Tag Archives: new zealand

Coco’s Cantina – finally

Pick the day. Enjoy it – to the hilt. The day as it comes. People as they come… The past, I think, has helped me appreciate the present, and I don’t want to spoil any of it by fretting about the future.
~ Audrey Hepburn

There are some cities which, I find, people seem to feel one of two or three main ways about – like Paris (“most romantic place in the world” or “city of delicious food” or “full of arrogant people and dirty streets”).

Auckland… doesn’t seem to be like that. Though it seems to be a place people either love or hate (as opposed to feel nonchalant about), ask people to elaborate on their thoughts about Auckland and chances are you’ll get 20 different responses from 20 people.

I’d hesitate to write a guide book about this city. Mostly because I’m in two minds about Auckland myself.

She’s a hard city to love or hate as a whole. She’s got all these horrid bits, like the bus system (what system?) and shops that close too early and questionable buildings and certain smelly streets – but then she’s got a certain depth and unusual charm, too, that she keeps well hidden until you ask her out for coffee. Or a dance. Or a walk on the beach.

Repeatedly.

I’m beginning to see, though, that she values persistence. Persistence will lead you to her jewels.

Like Coco’s Cantina.

If you’re in the mood for a fast, mean burger, or fawning waiters and gourmet dots and stripes of sauce on big plates, skip Coco’s. You’ll get neither cheap instant gratification nor royal treatment.

But if you’re ready for fun, confidence, honesty, smoky seduction and hearty food… this is your place.

I heard or read about Coco’s some months ago; I can’t even remember why or when I jotted the place down in my mental notebook under “to try”. I’d been wanting to visit for some time, but just hadn’t… until recently, when M asked where we should go for dinner. Then the place sprang to mind, and two minutes later we were in a car racing towards quirky K Road.


Photo above © Cuisine

We eventually got a park for the car (seriously – no mean feat in the area at dinner time) and wandered down to Coco’s. I remembered reading that this place can get madly busy, so I was pleasantly surprised that we actually got to pick a table! (We went in on the right side of 5pm – it did get busy later). I took in the cheery gingham tablecloths, rustic decor and trendy mural on the wall. The spirit of the place felt tangible… radiant, casual and unmistakeably hip. The waiters reminded me of some waiters I once encountered in Spain (fun, sharp, no nonsense – made me smile!).

The summery “tea me up” peach tea and refreshing mojito-like liquid in a glass were welcome fare for two slightly sunburned people.

The menu was just right – extensive enough to cater to different tastes and make you deliberate for more than a minute, but not long enough to frustrate. All the options sounded delicious, but we weren’t in the mood for something too heavy, so we decided to share two pasta dishes.

M picked the gnocchi – I’m really not a blue cheese fan, but I quite happily ate my half of this. How they managed to make the gnocchi keep its shape but melt rapidly in the mouth, I don’t know. But the mini pillows mingled seamlessly with the comfortably rich gorgonzola sauce, peppery rocket leaves and fresh walnuts…

I regretted not writing down what this ravioli contained, because I could not place it as I ate! But there were pine nuts and raisins, and it was simple, elegant and oh-so-enjoyable to eat. I sneakily ate just a little more than my allocated half of this… M liked this dish better than the gnocchi too (though we agreed that both were very tasty).

We also ordered a side dish of brown lentils and greens, which were tossed with diced onions, fresh mint and other goodness – faultless and refreshing.

When the adorable dessert menu arrived, we were regrettably full and M had to go to the airport – but it looks like a second visit to Coco’s is in order!

P.S. Oh, and if you have time to drop by The Ponsonby Belgian Beer Cafe en route to Coco’s, or afterwards, do. It’s got the wonderful attributes of a stately exterior, a lovely open courtyard (complete with an actual fireplace for cold nights), and a good selection of quality beer and wine.

M and I got a cold beer each and discussed trivial/not-so-trivial matters in the sun… a sweet evening!

