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[WELLINGTON] PHOENICIAN FALAFEL

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Photographs: David Straight

 

If you could tweak one thing in Wellington’s culinary landscape, you might trade the plethora of Turkish and Lebanese kebab shops for just one of the souvlaki joints that Christchurch is so well served with.

The glaring exception to the almost universal mediocrity of Wellington’s Turkish kebaberies is Phoenecian Falafel: either in its original location under the Embassy in Kent Terrace, or at Phoenecian Cuisine in upper Cuba Street – run, respectively by Tony Asaaf and his son Elie. They make their own chilli sauce, which is wonderfully tangy and zingy and rich with peppers, and a garlic paste that is creamy and mellow. They also make the best wraps and platters you will find in the capital.

We love their sojok (spicy sausage, $12), and their mehshi (delicious lemony rice wrapped in vine leaves, $10), their chicken shwarma ($12), their hummus, and their fataya (Lebanese pies – either spinach or cheese, $6). Their food is always perfectly seasoned and fresh (even if there is something about the falafel that is faintly reminiscent of carrot cake). In short: the only Middle-eastern food in Wellington worth bothering with. JT

HOURS Monday to Thursday until 8.30pm; Fridays 10.30am to 9pm; Saturdays 10.30am to 8.30pm

ADDRESS Phoenecian Falafel, 10 Kent Terrace, ph (04) 382-9818. Phoenecian Cuisine, 233 Cuba Street, ph (04) 385 9997. 

IMPORTANT DETAILS Ask for extra chillis in your kebab – they aren’t too hot, and are vinegary and tart. And the baklava is superb.

 

CHEF RASA SAYANG

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Photographs: David Straight

Chef Rasa Sayang isn’t much more than a small hole in the wall in the Highbury shops – it’s next door to the highly excellent Yummy Korean. It has a big front window and a handful of tables and comfortable blue chairs. So far, so familiar, in this sleepy suburban shopping strip. Except for the fact that it is full, every day, for lunch. Honestly. Don’t get there after 12.30 or you might not get a seat.

Here’s why: it serves up some wonderful Malaysian comfort food. There’s a char kuey teow ($10) which is among the smokiest in town, the wide flat noodles perfectly charred. There’s a curry chicken ($13) with a gravy that is fragrant and chunky with spices, served with light, fluffy roti that takes us back to the hawker stalls of Melaka. There is beef rendang ($18), redolent with lemon grass and – get this – kaffir lime leaf, the kind of sauce you remember for the afternoon, though the beef is a bit on the tough side. We love the sambal eggplant ($16.80), the eggplant gooey and smoky, slathered with a salty, almost sour sambal that is rich with belacan (dried shrimp). We could go on, but you get the picture. SFG

HOURS Open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 3pm and 5.30pm to 9pm.

ADDRESS 25 Mokoia Road, Birkenhead, ph 419-9788

IMPORTANT DETAILS Does a roaring lunch trade – get in before 12.30 or go around 2pm.

MY FRIDGE: DELANEY MES

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Delaney Mes came back to Auckland, oh, a couple of years ago after a decade or so in Wellington. She’s a former lawyer but a better cook and so she started a blog called Heartbreak Pie which was about breakups and food. Since she’s been back up here, she’s made a name for herself throwing dinner parties – for readers, for friends, for strangers. They’re casual, rustic affairs and there is always a lot of red wine. She’s ebullient, funny and thoroughly enthusiastic. Just what Auckland needs – check out her monthly column in Metro magazine too. She lives in Ponsonby.

1. Food-related gifts are great, and friends that come for dinner and bring treats from their garden are my favourite. I haven’t quite got to growing my own, but I love fresh chillies in cooking.

2. My part-time flatmates live in Wellington, but stay here instead of using hotels when in Auckland. The first night Rachel stayed she brought far too much cheese for two of us, as well as delicious steak and champagne. I always seem to end up with ends of cheese: one was leftover from a wedding I worked at, and there’s always some hardening parmesan lurking in the back there.

3. I like to always keep gin in the cupboard, lemons in the fruit bowl, and Quina Fina Tonic Water in the fridge. It’s the best.

4. Fresh As freeze-dried powders, left over from a couple of dinner parties I cooked for recently. The raspberry powder is so intense – we used it to make a raspberry cream pie to flavour a white chocolate cream cheese filling. The tarragon is a gorgeous alternative to dried tarragon – freeze dried just increases the flavour and intensity. I mixed it with some aioli and served it with homemade potato fries. It was luscious.

