Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Comings and goings

On my way back from work today, I came across TWO pieces of dining news. Ahh, it's good to be back in NYC.

1) The first is sad news: It looks as though Kyma, the Greek restaurant on the corner of 46th and 8th Avenue, is closed! The windows were completely covered and the signage was taken down. I must say I'm not entirely surprised, since I don't think I've ever seen it more than a third full (and I pass by Kyma relatively frequently). But nonetheless I've heard really good things about the place, and it was on my list of neighborhood restaurants to visit. Oh well... guess I can cross that off the list.

2) The second is either sad or happy, depending on who you are: Yesterday on the way back from work I passed the abandoned shell of the Red Sea Yemeni Restaurant on 10th ave between 47th and 48th, which hasn't been open since I've lived here, despite the continued presence of its assertive blue awning. But yesterday, the awning had been taken down, and boy, was I excited-- a new restaurant would surely take its place! Maybe it'd be something fancy, or something cozy and neighborhood-y, or maybe even another ice cream place... the possibilities were endless. Well, they ended, because today I passed it and lo and behold, it's going to be a Pluck U chicken joint. Sigh. If you like chicken, good for you; if you...don't, then keep dreaming...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Auckland and L.A. Day 7: Surprise extra vacation!

Our flight from Auckland to LA didn’t leave until 7:30 on Sunday evening, so we had most of the day on Sunday to have fun. We went to a Thai Fruit and Flower Festival on Sunday morning, which was, suffice it to say, disappointing. Then we had lunch at Euro, on Princes Wharf. I didn’t take any pictures, but it was a really good lunch—I’d definitely recommend Euro enthusiastically.

Durian at the Fruit and Flower Festival. It smelled bad.

Then we got on our Air New Zealand flight, and eleven and a half hours later, we touched down in Los Angeles. As soon as we turned on our phones, we were greeted by the lovely message that our connecting flight from LA to JFK had been cancelled—apparently all up and down the East Coast the airports were closed because of terrible weather. So… American Airlines had rebooked us on a flight the next morning, which left us with a bonus surprise afternoon and evening in L.A.

Once we got lunch, got hotel rooms, checked in, and got ourselves together, it was late afternoon. So we headed to Rodeo Drive just to walk around a little bit and soak up the California sunshine. Soon, I was hungry for dinner, because God knows what time my stomach thought it was. So we stopped at this café/restaurant called A Cow Jumped Over the Moon in a courtyard in a small shopping enclave. It’s hard to describe, but it was a really nice outdoor seating area, and we were seated right away.

The (complimentary) bread that they brought immediately was really delicious—it was very crackly and crunchy, with lots of good air pockets. I devoured a bunch of it with the good butter.

Best part of the dinner

For an entrée, I ordered the Mediterranean salad. On the menu, it said it was mixed greens with sundried tomatoes, shallots, roasted red peppers, olives, and feta. When the salad actually arrived, it was mixed greens with fresh tomato wedges, shallots, cucumber, and canned black olives. I was sort of puzzled until I looked back at the menu and realized that the only thing “Mediterranean” about this blatant mixed greens salad was the olives. Um, sure. I was really hungry so I ate it, and it was a standard mixed greens salad. I wish I had gotten what I ordered, though.

Can't you just feel the Mediterranean breezes?

My mom ordered the almond-crusted salmon salad, which was supposed to come with roasted zucchini, red peppers, and summer squash. What arrived was sesame-crusted salmon on a bed of the same mixed greens salad I got, minus the olives. So apparently the menu at ACJOTM is merely a ruse—you can choose what you want, but they’re going to give you whatever they want to.

Some sort of salmon. Whatevs.

We got the bill and paid promptly, only after noticing that everyone in the place, including the waiters and owners, was wearing yarmulkes… apparently it’s a kosher/Jewish restaurant. As Jews, we were happy about that, I guess. Or rather, we were just extremely tired.

But before we went to bed, we stopped at the nearby Il Cono Gelato and got some gelato. I got Reese’s Whipps and hazelnut, and my mom just got hazelnut. It was good. We were tired. So we went back to the Hilton LAX, fell into bed, and slept until our very, very early flights the next morning, which took us home. And now—I am back in NYC, very very tired still, but ready to take on the New York food scene once again!

Last gelato of the trip! So sad...

Auckland day 6: Dining with Peter Gordon

[Note: I am finally home now, but there are two more posts to catch up on before we return to NYC…]

Our last night in Auckland, we made reservations for a special and fancy dinner at Dine by Peter Gordon, an outpost in the luxurious Sky City Grand Hotel. With the French Café, which was fully booked for that night, Dine is considered one of the best restaurants in Auckland. So we were excited.