Coco’s Cantina – 376 Karangahape Road, Newton, Auckland – Phone: 09 300 7582

The Ponsonby Belgian Beer Cafe – 1-3 St Marys Road, Ponsonby, Auckland – Phone: 09 376 6092

Thanksgiving, bright and beautiful

I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.*
~ Jon Stewart

In the way that nice ideas sometimes drop in without an invitation, the idea of having a Thanksgiving dinner sailed through the door of my mind one evening a few weeks ago. And so it is that around 15 of us celebrated Thanksgiving last Saturday (yes – on Election Day, but I won’t elaborate on that right now) at my place, many of us for the first time. Aside from the lack of football, family members and sweet potato/marshmallow pie, I think we did pretty well ;-)

Friday turned out to be a long day at work, and I only got to hang out with my turkey after 10.30pm. Thank you Nigella Lawson, because without your fabulous-smelling turkey brine, I’m not sure I would have felt like taking taking out giblets**, neck and liver from the turkey instead of going to bed…

And yes, I had to place him*** and Nigella’s brine in a (very clean) bucket because he was way too large for my largest pot. The bucket then sat in the fridge for a night, so Steven-Thomas** could soak in all the goodness.

Of course, we had the all-important pumpkin pie – prepared by an honest-to-goodness American, no less. Also of note: this was made with hand-smashed pumpkin, in the absence of canned pumpkin purée in NZ! A most admirable and delicious effort (thanks Brad!).

I don’t think I’ve ever tried pumpkin pie, and I was pleasantly surprised by the taste of pumpkin in a sweet dish! It made an excellent addition to my mental taste library.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will know that I have been charmed by Ottolenghi’s recipes more than once. So of course I turned to them for help this Thanksgiving! This recipe for sweet potato wedges with lemongrass crème fraîche (crème fraîche not pictured) comes from their book “Plenty”. Unfortunately, the man at the farmers’ market didn’t have lemongrass – so I added more lime and ginger to the crème fraîche. I also used a giant farmers’ market pepper in place of a chile. Loved the way the zest and zing in the crème fraîche combined with the coriander and salt-flavoured baked sweet potato wedges, and the Christmassy colours of the pepper and parsley.

Here is one of the fastest “dishes” ever to assemble – a few sliced juicy tomatoes, a heavenly ball of Clevedon Valley buffalo mozzarella, some torn basil, salt, pepper and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar – a 30-second plate to put together, so handy for gatherings!

I have no idea how this tasted, but I poached a few stalks of white and green asparagus with a bay leaf in white wine, then added some feta and lemon zest on top. Hopefully it sort of worked…

Here is an impromptu watercress and tangelo salad, served with a (not pictured) balsamic, olive oil and orange blossom water dressing on the side. Thanks to the wonderful Ian for making this look so pretty, and while I am doing the thanking thing – I was pretty grateful for the takeaway coffee he presented me with while I was cooking!

G brought these crazy delicious roasted pears with red onions… mmmmm! Sweet, soft, smile-inducing… yum yum yum. I had a few servings of these!

She also brought a most charming gift – a bunch of herbs from her garden with a note! Love it. Thank you, Miss G!

A second round of thanks to Brad for doing a marvellous job with carving the turkey! It is definitely not as easy as he made it look. Not all of us have that level of competence with knives…

My vivacious friend Emily brought this sweet pumpkin pie cheesecake – on a gingersnap crust, sweet and very nice, though I wish we could have let it sit in the fridge for a tiny bit longer to set properly!

Dinner was a real team effort, and everyone pitched in so cheerfully and kindly. Fiona got super strong plastic cutlery that didn’t even flinch when used to cut turkey slices. Anna brought juice and yummy savoury pumpkin. Ian chopped vegetables with precision and without complaint. Kath brought wine and a vase for my flowers. Jacq brought carrots and capsicum – a pretty medley of red and orange candy cane shapes! Stacey bought a generous tray of potatoes. Emily brought (in addition to the cheesecake above) some very good Swedish meatballs which we devoured with cranberry sauce. R and K brought more wine. I nearly had to physically kick a few people out of my kitchen (when they insisted on doing the dishes) – I really could not have asked for better guests!