5. And if there’s one thing I always have in the fridge, it’s fancy butter. Specifically: Lewis Road Creamery Premium Butter. It’s basically perfect on fresh bread, and it graces the table at any dinner party I have. A couple of my friends have dubbed it crack butter. And though I don’t bake as much as I used to, I bake with it too. I’m in awe of people who dedicate their life and business to doing one product really well. Lewis Road now does milk and cream too, which is dangerous.

 

MASU

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Photographs: David Straight

Masu has serious pedigree. Chef Nik Watt is a master of the grill has cooked in robata all over the world. SkyCity spent many millions on the fitout. Nick Achison, formerly of The French Cafe, is the maître d. It bills itself as a robata – a Japanese grill – only it’s much more than this. The charcoal comes in from Japan. You can taste the difference.

It is an exercise in luxurious subtlety. There is a lot of blond timber, a massive unfinished slab of granite at the bar. There are beautiful chairs and beautiful timber tables and stunning ceramic plates. You feel excited walking up the front stairs. Sashimi is perfectly fresh, cut generously so you can actually taste it, served on massive chunks of hand-cut ice. There are Japanese craft beers. The chopsticks are lined up with lasers before service.

We’ve eaten an iceberg salad with a caramelized onion dressing ($7.30), which was restrained yet perfect. We’ve eaten Cloudy Bay clams ($22) cooked with garlic, green chilli and ponzu butter – daring, simple. We loved the tempura yellow belly flounder ($30.90), in which the fish had been delicately cut into chunks while still on the fish and then battered. We bloody love the robata grill – ignore the signature black cod (which is meltingly tender, admittedly) and head for the lamb cutlets with gochujang, pickled cucumber and carrot ($38) and the brocolini stems ($8.30) and the miso eggplant ($8.30). It is some of the most technically perfect Japanese food I’ve ever eaten.

And yet. Food aside, something leaves me cold. It is very large, and very noisy. It is at once too perfect and yet not perfect enough. It should have flawless service, but it doesn’t, not always and I don’t mean in that quirky Japanese way. The pricing irks me and not just because it is occasionally very expensive. Maybe it just needs some time. SFG

HOURS Lunch 12pm to 3pm daily, Dinner 5.30pm to late daily.

ADDRESS 90 Federal Street, City, ph 363-6278. skycityauckland.co.nz/restaurants/masu/

IMPORTANT DETAILS Get them to validate your parking for one of SkyCity’s carparks.

[WELLINGTON] LITTLE PENANG

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Photographs: David Straight

Little Penang has an awkward location – Dixon Street, just off Cuba Street’s quasi-bohemian main drag – and until it moved one door down, it wasn’t much to look at: these days, there are dark wooden chairs and wooden tables and the same bright welcome.

Because it’s the hospitality of chef and owner Tee and her husband Keith that really make it feel special – you get a distinct sense of the pride that goes into preparing and serving this food. There are vibrant colours and big, bold, bright flavours, at once hot, sweet, salty and sour.

Little Penang serves a bunch of Malaysian hawker-style staples and snacks: roti chenai, pork buns, lobak (sausage), vegetable fritters, mee goreng – plus a revolving selection of daily specials, including the quite phenomenal Claypot rice ($12.90) with chicken thighs, sausage, shiitake mushrooms, and gummy, sticky rice; a fishy, bold, sour Assam laksa with mullet, pineapple, mint and ginger flowers; and, possibly my favourite, there is a deeply flavoured Nasi Tok Ma beef curry, slow cooked and aromatic – you can get this on Fridays only. Or, for $20, you can just let the kitchen feed you – entrees, mains, dessert. Bring an empty stomach. JT

HOURS Monday to Thursday until 8.30pm; Fridays 10.30am to 9pm; Saturdays 10.30am to 8.30pm.

ADDRESS 40 Dixon Street, Wellington, ph (04) 382-9818.

IMPORTANT DETAILS Unlicensed, but a decent array of soft drinks, and iced water available on request. Also! Try the Otak Otak – fresh fish fillets marinated in herbs and spices, and wrapped in banana leaves, served with a salad of pineapple, cucumber, red onion and chili.