin. It was caramelised deliciousness, crisp and melt-in-the-mouth, with perfectly de-pithed mandarins and bright green sorrel sorbet (I do love tangy sorrel in a dessert)… 

Out of Auckland, I adored the charred broccoli salad with salty yoghurt, cucumber and dukkah at Monte Cervino in Wellington, as well as the cavatelli with braised wild rabbit, chard and walnuts. A complete plate of pasta comfort.


Grilled prawns in kombu butter from Cho Cho San in Potts Point, Sydney. It was a very chic establishment and I made a weird, primal noise when they tried to take the plate away before I had finished licking it clean.

Detroit-style pizza at Emily’s in New York (Photo: Heather McCracken)


The best thing I ate in general was Detroit-style pizza, and the best one specifically was at Emily’s in the West Village, NYC. This pizza was heaven. The crust was thick and yeasty and chewy, with a crispy base, and it was loaded with sauce and the softest creamiest mozzarella. Dry, thin ‘artisan’ pizzas can get in the sea, Detroit style 4 eva, this is my pizza hill and I will die on it.


Cacio e pepe on the Appian Way in Rome. Cynics might point out it’s really just fancy Italian mac and cheese, with spaghetti and pecorino subbing in for elbow macaroni and tasty cheddar. Fine, but that’s not the point. It’s a dish that’s a) a delicious cheese fest and b) genuinely ancient. After hours cycling past temples and catacombs and roadside tombs, along the same cobblestones where centurions once marched, I carb-loaded as the Romans did, scarfing down a dish that’s remained unchanged for thousands of years.


I ate a lot of fancy things at a lot of fancy places this year, but I’m going to use this forum to shout out some really good bread and butter, because, really, is there anything better? The potato focaccia with camembert butter at Craggy Range Restaurant was insanely good, as was Pasture’s nek-level sourdough with tangy, almost cheesy cultured butter. In a display of astonishing hubris, I’m also going to big-up my own homemade sourdough, fresh from the oven, slathered liberally (you wanna see teeth marks) in whatever butter I have to hand (as long as it’s salted – unsalted can GTFO unless you’re baking, IMHO).


One day, I got home from work and realised I’d only drunk coffee all day. I don’t think I’d even had a glass of water in the morning. Craziness. Anyway, I poured a big mug of tap water (yes, a mug – the dishes weren’t done), added three big ice cubes, swirled it around a little so the ice cooled the water a little then sculled the whole thing. Water never tasted so good.


The best thing I ate all year was at the very start. Light, crisp, ghost-like gougères at Hazel Days, a casual dining pop-up at Rita on Aro St in Wellington. The chef was Michael Hazelwood, a New Zealander running the food at Auberge de Chassignolles, which is this rustic rural French natural wine destination that you see people like Eric Wareheim freaking out over. The gougères were so perfect it makes me sad thinking about them. They were floating on a drizzle of mushroom broth that was the most intense, beautiful explosion of flavour. I could eat them every day for the rest of my life and be happy.

The best thing I drank is harder to pick. My heart is torn between the recent Garage Project cider Papa Flash and a wine from Unkel, the project of Aussie-based New Zealand winemaker Rob Burley, which Dan Gillett from Wine Diamonds introduced me to. The bubblegummy Sangiovese Day Dreamer is the kind of light, fresh, ALIVE wine that everyone should be in love with. Both these drinks are natural ferments and that’s probably been the defining thing for me in 2018. It doesn’t have to be boozy either – the world of kombucha and brewed sodas offers so much more to the palate than sugar and CO2. “Microbial-terroir” – a very pretentious-sounding word that won’t sound pretentious in a year or two. 

Avo and egg sammy at Goldmine, Wellington (Photo: Emily Writes)


I don’t know what has happened to blackberries this year but they’re like the best thing I ever put in my mouth. I’m addicted, it’s like crack. Also Eureka blueberries. And Poaka salami brought me back to eating pigs. They taste like some sort of amazing memory of the best salami you ever ate in Italy.


The first apricot of the season. Ambrosia. Twenty cabbage and pork dumplings from Dumpling Ace, Northcote. Toothsome, hot and oily. I like to bite one end off and spoon in a litre of chilli vinegar. A cold Coke, after three months of no caffeine.


I discovered Aperol Spritz at Loretta in Wellington. Only had one glass but was like WHAT IS THIS HEAVEN IN A GLASS. I bought some Aperol a month or so later and discovered I can turn cheap shitty bubbly into fancy summer day-drinking in like minutes! Sometimes to be even fancier I put in some lemon. Then I pretend I’m a real housewife. Once after having an Aperol Spritz I saw a real housewife in Parnell and it really messed with me.

Another discovery this year was the avo and egg sandwiches from Goldmine in Wellington. I love a good sammy and think any day can be salvaged with bread. Goldmine does enormous sammies with heaps of avo, good cheese, firm tomatoes and not too much rocket. The egg is also always cooked perfectly – just the right balance of firm but a wee bit runny. But not too runny it drips. They’re made to order and I honestly reckon they’re the best sammies in Wellington. They also have heaps of other sandwich options (lots vegan), gourmet toasties, kimchi fritters, and a full menu but I am too loyal to the avo and egg. I may try the sauerkraut and pickle soon though. Also all of the staff are very friendly and honestly I’m kind of in love with one of them. 

Keep going!