Oh yes, and – this cheesecake! My family couldn’t make it to dinner, so Dad baked a cake and my brother dropped it off at my place! Way sweet, and I’m not just talking about the cake, which was fluffy, designed to melt in the mouth and just rather madly good.

So it was lovely to have friends meet other friends, and share conversations and food and flowers and laughs… though I certainly missed a few friends who could not make it that evening! We shared what we were thankful for (some more seriously than others). We had a Thanksgiving toast. People washed plates when we ran out, and took photos for me when my hands were too greasy to touch a camera. The night flowed smoothly like a glass of red… and I was a little sad that the night seemed to end so quickly… but then the smiley MANDY arrived (visiting from Singapore!) and we went out for a late night of bubble tea and cards and got stitches from laughing. Always the case when she’s around!

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers who celebrate it!

* Only points #1 and #2 of Jon Stewart’s quote above happened in my home on Saturday – my guests are still alive. To the best of my knowledge.

** Does anyone have a good recipe for giblet sauce? I was going to try making it but couldn’t find a recipe that sounded realistic and good.

*** The turkey was christened “Steven-Thomas” at an informal ceremony in my kitchen.

Touristy thoughts on Ponsonby Road

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.
~ Marcus Aurelius

Do you like being on stage? I used to love the stage. Not for public speaking, mind you, but I can still remember how my heart leaped with fearful exhilaration whenever I got to go on stage at school. I FEARED it and I LOVED it. You could be just you on stage, or you could throw on a cloak, pointe shoes, a paper crown and be someone else – and if everyone joined in the fun, you could all go on marvellous adventures together without leaving the room. I can’t even remember what the physical stage looked like now, but I well remember the experience of being on it… pretty crazy how transforming a stage is, considering that physically it is just a simple elevated platform with curtains, lights and stuff like that.

Relating this to travel – jumping on a plane is kind of like jumping on a stage, isn’t it? You’re still you, and you’re still on planet earth – but at the same time, you’re… not you. And earth looks different.

So this evening I thought about travelling and all the things I love about it. The way I feel when I’m travelling. Experiencing different people, a different way of life, different everything. The way priorities seem to straighten themselves out. The way I expect surprises, and get plenty of surprises (some better than others, admittedly). The way you go so far to peer into a face completely different from yours and find, to your surprise, that they smile and cry just like you do; that deep inside humanity is common to everyone. Travelling is AMAZING.

However! While it is certainly fun to tour foreign countries, and I still mean to visit more places in my lifetime – I realise that it can be just as fun to “tour” your own resident city. ‘Cos let’s face it, money doesn’t grow on trees, NZ is pretty gorgeous and NZ is also pretty far away from everywhere else. Also, what’s the point of living in one place, pining for another and missing life altogether in the process?

So today, arriving 30 minutes early for dinner, I wandered down Ponsonby Road like a tourist. I took pictures. I smiled at strangers. I peeked into shop windows. I noticed different things. I asked questions when they popped into my head.

I relished the fact that I’m not ACTUALLY a real tourist, so when I chanced upon 129 Ponsonby Road, I popped in and bought a bag of spinach and ginger zest muesli (some things don’t change :-))

I walked past some pretty cool spots – Auckland is a big tank of mud with gold nuggets hidden inside. You have to trawl through hideous traffic and buildings but then every time you find a place like Milly’s, for instance, you strike gold.

Ponsonby Road has a few gold nuggets.

So, Auckland: I’ve given up trying to stop myself from thinking this is an ugly city. It is what it is. Ugly. But above that, it’s got spunk. It’ll rise to whatever challenge you care to offer it. Over the last 11 months, it’s wrestled bravely with my will to like it. It’s been a big ugly frog, daring me to kiss it so it can show me the prince he really is. It’s charmed me with the likes of stunning weather and occasional great coffee and pretty surrounding beaches and blooming roses and all the rest of it.

Aside from the wonderful people I’ve met here, I’m still not sure that I’ll be sad to leave (if and when that day should come), but until then… I’ll agree to give you a chance, Auckland.

