Sunday, December 8, 2013

Masu with the ladies

We had a delightful evening on Thursday at Masu. It was a gathering of old friends and some of my favourite women - all foodies - so the pressure was on. I have to say it was a hit all round.

I went to the opening of Masu a few months ago, where we enjoyed tantalising tastes of what was to come out of the kitchen. Now it's all up and running the restaurant looks gorgeous and is buzzing, and it was exciting to try it in full swing.

I'll be back to the bar for after work drinks over the summer - I love the open air feel and the novel cocktails.

And I'll definitely be back for the tasting menu. This has to be one of the bargains of Auckland dining. For $88 each we enjoyed miso crayfish tacos, sashimi, sushi, pork gyoza, teriyaki salmon, lamb cutlets, robata grilled broccolini, kumara and a sensational dessert platter with all sorts of treats including hand-made ice cream and sorbet, miso ice cream, chocolate fondant with green tea powder, shawan mushi and more. All of it was delectable. Simple, flavour-filled and gorgeously presented. I felt like I was back in Japan a couple of times there.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Back in Japanese mode. Low FODMAP style

While at the Christchurch Gluten Free Food & Allergy Show, lots of people asked me about the FODMAP-friendly recipes in HFG. I replied that we have some, but we would be doing more. What I just realised today, of course, is that most of my recipes are actually low-FODMAP. That is just how my cooking has evolved.

Here is the most recent example, devised this evening. The pork recipe actually is based on one in the Australian Women's Weekly Japanese recipe book, which believe it or not I have found a really good Japanese recipe resource. 

Teriyaki Pork with pineapple; greens with sesame sauce and steamed pumpkin

Serves 2

300g stir-fry pork pieces (I used Perfect Pork)
1/3 cup mirin
1/4 cup tamari
3cm piece ginger, grated
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons sake or sweet white wine

6 thin slices fresh pineapple

2 tablespoons unhulled tahini
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon tamari
2 courgettes, thinly sliced
2 spring onions, green part only

4 large silver beet leaves, chopped

300g pumpkin, thinly sliced
Drizzle sesame oil

Combine the first seven ingredients in a bowl and stir to combine. Set aside to marinate.

Chop all veges and set aside. Combine tahini, sugar and tamari with 2-3 tablespoons hot water. Stir well to combine. This is your sesame sauce.

Drain pork, reserving marinade in a small saucepan. Bring marinade to a simmer and cook until reduced by half.

Meanwhile heat a spray of oil in a large pan or wok. Cook pork for a few minutes only, until browned and tender. Remove from pan and keep warm. Spray pan again and add pineapple. Cook for a minute each side, until browned and slightly caramelised. Set aside. 

Wipe out pan and add a few drops of sesame oil. Stir -fry courgettes and spring onions until soft, adding silver beet at the end of cooking to wilt leaves. 

Cook pumpkin slices in a steamer or the microwave until tender - about 4 minutes. Season and drizzle with sesame oil. 

Serve pork on top of pineapple slices and pour reduced marinade over. Serve pumpkin and greens on the side; drizzle the greens with sesame sauce. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

I happened upon a cute Japanese shop on Dominion Road today. (Japanese Lifestyle, 75 Dominion Rd). They had a great selection of pretty and inexpensive dishes, bowls and plates. I picked up these little cuties... I will definitely be back there.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Memorable Tokyo meal #2

Actually, this meal wasn't in Tokyo. One day of our Tokyo trip was spent in Iwate prefecture, visiting one of the Yakult factories, several hundred kilometres north of Tokyo. On the bullet train this takes just a couple of hours through the countryside.

Before the factory visit we were taken to the Chuson-ji temple in Hiraizumi. It's a famous Buddhist temple in very lovely grounds, and it attracts lots of tourists thanks to the 12th-century 'golden hall' - a mausoleum containing the remains of ancient leaders. I'd love to say I had a very lovely spiritual experience here, but unfortunately it was such a busy, touristy place, and we were herded around from place to place so quickly that it felt a little bit blank.