We arrived wet and windblown from the winter storm/hurricane but were welcomed into the rather small dining room. It’s decorated in a bizarre fashion, with huge garish chandeliers, random wood carvings, and other artful detritus scattered about. But we were there for the food.

Our meal started with complimentary bread (yippee!). There was a heavily-accented bread man with three bread selections, two of which sounded unappealing and one whose name we couldn’t for the life of us understand. So of course we both chose that. It was a soft roll that tasted vaguely egg-ish… it was sort of disappointing, to be honest, cold and somewhat bland. Definitely among the worst bread of the trip. Oh well; it was free, and it worked to soak up my glass of Sauvignon Blanc (nights spent drinking by myself while my mom abstained: two).

Mysterious bread

After a leisurely wait, our dishes arrived. My mom ordered a gorgeous piece of salmon that came atop Jerusalem artichoke puree. I tasted some of the creative garnishes (sautéed baby spinach, apple, edamame, watercress), and they were all delicious. This dish was beautiful and my mom described it as superlative.

A truly eye-catching presentation

My own selection, an appetizer of crisped “Zany Zeus” haloumi cheese, came accompanied by shaved fennel, plantain chips, pine nuts, baby arugula, and honeycomb. This was by far one of the most flavorful dishes I have ever eaten. The different tastes just exploded in my mouth… and all these different flavors that I didn’t expect would come together melded beautifully. I could have eaten an entire trough of this dish, but alas, I was resigned to a modest portion.

The cheese is buried under the garnishes...

But of course, that left room for dessert. I chose a pear tart with caramel ice cream. It came in a bath of almond foam, which added a bit of taste and moisture. The tart was incredibly good—caramelized on top so the flaky pastry was crispy and not soggy. The pears were soft and sweet. And the ice cream melted on top of the whole thing to lend its caramel-y goodness to the whole plate. Incredible.

Pear tart, sandwiched between creamy goodness

My mom opted for the dessert sampler. It came with a portion of a black sticky rice thing (sort of like rice pudding, but much less soft… the individual grains of rice were still “al dente,” as it were. Sort of weird); a small portion of their chocolate fondant dish, which was very strong and chocolatey; and a cup of their yuzu-passionfruit tapioca pudding. This was the winner of the three. Overall there were a lot of interesting tastes here, but I preferred my pear tart.

So many crazy flavors

Celebrity chef Peter Gordon (who obviously wasn’t there that night, but whatever) provided us with a very, very good meal, and it was a fitting and “splendid” celebration of our last night in Auckland. We went to bed full and happy in preparation for a long day of traveling ahead…

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Auckland day 5: Back to salads and desserts in Auckland

On Friday, we drove back from Rotorua to Auckland, stopping at the incredible Waitomo Caves on the way (and by “on the way” we mean “two hours out of the way”). The caves are deep underground and have thousands of glowworms lighting the cave roof… very cool.

We stopped in Hamilton, a large-ish town halfway to Auckland, for lunch. We grabbed salads at a pub—nothing special, except there was a really awesome fire in the middle of the dining room, which we sat right next to to try to get warm.

We got to Auckland in shortly before dinner and made reservations at Cin Cin on Quay, in the Ferry Building right on the harbor. We were relatively early, so the restaurant wasn’t full, and we got a seat by the window to watch the action on the harbor.

Wino that I am, I ordered another glass of Sauvignon Blanc (excellent), while my mom abstained (boo). We started with the bread and butter—a generous portion of warm baguette with soft butter. They may make you pay, but they do bread really well here.

Lots of warm carbs with soft butter

Mom got the red snapper with prawn cannelloni, courgette (zucchini), tomato, broccollini, and some other things in a shellfish foam. She gave me the few broccollini, which were yummy, and devoured the rest. She said the fish was very tasty and was cooked quite well.

Exceptionally foamy
I ordered the rocket and parmesan salad. It was particularly good—very fresh rocket, a good dressing, lots of parm, and a generous amount of salt and pepper making the salad’s clean flavors pop. Yummm.

Very tasty and well seasoned

We both had room for dessert, hurrah! There was a chocolate mousse/mascarpone/mocha ice cream concoction that looked good, but when I asked the waitress if I could have vanilla instead of mocha ice cream, she said it was already premade so it couldn’t be swapped. Hmmm. At this point I panicked and ordered it anyway, which was too bad, because it really wasn’t the best. It was sort of like tiramisu but much less creamy and too coffee-y. Oh well.