P.S. On dinner: we went out to celebrate my parents’ recent wedding anniversary (what a reason to celebrate!). We all enjoyed our delicious meals and the kind waiters (grazie mille, Gusto Italiano!). The last picture above is a picture of my dinner tonight: oven roasted duck marinaded with herbs, served with red cabbage cooked with orange and sultana, chestnut and potato mash, and a drizzle of balsamic. And yes, it was as good as it sounds… though I can probably attribute it at least in part to the fact that I had to wait a while for my family to arrive (that’s lovely Auckland traffic for you) ;-)

Gusto Italiano – 263 Ponsonby Road, Auckland – Phone: 09 361 1556

Queenie’s Lunchroom, Freemans Bay

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.”
~ A.A. Milne

Quick post, ‘cos I want to dive back into Jostein Gaarder’s “The Castle in the Pyrenees” after this. I’m so keen to read tonight that I don’t even have time to cook… I’m eating a pie. An honest-to-goodness, really-bad-for-you and not-even-that-nice-tasting pie. And cheese + crackers. Tonight, I’m doing away with dishes and I’m feeding myself with words.


Photo above © Babiche Martens

I just wanted to pop in quickly to say Queenie’s Lunchroom is one super place. I don’t know what I like best about it – I just know that in the two times I’ve been there recently, there was so much to smile about before the food even came… and then there was no quittin’ smiling. Quality coffee (all the more noticeable in Auckland, city of hit-and-miss in this area). Candy-striped seats. An avalanche of magazines available to read, which I left untouched only because I had engaging company. Cute stone steps set into the grassy patch outside. Happy-looking customers. Whimsical walls and floors. A fun array of baking on the counter. The warm generosity of Grandma in the air. An enticing menu where I actually couldn’t decide between options simply because I actually wanted them all… oh I already look forward to my next visit.

Everything I have tasted here has been delicious. The sight of “Turkish eggs with baba ghanoush, yoghurt, hot chilli butter & toast” on the menu was hardest to resist on my first visit, so I eventually (after re-reading the menu at least 20 times) chose that. It turned out to be a medley of sweet and smoky, warm and wonderful with the gently spiced eggplant, temperate chilli butter and silky cool yoghurt weaving a gentle blanket around the poached eggs. Fresh warm toast sat in a comfortable, lazy stack next to it. Tucking into this, I felt like a snug worm in a cocoon.

Mom, my sweet dining companion on that occasion, ordered the omelette, which is the most ordinary item at most places – but not here. Here it comes with smoked fish (!), spring onions, capers and cream cheese and a mini garden of greens – fresh and flavourful, she enjoyed it… and I certainly enjoyed my bite (or two) of it too. Mom and I also shared a serving of citrus dressed avocado – the pairing of sharp citrus and nutty creaminess was perfect. Spring on a plate.

My second visit to Queenie’s was with my friend Carmi, who made brunch a most beautiful occasion – we talked about things deep, and also things funny. I so enjoyed being in her presence… Carmi ordered the Greenlip mussel, chorizo & red capsicum fritters with lemon aioli & rocket – all ingredients that shine in a NZ kitchen, me thinks! And I got the Kosheri, having been told by the waitress that it was her favourite dish. When I tucked into that impossibly fluffy Egyptian rice with lentils and spinach nestled in it, and that creamy tomato, avocado and yoghurt salad on the side, I could totally see why she recommended this. It was humble, real, and bursting with light.

It’s always worth listening to a waitress whose eyes shine when you ask her what her favourite dish on the menu is, and why. :-)

After a long and leisurely brunch, Carmi and I ordered a meringue to share, which came with a generous helping of crème fraîche and berries. It was light, biscuit-y, crumbly and firm; tart, cool and sweet… the perfect sweet finish on a sunny afternoon.

Queenie’s Lunchroom – 24a Spring Street, Freemans Bay, Auckland – Phone: 09 378 8977

I felt like Winnie the Pooh

“Sometimes,” said Pooh, “the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”
~ A.A. Milne

Tasting this, I was Winnie the Pooh in Wonderland.