Lunch, on the other hand, was a definite bright spot in the proceedings. In touristy places around the world, finding good food is definitely a hit and miss affair, with more frequent misses. But in Japan good food is everywhere from train stations to fine hotels (it reminds me of Italy in that respect, where we ate splendidly one day at a truck stop on the motorway). So it should not have been surprising that even an organised group lunch in a touristy restaurant with gift shop attached would be delicious.

This meal was presented bento-style, all at once. As usual I felt a sort of food ADD... not knowing where to start or look first. So much demanded my attention. Here's the meal.

Clockwise from the left we have:
Salted fish with pickles (it was an oily fish, perhaps mackerel?)
Some yummy little tofu puffs with green beans
Sashimi salmon, shiso leaf and daikon
Cold noodles in broth
steamed rice

Also off to the right was a steaming little hotpot with a flame underneath it. In this pot was an assortment of vegetables and mushrooms in a flavoursome broth, and some wide sheets of what looked and tasted like rice noodle.

Everything was very simple but beautifully done.

Doesn't this all just look delicious? I got back on the bus happy.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

This week's eating highlights

A bit of eating out this week! Clockwise from top left:

Caramelised tomato with 12 flavours a la Alain Passard with basil sorbet (Bracu)

Scampi tortellini with courgette, basil, broccoli and pistachio (Bracu)

Spiced roasted monkfish, roast veges with sesame oil & pomegranate molasses (home)

Annie's birthday cupcake made by cousin Kathy

Vanilla panna cotta with wine poached pears (Mikano)

Salad of pickled vegetables with macadamia cheese (Bracu)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Gorgeous Japanese packaging

I love how food is packaged in Japan. I had to buy this, even though I wasn't 100% sure what was inside. It is a package of sweet somethings I bought at the Chūson-ji temple in Iwate.

I took this to our family dinner the other night, where we opened it after dinner.

Inside was a bamboo canister, filled with individually wrapped sweets.

Which turned out to be some rather lovely green tea-flavoured sweets filled with sweet bean paste. Cute and yummy.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Memorable Tokyo meal #1

Up five floors in a tiny elevator (as all elevators in Tokyo seem to be) is Umenohana, a restaurant which, I am told, specialises in bean curd. As with so many of the meals I eat in Tokyo, much of the detail of what we eat is a mystery to me. Language is a barrier I've never felt so acutely.

In a beautiful, traditional space with tatami mats, gardens and water features, we sit at a table with large square metal boxes set into the table over heating elements. Inside is bean curd with a pink-tinged skin on top, which slowly cooks during the early courses of our meal. The skin is actually the point of this dish, I find out later. It's also the speciality of the house. It is known as Yuba. But first we are treated to course after course of delicious morsels. Unlike how I feel when faced with a degustation at home, I'm not daunted by a multi-course meal in Japan, because I know that every course will be tiny and delicate, and I won't feel stuffed and uncomfortably full at the end of it. 

We start with asparagus and soft tofu, this being the start of summer and everything seasonal being celebrated. It comes with some cold simmered greens topped with bonito shavings. 

Then some superbly fresh Kingfish sashimi, served on shiso leaf. This punchy Japanese herb is sometimes called Japanese mint, but its flavour is more citrusy and bitter to me. It will be finding a home in my garden very soon. 

Next is what turns out to be one of the favourite things I eat during the whole trip. A delicate custard, made with egg and dashi - the broth which underpins almost everything in Japanese cooking. It's delicately flavoured with yuzu, a type of citrus, and nestled within like buried treasure is a prawn and a piece of shitake mushroom. the picture does nothing to express how subtle and special this dish is. 

A favourite with my table-mates is next. A tofu shumai-style dumpling, packed with delicate prawn flavour. 

Then there's Yuba - that tofu skin - fried and served in a light broth. 

I confess I don't remember what's inside these little morsels. I'm quite taken with the presentation, though. Do you think someone in the kitchen is having a laugh? 

Next is more Yuba, served from the canister that's been steaming away on our table all this time. Our server scoops the tofu into our bowls of dashi broth. It's delicately flavoured and silky textured. I like it a lot. 