Gooey, messy, too much coffee

My mom’s dessert was much better. She ordered a chocolate tart with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce. It was gooey liquid chocolate in the middle, which swirled into the raspberry sauce into an alluring mélange of yummy flavors. I had a few tastes of this, and I really should have gotten it instead… second dessert misfire of the trip.

Raspberry coulis beauty mark on the side

And then, once again, it was time for bed in preparation for our second-to-last day here. Oh, and in preparation for the worst winter storm to hit the North Island of New Zealand in more than 10 years (yeah, we chose a great time to visit). Currently, there are hurricane-force winds and absolutely drenching rains pounding the city as the cyclone crosses the island. Sweet. Wish us luck in getting home tomorrow…

Rotorua Day 4: Fine dining, take II

On Thursday we took our rental car out of Auckland and drove down to Rotorua, about three hours south on the North Island. The drive was very beautiful, incredibly green and bucolic. And once we got to Rotorua—a tourist town built around hot springs and geothermal activity—we went to see the geyser and hot mud pools (very cool). We then hit up the Polynesian Spa to soak in the sulfur hot springs and get spa treatments (a scalp massage for me. Mmmmm).

Gratuitous tourist geyser shot

We also had an awful lunch at a crappy place that I will not say any more about.

But dinner—dinner was wonderful. We went to Bistro 1284, a place I had found online (apparently it’s “the” restaurant in Rotorua). It was a small, homey place that felt sort of like the Elm Court. The host/waitress who sat us was very accommodating and had no trouble swapping out my entrée choice after I had ordered.

We started with two glasses of local Sauvignon Blanc (delicious). It went very well with our order of French Baguette and garlic-herb butter—also delicious, warm, and crusty.

Really high-quality bread

Then our entrée selections arrived. Mom ordered a new type of local fish—harapaku or something like that. It came on cauliflower puree and was accompanied by a complimentary side salad (quite nice). She very much enjoyed the fish, all the garnishes, and the side salad.

It's like a smiley face!

I had ordered a large garden salad for my entrée. It was one of the best salads I’ve ever had. An interesting selection of mixed greens (not just mesclun here), accompanied by roasted red tomatoes and parmesan cheese, was deliciously set off by the incredible dressing. The waitress offered to bring it on the side, but I ended up using almost all of it anyway—it was a tangy oil-and-vinegar concoction with a hefty amount of shallots, walnuts, and herbs and spices mixed in. Incredible.

With the addition of the dressing, this was something special

After we had polished off all of our food (um, all of it), we moved on to the dessert course. I had seen two desserts be delivered to the table next to us and was geared up for action. After a relatively amusing conversation with the waitress (Mom: “Can you describe the sticky date pudding?” Waitress: “It’s a steamed pudding with butterscotch.” Mom: “But what is it like?” Waitress: “It’s like a steamed pudding.” Me: “IT’S CAKE. JUST GET IT.”), my mom chose the sticky date pudding. It came as—surprise—a cake-like sticky toffee pudding with a small pitcher of butterscotch sauce and a scoop of nutty ice cream. This was incredibly delicious… I wish I had gotten this.

It's pudding. It's cake. Oh, you zany Brits...

My own dessert was scrumptious, though, don’t get me wrong. I ordered the vanilla and passionfruit crème brulee. It was an ENORMOUS cup of vanilla crème brulee with that awesome caramelized top layer. It was capped with a scoop of passionfruit cream—with only the merest, lightest hint of passionfruit, not that powerful passionfruit hit you usually get with anything p-fruit flavored. There was also a scoop of vanilla ice cream and two frosted biscuits. I managed to put away the biscuits, ice cream, passionfruit cream, and top layer of bruleed crust before I collapsed from exhaustion. There was about ¾ of the cup of vanilla custard left when I waved the white flag of surrender. Considering crème brulee is just about the most filling substance on earth, I’m not entirely sure how anyone could conceive of finishing this dessert. Let’s just say I failed, and miserably.

This angle doesn't fully do justice to the massiveness of this creme brulee. It was like a freakin' entire pint.

And then back to our hotel it was for a quick night’s sleep before we took off in the morning… back to Auckland with a few surprises along the way!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Auckland Day 3: Fine dining found, finally

On Wednesday night, we decided to try our luck once again with a “highly recommended" restaurant, so we headed down to the O’Connell Street Bistro. We had a bit of difficulty finding the place—misleading directions online and all—but once we did, we stepped out of the rain into a small, cozy, lovely little restaurant.

We didn’t have reservations and their tiny, twelve-table dining room was all booked, so the jovial host offered to seat us in the bar. We accepted and were led to a tall bar table that was hastily made up for us. A waiter brought over menus and recited some specials. We made our decisions and placed orders.