I am sure I am not the only J. Friend and Co. honey consumer who has thought about sticking a human paw into one of their jars…

Before we moved to New Zealand, I was a stranger to the wide honey world. If anyone said “honey”, I’d think of couples or of a sticky bright yellow substance glooping down Pooh Bear’s rotund tummy. Over the last few years, I have really loved getting acquainted with the beautiful honey made right here in this country – especially the unique manuka honey which NZ is so rightfully well known for.

While I like honey, though, I have seldom enjoyed it neat. I can be persuaded to try raw cookie dough, or lick my butter knife after using it to spread PB on toast, and once or twice I have even been seen to lick a plate (ungraceful, I know)… but I am mostly NOT a honey-spoon-licker. I’ll drizzle honey on my crumpets or stir honey into warm water, then toss the honey-coated spoon straight into the sink.

So yesterday, while trying to choose a honey (of my three jars*, of which I had only tried one) for R’s salmon, I took a TINY sample of each one… before Winnie the Pooh unexpectedly whooshed into my brain. He nearly took over. Instead, I took out teaspoons and insisted that everyone try some honey. I think I may have looked frighteningly excited, because they all looked a little shocked and just obeyed silently.

;-)

I am happy to say that after everyone had a taste of some honey, no one questioned my sanity. It spoke for itself…

We used a few spoonfuls of the Beechwood Honeydew honey to make a honey-balsamic glaze which greatly enhanced our main course of seared salmon fillet; baby spinach and blanched asparagus tossed with lemon zest; portobello mushrooms baked with halloumi; and couscous with parsley.

This honey tasted of forests and fairies… it was a total surprise, and it was wonderful to place a full teaspoon of this into my mouth and shut my eyes for a minute… I thought of Enid Blyton’s “The Wishing Chair” (still so fun to think about, years later). What can I say? If you were to use a liquid to describe imagination and abundance, this honey would come pretty close.

We ate very well last night. R and K thoroughly spoiled us with this dinner, and their company! (Thank you R and K!)

In addition to that crazily delicious salmon dish above (which the photo does not do justice to), we also had prosciutto draped over cantaloupe… a combination I have often heard great things about but never ventured to try. I was certainly not disappointed!

For dessert, I just assembled two platters:

Havarti with grapes and crackers, and fresh strawberries with crème fraîche and brown sugar. Not that we really fit much dessert in after the preceding courses!

* Thank you so much, kind Sharyn, for sending me two jars of your precious honey to try! I can’t wait to try the Viper’s Bugloss honey in a dish. :-)

My idea of a productive shopping session

Eating is really one of your indoor sports. You play three times a day, and it’s well worth while to make the game as pleasant as possible.
~ Dorothy Draper

When you eventually find a park and make your way across the carpark in response to your nose’s instructions, you will find:

People who truly love food and people, who are generous and lively even on the rainiest of weekends as they offer the work of their hands to us.

Non-uniform, healthy vegetables and herbs which all but scream “I am fresh and free of bad stuff!” That bunch of basil pictured above took my breath away with its scent… dare I say I’d much rather a boy give me a bouquet of basil than flowers! ;-)

Amazing baked goods – whoopie pies, almond croissants dusted with fairy magic (icing sugar), good sourdough, pull-apart bread which you can’t wait to get into your mouth.

An array of options for the hungry breakfast lover (everything from savoury tarts to French crepes and Spanish paella).

Fresh juice. ‘Nuff said.

Good cheese. See above.

Smiling shoppers. VERY telling… especially when you consider the number of miserable-looking people I have to squeeze with at a certain supermarket that I hate on many weekdays after work.

What can I say? We are tremendously fortunate in New Zealand to have the people, produce and markets that we do. One place I like in Auckland is La Cigale.