The next dish is cristened 'paddle pops' by my dining companions. They are Aussies, so this is to be expected. :) It's actually savoury; described to me as 'wheat gluten'. It is glutinous, and topped with a sweet miso paste. Again it's very textural. I find it delicious. 

Next is a course I'm a bit mystifed by. It looks for all the world like macaroni cheese. I suspect it is bean curd in another form, topped with cheese and grilled....

We finish with a light tofu ice cream. Desserts in general seem to be very small and are often simply fruit, which I love. 

I don't particularly love the Japanese wine (who knew?) On the menu there's a choice of "red' or 'white' when it comes to wine, which should have been a clue. It's a lesson that it's best to stick to traditional Japanese beverages like beer, sake and shochu. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Tokyo eating: first impressions

I've been home for a week, but I'm still going to sleep and dreaming of Japan.

I knew it would be a delicious place, and I was not disappointed. My first glimpse of Japan is of the growing of food. Rice paddies, gleaming like silvery tiles below our plane as we come in to land at Narita in the early morning. Once actually in the city, it's clear to see Japanese people are as obsessed with food as anyone in Italy or France. Japanese TV, although I can't understand any of it, appears to be comprised mainly of variety shows in which food is discussed, cooked and/or eaten, interspersed with ads for food. Out on the streets, it feels like every few metres there's another restaurant or food outlet.

I'm here on a media study tour courtesy of Yakult, the probiotic company based in Japan. In between fascinating lectures, research institute and factory visits, as I'd hoped, we do some very interesting eating.

My first meal in Japan is humble. It's in a small restaurant at the top of a department store in Ginza. It's described as a 'glamorous meal set' on the English language menu. It includes Katsu-style chicken filled with spinach and cheese (like Japanese chicken Kiev!) and pork cooked the same way but stuffed with pickled plum. It is served with a range of accompaniments including pickled veges, toasted sesame seeds and two types of BBQ style sauces, one sweet, one hot. It's lovely to look at; satisfying to eat but not quite what I had in mind when I picture Japanese food. It's my first lesson that this cusine is far more complex, varied and intriguing than I had realised.

After lunch I wander the food halls below - two floors filled with the most astonishing array of colourful and beautifully presented food. I have been writing about food for 15 years, and it is not often that I don't recognise most of the food around me. It's an extraordinary and quite frustrating experience - although also quite exciting - to be walking around looking at incredible food, 90% of which I can't identify! It is inspiring to think of all those undiscovered foods, so many dishes yet untasted! I resolve to try and find some help. I need a food interpreter.

As I wander I sample some bits and pieces handed to me from smiling staff handing out tasters. Chilled green tea noodles with broth; creamy bean curd; salted fish. I watch beautifully dressed and groomed Japanese ladies very carefully and deliberately choosing the ingredients for their dinners. It's not just here that there are great raw ingredients. In the small supermarket near the hotel, you can buy sashimi-quality tuna, purple octopus tentacles, an array of bright pickled vegetables and all sorts of gorgeous and exotic mushrooms.

Our first dinner in Tokyo is in a traditional Japanese restaurant a few floors up in a Ginza back street. It's a succession of courses (known as kaiseki style - the equivalent of a Western degustation).

We start with potato salad and asparagus custard, and finish with a fine creme brûlée. Highlights of the seven or so courses in between include prawns, brought first to the table live and wriggling in small jars. While we watch them watching us, we're asked to decide how we would like them cooked. Disconcerting for some in our group, but for me it just shows how fresh the food is!

We also eat crumbed squewers of vegetables and fish, served with a tiny bite-sized crab, to be eaten whole in one mouthful.

For years I never really got what the big deal was a about wagyu. Now I know. We eat it grilled medium rare, and it is creamy and bursting with meaty flavour. I want to eat a lot more than the few slivers on the plate.

I quickly learn that much of Japanese food is equally about texture as flavour. There are almost always crunchy elements to a meal: pickled or raw vegetables or crunchy crumbs. Sometimes the textures are challenging. One of the very few things in a week of eating that I'm not able to finish is a small bowl of seaweed with what I can only describe as a snot-like texture, topped with a similarly glutinous mound of crab-flavoured mousse. But more often these contrasting textures are fascinating and delicious.

