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Wellington on a Plate.

Let’s devour to our hearts’ content.

I seldom see a whole snapper being served at a dinner event, unless it is a traditional Chinese dinner banquet. So when the waitress brings out a whole roasted Northland snapper, proudly resting on a plate and surrounded by Cloudy Bay clams, I simply can’t help but let out a gasp admiring the dish. That’s the Wellingtonians’ way of welcoming us to be part of the exciting Wellington On A Plate food festival in New Zealand.

An initiative by the Positive Wellington Tourism, Helen, Peter, John and I are invited to partake this year Wellington On A Plate (WOAP) – a fortnight food festival where the whole city comes alive with 88 of the region’s finest restaurants are offering amazing lunch and dinner deals at some unbelievable pocket-friendly prices, plus a long list of exciting culinary events to please every palate. I just knew I’ll be in for a treat for four consecutive days in the beautiful picturesque Wellington city, New Zealand. After a short 3 hours flight from Sydney to Wellington, we packed ourselves with empty stomachs and looking forward to see (or eat) what Wellingtonians have to offer.

To kick off Wellington On a Plate, we are invited to Devour in style. Of course we didn’t eat with hands voraciously, Devour is actually a spectacular gala dinner hosted by City Market at the Chaffers Dock Building on the waterfront, which is the same venue where they held a weekly food and wine market showcasing Wellington artisans. Tonight, the stalls are folded away, and the gorgeous space is now filled with tables with crisp black linen tablecloths and each table has its own unique display, ready to house 160 guests for a memorable gala dinner, a celebration of all things Wellington.

John and I stay at Museum Hotel, only a stone throw away from the venue. We are exceptionally early and find ourselves first to arrive, which also means we have more time to photograph the beautiful space before guests arrival. Rachel Taulelei from Yellow Brick Road and award winning chef, Martin Bosley are there to greet us as we walk in, “Ahh… you are the bloggers from Sydney. But you are too early, why not fuck off back to Australia and come back later?” Martin’s sense of humour is edgy and not wasted on us. We feel welcomed already and introduced to his signature aperitif of grapefruit cocktail.

I am in awe as soon as I walk in, they truly have transformed the space into a feasting wonderland. Guests are greeted by a line of colourful providore’s fair from the weekly City Market at the entrance upon arrival, fairy lights entangled along the pillars and on the walls, while the dazzling crystals chandeliers elegantly hanging over head. Then there are columns of guests’ names written on a long blackboard wall, indicates the table arrangements and some even have names written on oranges for seat allocations, very nifty.

But the most impressive of all are the tables, they are all beautifully presented with each table decorated differently using different providores’ fare from the market – whether they are jars of colourful Loukoumi Turkish Delights, a stack of cookbooks from BookFeast or a two-tier cupcakes and topped with a mini white fondant cake by Cupcake Sweetie; they are all simply stunning and I am truly inspired to spend a little bit more effort to decorate the dining table for my next dinner party.

Canapes of oxtail tortellini with horseradish mousse and avocado tartlet with mandarin and coconut powder, pressed chicken terrine with watercress and walnut mayonnaise and are free flowing among guests. Te Matuku Bay Oysters are also freshly shucked around the clock, the slippery creamy flesh is large and briney, I can feel the aphrodisiac is working and makes me keep wanting more. But I do have to save some space for dinner as it is about to start.

The food bloggers along with food and wine writers are finally congregated at the Le Canard table, humbly decorated with truffled onion duck soup, pate and terrine on a cheeseboard inside the glass dome.

Le canard duck soup with duck liver mousse crostini

We kick off the dinner with a Amuse Bouche of Le Canard duck soup with duck liver mousse crostini. The duck soup is not too overpowering and warms the soul to beat the chilly Wellington’s  night. I absolutely adore the duck liver mousse, so smooth and light which is nicely balanced with the crunchy crostini.

smoked fish brandade, rye bread crumbs, celeriac panna cotta, sweet corn emulsion, micro greens

The entree is beautifully presented with a cannelle of smoked fish brandade, atop a rectangle piece of fluffy celeriac panna cotta, with a streak of sweet corn emulsion, and a sprinkle of rye bread crumbs and micro greens. The soft-on-soft texture isn’t really my cup of tea, but I can imagine the smoked fish brandade would be a perfect spread of a thin crispy lavosh.

Half way through the meal, we are even treated with operatic performances from the world-class tenor Benjamin Makisi. His voice is loud as thunder, and his charming wit, throwing air kisses to the audience makes a lot of women at the table swoon under his feet. By now, the conversation also turning to an interesting point with topics that fire up a great debate at the table.

roast beef fillet, anchoide

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The mains are two communal sharing courses of tender roast beef fillet with anchoide, a Provencal style paste made from anchovies, garlic, olive oil, mayonnaise, vinegar and egg yolk.

Then there is also the Ben-Hur-Sized roast Northland snappper with Cloudy Bay clams in XO butter sauce. (first picture on top) Must be difficult to roast so many fish at the same time and keeping the flesh moist when serve as I find the fish is a little tacky on the teeth, but the others think is perfectly cooked.

We are also served with three complement side dishes to go with the mains. The cauliflower gratin is soft and heavily smothered in cream and cheese, a bowl of Agria potatoes are roasted in Vadouvan spices, a popular Martin Bosley’s concoction of dried onion flakes, fried shallots, fenugreek, cumin, cardamom, mustard seeds, tumeric, nutmeg, chilli flakes and cloves. But I find myself loving the simple steamed broccoli with black olive butter pairing with my proteins.

The final encore of the three tenor performance wraps up our dinner this evening perfectly. They jokingly call themselves the “The Three Pacific Tenors” with Benjamin leads the way and perform a few big numbers along with his colleagues including Nessun Dorma, Santa Lucia, and Frank Sinatra’s My Way. Their world class performance is truly well deserved a standing ovation from everyone.

As the final curtain calls, we also slowly easing into the night with some sweet bites of Esque toffee chocolate, Loukoumi feijao turkish delight which has an acquired soapy flavour, borek, nougat and also a selection of Le Marche Francais cheeses. “Do you like wash rind? Try the one with the darker orange tint,” Helen is totally speaking my language. That pungent stinky socks block of cheese will never go down well on a romantic date, but tonight it is the gem on the cheeseboard.

The Wellingtonians welcome the four of us from Australia with nothing but friendliness and generosity in abundance. I can sense our four days in Wellington is going to be a revelry.

[A Table For Two attended Wellington on a Plate as a guest of Positively Wellington Tourism]

Visa Wellington On a Plate
The festival runs from 14 - 29 August 2010. The main event, DINE Wellington, is a fortnight where 88 of the region's finest restaurants offer lunch and dinner set menus for $15, $25, and $35. Plus a long list of culinary activities all over the greater Wellington region.

Check Wellington On A Plate website for more details.

What is ATFT’s Titbits?

On a lighter note, something is brewing behind ATFT’s factory. I won’t give away too much details for now, but there will be lots of never-before-seen “titbits” to share with you all. Launch date to be confirmed, but sign up now and be the one to have the first bite.