La Cigale – 69 St Georges Bay Road, Parnell, Auckland – open Saturday and Sunday mornings [delicious bistro open Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays]

A Vietnamese dinner, and associated memories

Men and women who know themselves are no longer fools; they stand on the threshold of the door of wisdom.
~ Havelock Ellis

I’ve met people from many different countries, and it still surprises me every time I encounter an avid traveller who has been to everywhere BUT the places closest to where they are from. Kiwis who have been to the UK and back several times, but never visited Australia (or Invercargill, while I’m at it). Germans who have backpacked everywhere and never set foot in Berlin. French people who haven’t explored Spain or London (since, they declare, France already has the best of everything…).

I could go on… if not for the stark realisation that I too am quite unfamiliar with Southeast (and the rest of) Asia. I’d rather attempt to make linzertorte than shock anyone with my (“what is that?”) stir fry or noodle soup. Every time I go back to Singapore for a visit now, at least one person will ask me if I am a tourist (apparently I also have a “foreign face”, whatever that means, and a warped accent). If I try to speak Cantonese in Hong Kong, I already know that whoever I am speaking to will quickly reply “where are you from?” before quoting me tourist prices.

That said, I wouldn’t trade my heritage and upbringing for anything. Southeast Asia is pretty special.

A few years ago, my parents took me to Hanoi, Vietnam – a generous graduation gift. I still remember feeling more culture shock there than I have in places further afield from home.

For one, I experienced, for the first time in years, a strong desire to clutch my mother’s hand as we crossed the roads. Road-crossing there is for the sure-footed, bold people who better believe in life after death. You have to step out and keep walking, eyes shut or otherwise, while all the cars toot helpfully as they circle around you. You can’t stop, and you can’t run – you have to walk at a measured pace so the cars and motorbikes can work to it. I can’t even remember if there were working traffic lights there – it seemed that everything was communicated via tooting and body language and some other language of organised chaos I had not yet learned.

Hanoi was gorgeous, though. It’s one of the few places that, if you look carefully, will clearly show you how little you need in terms of material goods to be happy. Sure, money helps a lot – and I am not glossing over the fact that I did walk past overcrowded houses where my heart ached for the people who had to live in them. I did have moments where I hated poverty, hated the fact that even as I gave one child some money and a smile – that even if I spent a year doing that to every child I saw, there’d still be many others who were hungry and had to live in overcrowded houses.

But. I remember seeing a grandma, a kid and a dad perched on a motorbike, laughing into the wind. I remember a lady who served me a steaming bowl of pho grinning like it had been her lifelong dream to serve noodles. I remember how fantastically wealthy I felt as my eyes took in the untouched beauty of Ha Long Bay. I remember that earthy Vietnamese coffee, mellow and gently sweetened with condensed milk. I remember the creative talent that flowed in so many nooks and crannies everywhere we went – silk, shoes, tapestry. I remember tasting amazing fruit and having to lick my sticky juice-splashed fingers. I remember a lot of smiling faces. I remember wondering if I’d be smiling if I lived in some of those houses that we saw.

It was great to remember all of that as Tracey, J and I dined at Vietnam Gourmet Restaurant last night. The interior is simple rather than lavish, and most people appeared to be having steamboat (looked good). There were families and groups of friends… and when our food arrived, I understood why there were so many people there. Portions were so generous, and the food was fresh and beautifully prepared. The staff were friendly. I loved the Vietnamese mint and elements in my dish, and thought about all the things I love about good Vietnamese food as I ate: uncomplicated, fresh, lightly sweet and sour, and real.

Tracey and J also loved their food, and had enough leftovers to take home for lunch today too. We paid less than $60 altogether for: lemongrass chicken and rice; spring rolls; fried noodles with combination meat; a jackfruit shake (I was pretty excited to see this on the menu – I have not seen jackfruit in NZ and love it); a glass of coffee; and my chef’s vermicelli (which, as you can see in the picture below, packs a punch). Money gladly spent.

Pictures in this post (with the exception of the Chef’s Vermicelli above) are pictures I took on my trip to Hanoi a few years ago.

Vietnam Gourmet Restaurant – 38 East Tamaki Road, Papatoetoe, Auckland – Phone: 09 278 7286