Shabushabu another evening, is interactive food in a big way. A large pan of hot water is brought to the table and kept simmering via an element built into the table, along with platters of vegetables, mushrooms, tofu and meatballs. There's also a larger plate of paper-thin pork slices, which look like prosciutto. Everything is dunked in the water until cooked through - often only a few seconds - then eaten in a bowl of broth in front of each diner. Once the pork and veges are all gone, boxes of soba noodles are brought out to cook in the water, now flavoured deliciously from the pork. It's fun, fresh, healthy and surprisingly filling.

A surprise of eating in Japanese restaurants - for dinner at least - is that rice is served at end of the meal, usually after almost everything else has been eaten, rather than as an acompaniment. It's a way of celebrating the flavour and texture of the rice itself, which is a keystone of Japanese cooking. It tends to be served unadorned and unflavoured. Diners are free to add pickles or seaweed or sesame seeds if they want to.

My head is buzzing.

More on Tokyo to come!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

This week's eating highlights

Clockwise from top left: Kingfish cevice (The French Cafe), Pork fillet w roast pumpkin purée (home), Spanner crab risotto w frozen mustard (The French Cafe), Green chicken curry w carrot salad (home), salmon and pork belly (Matterhorn).

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Cranky about too-hard healthy eating advice!

Lately I've been getting a bit hot under the collar about so much 'healthy eating' advice which seems to be faddish, to be kind, and bordering on disordered, to be less charitable. 

I wrote a column about this for the HFG e-newsletter. It's here.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

New vege: Butterkin!

I was given a delicious new variety of pumpkin, Butterkin, at a recent event. It is super sweet, rich and delicious.

To celebrate its gorgeous flavour, I made a risotto with roasted Butterkin, Brussels sprouts, sage, rocket and Parmesan. My meat-loving husband declared it restaurant-worthy! Which is very very unlike him for a vegetarian dish. Winner all round, I think.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Recipe trial

What: Pork-stuffed eggplants with radicchio salad

From: latest issue of Mindfood magazine, page 128

Ease factor: Pretty easy. One baking dish, one bowl. I did also break out the stick blender to make breadcrumbs, but that was 2 minutes, max. You have to bake the eggplants first, scoop out the flesh, add it to the pork mix and re-fill the eggplants, then bake again.

Time: just under an hour. Not bad for a Monday night.

Value: approx $14 for the ingredients for two, with variations as below.

What I liked: a really tasty combo of flavours - savoury pork mince, creamy eggplant flesh, parmesan, feta, herbs and tomato sauce.

What I did differently: I used spray oil instead of brushing / drizzling. There's no way you need 1/3 cup oil here. I used a puréed can of tomatoes instead of passata (that's just what I had). I used gluten-free whole grain bread for the crumbs instead of sourdough. I used half haloumi and half feta (to use up a stray bit of haloumi in the fridge). And I didn't make the salad - instead I did a salad of broccoli, rocket, mint, lemon and balsamic glaze.

What I'll do next time: make a bit more sauce. And try the radicchio salad.

Sandy's verdict: "Very tasty" was the comment from SM. Yes, would eat this again.

Overall: Excellent - a lovely start to the week, and the recipe works as it is written. Nice one, Mindfood! 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Fun on the radio

I had a lovely time on Saturday filling in as co-host with Tony Murrell on Radio Live's home and garden show. I shared a couple of recipes (smoked fish and vege pilaf and the famous peanut butter chocolate chip cookies) and we chatted about healthy lunches, portion sizes and more. There are a couple of highlights on the Radio Live website, which you can listen to by clicking the links below. I love doing these bits of broadcasting and this was a great opportunity to do something different. Hopefully I will get to have another go soon! I'd love to know what you think...
Listen here:
Healthy work lunches and the 'deconstructed sandwich'
Chewy peanut butter and chocolate cookies
Smoked fish and vege pilaf

This week's eating...

Clockwise from top left: breakfast by Sandy Mcneur, Sunday. Teriyaki chicken (me), Monday. Breakfast stack at Dida's, Saturday. Pad Thai-style noodles & veges (me), Thursday.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

My Food Bag - the food!

As I mentioned the other day, I was sent a trial week’s worth of food from My Food Bag last week. 

If you don't know the concept by now - have you been under a rock for the last week? - the basic idea is that recipes + all the ingredients to make them get delivered on a Sunday and you cook the meals yourself during the week. 

I like the concept.  It takes away the issue of thinking up what to cook for dinner, if that is an issue for you. (For me, that is one of the most fun parts of making dinner, but I acknowledge that I am not necessarily typical). My friend Kirsten, for example, loved the idea - for her, coming up with ideas for dinner is the most stressful part. It also eliminates the tedium and time of shopping for food, although obviously you are still going to have to buy ingredients for your other meals and basics. The ‘gourmet’ bag we tried costs $139 for four meals for two people. 

I liked that in general the meals in our bag were generous in size. The dishes tasted good and interesting and there were a couple of clever ideas I'll be doing again, like the sauce for the duck, made with pomegranate juice.  Most of the recipes had good amounts of vegetables (at least two serves), which is excellent. I mixed up the order of the meals, because I was in Oz until Tuesday night so didn’t get to start until Wednesday. But that didn’t really seem to matter; we just popped all the meat and fish into the freezer. All the produce was fresh and of good quality. The recipes were straightforward to make for both me and Sandy, so they work for a range of skill levels.

I have a couple of quibbles. 

Firstly, nutrition. Of course I'm looking at this - occupational hazard. But I think it is fair enough, since My Food Bag is promoted as healthy as well as delicious and convenient. I wonder why in that case, the recipes don’t have full nutrition information.  Saturated fat and sodium are two very key things to keep an eye on when we eat - but unfortunately these things are not revealed on the recipe cards. The cards only have kJ, protein, carbs and total fat. I can’t help but wonder why?

As one of the four meals was over 3,000kJ (700 calories) one was just under, and one had over 40g of fat, I have to assume that the saturated fat in these recipes is not ideal. Neither the duck nor the lamb dish is really suitable, energy-wise, for someone of my size to be eating regularly. The website does say the recipes are going to be balanced out over the week, so perhaps week one was an exception with two heavier, fattier dishes in the mix. I’d hope so if I was watching my weight. 

I applaud the concept of fresh, whole, free-range and organic food. But I also think if you’re going to promote recipes as ‘healthy’ you should put your money where your mouth is and prove it. (Don’t think I’m singling My Food Bag out here – I say this all the time about things I see in magazines and books, too). They could also take the opportunity to highlight the good things – at least two of these recipes would earn a ‘high fibre’ tick based on our criteria. 

My second slight quibble is time. On the My Food Bag promotional material and website it says the recipes are all ready in an average time of 30 minutes. Great, I thought. But two dishes in our bag took an hour to make – 10 and 20 minutes longer, respectively, than it said on the recipes. I don’t think I am a slouch in the kitchen prep department; I just think the recipes were a teeny bit ambitious in their timing and some of the cooking times were off. I don’t mind spending an hour on dinner – just tell me up front it’s going to take that long. These were not really weeknight, after-a-busy-day-at-work-and-a-commute recipes.  

I’m not sure about the value for money aspect – would I pay $139 for ingredients for four meals for two?  That’s $34.75 per meal, or $17 per serve – not a cheap dinner by any means. (The ‘Classic’ bag is cheaper - $8.95 a serve).  But I get that you’re paying for the convenience of having everything delivered to your door, which does have appeal. 

My overall impression is this is a great idea, and I can see the type of people it will appeal to – people who enjoy interesting food but often lack inspiration or ideas about what to cook. I wonder how many of those people there are out there to sustain something like this after the initial surge of interest; but I’d be delighted to be proven wrong on that point. Tighten up a bit on the recipes and give us all the nutrition information, then My Food Bag can accurately claim a ‘healthy’ message.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Bags of PR

The big food story of last week was the launch of the My Food Bag food delivery service. I did not realise quite how big it was as I was in Sydney for the early part of the week. (The biggest food story there was whether or not the meatballs at IKEA contain horse meat. I can report from the front lines that IKEA promise their meatballs in Australia contain nothing but Australian meat. I can also report they contain not a lot of taste, but I don't think that is news to anyone).

I was offered the opportunity to try the My Food Bag service during its first week by the PR company, Pead PR. I thought that would be very interesting, although I felt slightly less special when I discovered that every food writer I know, plus every radio DJ, TV presenter, and a whole lot of bloggers and tweeters I'd never heard of were also on the PR schedule. By later in the week it occured to me that if you were in any way involved in food media and hadn't been sent a Food Bag, you'd be feeling pretty left out.

Anyway. There has been much chatter online and on air about how this has been done.
Radio NZ devoted a large part of their Media Watch show on it on Sunday.
The general commentary seems to be that the media has behaved unethically by commenting on social media and on other media about the product when they've been given the service to try for free.

For the record, I was not asked to tweet, Facebook post or otherwise cover the launch of My Food Bag. I've been asked to do that in the past for other products, which I have politely declined to do. I've seen it reported that other media were asked to tweet with a specific hashtag - I was not. Perhaps they knew my thoughts on such things.

For sure though, there has been some pretty gushy and indiscriminate coverage of My Food Bag around the place. I think the NZ Herald's Bite section possibly needs to give it a rest after two weeks' worth of pretty full-on mentions and My Food Bag recipes from Nadia.

But in general, this is nothing new. PR companies send out free products all the time. It's how things get featured in magazine pages and on websites. If I can't try a product, I can't consider it for my pages. By far the majority of what is sent to me does not make it into the magazine. Some of it doesn't meet our nutrition criteria; some of it doesn't taste very good. it only gets in if we have tried it and genuinely liked it. No one can buy their way in to our editorial pages.

You should see the corner of my office where all the PR stuff gets put - every six weeks or so I have to open an office 'free store' to get rid of the excess. I hear beauty editors on womens' magazines have amazing treasure troves of product in their cupboards. How do we think all those 'what's new in lipsticks/foundation/eyeshadow' features get put together? This is how PR works.

So I think what's happened with My Food Bag is not underhanded, it's just really effective PR. If I was the My Food Bag team, I'd be saying a big Thank You to Pead PR, because they have done a great job of giving a new company a really good start.

Tomorrow: what I thought of the food!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Auckland eating adventures

It's been six years since I've lived in the city, and it is fair to say a lot has changed. It's also fair to say I have not been exactly up with the play on what's shaking in the Auckland restaurant scene. In the past six years we would have eaten out in the evening in Auckland perhaps a dozen times. As Catherine Bell put it the other night, "You have a lot of catching up to do".
What better time to start than with our celebratory night out on the town for the breaking of febfast. It was with decidedly mixed feelings that Sandy and I did this. We've both loved the feeling of not drinking - how much more energetic and clear-headed and just generally better we felt. On the other hand, we also like wine. A moderate evening was proposed. Two glasses only, I said, one a glass of bubbly to celebrate the fast breaking, and another glass of something with dinner.

We started at Soul Bar, since there are few nicer locations on a sunny summer evening. A glass of Moet et Chandon accompanied by haloumi & mint fritters with honey and almonds and some lovely little smoked salmon bruschette felt like a really good start. A toast, a sip, and the month of non-drinking was over. Onwards!

Our next stop was one of the hot new places - probably made hotter by the fact that it's only temporary. The Hamptons is a (how I hate this term) "pop-up" restaurant in the front courtyard of an office building in Shortland Street. It's been well-reviewed and talked up by the food media, so we thought we'd better check it out. I can see why it's only going to be there until May - the wind, even a slight one, whips and swirls through the buildings and once the sun was gone it was a wee bit chilly sitting in what is basically an outdoor room. But it's a lot of fun - set up like a New England beach club/lobster shed it's got a menu full of what you might expect to find in that part of the world. Crab and corn cakes, crayfish rolls, clams, etc, but with a little twist of elegance, as you might expect from the team that brought us Clooney. We enjoyed a piece of brisket on the bone served in a smoky barbecue sauce and a dish of spiced snapper with a salad of gorgeously sweet tiny heirloom tomatoes. Corn bread on the side was a bit sweet for me - we should have gone for the iceberg lettuce salad which in retrospect was probably a knockout. I'll be back for the crayfish rolls.

Moved on by the chill, more than anything else, we mooched down to Britomart, thinking we might find dessert somewhere before our ferry home. Unexpectedly this turned into the highlight of the evening. Ortolana, the brand new casual but magical restaurant tucked in between the stores at the Britomart Pavillions, was on my radar courtesy of a foodie friend but we'd decided not to go there for dinner. I instantly regretted that decision when we wandered in, and the fact that there were three other food writers inside was a tip that something great was going on here. So too was the warm and welcoming smile and incredibly gracious persona of host and co-owner Jackie Grant, who did not miss a beat when we said we only wanted dessert, even though there was clearly a growing queue of diners keen for full dinners. The orange creme brulee we shared was divine, accompanied by some of the most delicious grapes; Jackie told us they were montelpuciano, from the family's Kumeu farm. We loved that the house rose (Invivo) was only $7 a glass, too. The dishes I saw heading to other tables looked fresh, simple and full of flavour - I cannot wait to head back for proper dinner.

I confess to never having heard of the Hip Group before tonight, which Jackie and husband Scott Brown own and run. But it turns out they are some of the cleverest operators in Auckland when it comes to cafes, and this is their first evening venture. It's very soon to be followed by another, even more interesting one - a dessert restaurant, Milse, which opens this week. Jackie gave us an impromptu tour of Milse which is next door to Ortolana - it's a stunning space, seating only a handful of people, where you'll be able to get a 5-course dessert degustation, should you desire, or order a la carte, or take a little something sweet away.

With its setting of twinkling fairy lights and manicured landscaping, Ortolana has a lovely feeling about it, and there is some seriously interesting but simple and seasonal going on with the food too, I think. I can see another night on the town (or maybe a lunch) on the cards for us very soon.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, February 7, 2013

febfast - one week down!

As some of you may know, I'm an ambassador for febfast, which means that along with many other participants I am giving up alcohol for the month of February. Here's how it's going so far...

Well, it’s a week into febfast and so far, so good! It hasn’t been too difficult to this point. Only a couple of times have I thought to myself “Oh, I’ll have a wine”, and then had to check myself the second later, realising that I’m not doing that at the moment! Mostly those times have been late afternoon, early evening; about the time when we would usually open up a bottle. But once over that hump, I haven’t found myself craving wine, even with my meals. 

Finding interesting things to drink that are not sickly sweet has been a challenge. Chilled water with lime slices is nice, but a tad boring after a while. Many of the bought drinks are just too sweet for me. I have started to brew my own iced tea from fruity herbal teas, which have no sugar and are quite refreshing. These seem to go quite well with food, generally speaking. My favourite so far is the Bell green tea with berry; this has a nice bitter undertone from the green tea with a hint of berry sweetness. 

Sandy is doing febfast with me, which has made a big difference I think. I’m not having to watch him drinking while I sit on my soft drink. 

We have been having a slight disagreement, however, over eating out. I really want to go to the Engine Room for dinner, which is just up the road from our new place, and has fantastic food. I don’t see why we can’t go, eat the fantastic food and not drink any wine. For sure we’d probably really be tempted, since of course wine is going to complement great food and we are in the habit of always having the two together. Sandy says no way, it just won’t be as good without wine. But I say, why not? We should be able to go out and do normal things, just like we always do, and not have alcohol while we do it. I don’t see why we should avoid all restaurants just because we can’t drink.  This will be an ongoing discussion. What do you think? And does anyone want to have dinner with me if my husband still obstinately refuses?! 

Please sponsor me for febfast - click here to go to my febfast page