We had noted there was no bread option on the menu, so we were hoping there might be some sort of free bread. Sure enough, shortly after we placed our orders, a waitress came over with two “complimentary” rolls and some olive oil. My mom requested butter as well, which was brought quickly. The rolls were yummy—warm and crusty and delicious with the butter and some pink sea salt sprinkled on top. The bread went particularly well with the two celebratory glasses of prosecco we had ordered.

Woohoo! Free bread!

Our dishes arrived fairly quickly. My mom had chosen the scallop special, which came with a globe artichoke and haloumi cheese salad on the side. The artichoke-cheese mixture was delicious, and I took care of the portion of pan-fried haloumi my mom didn’t want. She really enjoyed the scallops, which were the smallest scallops I’ve ever seen, noting that the sauce (a vanilla-champagne sauce, as confirmed by our waiter) made the dish.

Silly little scallops

I had ordered the rocket, pear, and parmesan salad, my second of the day. This was a fairly small but delicious portion of arugula with lots of fresh pear and a generous smattering of shavings of parmesan on top. It was fresh and yummy.

Nice big slivers of parm

We polished off our food; both had turned out to be appetizer portions, so we were still hungry. We looked at the dessert menu but decided that nothing in particular caught our fancy. So we left O’Connell Street Bistro, happy and satisfied. I’d highly recommend O’CSB—especially for a nice occasion, it’s quite lovely.

On our way back to the hotel, we hit up Valentino’s Gelato, a small shop in the Ferry Building that we had noticed earlier. I got a cup with Ferrerro Rocher (kind of like nutella) and Hokey Pokey (vanilla with honey bits); my mom got the Ferrerro Rocher with what I think was called Australian Hokey Pokey (caramel and honey). It was yummy gelato but definitely not the best I’ve ever had.

Hokey pokey on top; ferrero rocher on bottom

And then—back to the hotel to get some sleep before our overnight away from Auckland the next day…

Auckland Day 3: Salad sampling in Parnell

With the Soul fiasco behind us, we plowed ahead into Day 3 in Auckland. The breakfast buffet started us off well again, and after much deliberation on what to do (bridge climb cancelled due to availability and awful wintry weather), we decided to head to Parnell, another cute shopping-district-esque area of town.

Getting there was a challenge, as we kept on trying to board the wrong buses (“Does this bus go to Parnell?” “Yes, but it takes the long way around.” “How long?” “Oh, about an hour and 45 minutes.” “[Disembarks]”), but finally we pulled up to the main street of Parnell in our snazzy green bus. A bit of window-shopping and I was hungry, so we headed straight for Non Solo Pizza, an Italian place I had heard about and just spotted.

When we arrived, the restaurant was—get this—empty. Literally empty, this time, as in we were the only customers until about 2/3 of the way through our meal. But the restaurant was nice-looking, rustic, and cozy; there was a fireplace in the dining area and a real wood-fired brick oven in the open kitchen; and we were happy to be inside and sitting down.
We started with an order of house-made focaccia. Now THIS was bread worth paying for: warm, tasty, highly seasoned with tomatoes and salt and olives and olive oil. I restrained myself to one piece and a tiny bit more, but I could easily eat an entire loaf of this stuff. And then never eat again.

Mmmmmm bread

For her entree, my mom ordered the Caesar salad, which usually comes with bacon but she replaced that with chicken. She said it was a really good salad, a bit over-dressed, but a huge portion. There was tons of chicken in it, and the chicken was warm (I saw the chef warm it in the brick oven—awesome). She couldn’t finish this particular Caesar Salad challenge.

This dish looked better in person

I ordered the rocket salad (rocket = arugula) with poached pear and shaved parmesan. It was a reasonable portion of fresh rocket lettuce leaves, coated with oil and a bit of vinegar and little specks of freshly ground pepper. The slices of poached pear were sweet and lovely, and there was a generous amount of shaved parmesan around the salad. I easily polished this salad off—it was really, really good.

Extra points for the poached pear

All in all, NSP was the best meal we’ve had so far (not counting the breakfast buffet, which is in a class by itself). We were duly fortified and ready for more window shopping and a walk back to Auckland proper, where our spa treatments at the Auckland Spa awaited. Mmmmm.

Auckland Day 2: Worst meal EVER

So, you know how I said I wasn’t awarding spatulas on this trip? Well, now I am, just for this one restaurant. I hereby proclaim: Soul Bar & Bistro is my first and highly distinguished ZERO SPATULA RESTAURANT.
Can you tell I’m pissed? I am. Soul came highly recommended both on the internet and by our hotel’s concierge. I was excited to go there. So the evening of our second night, we braved the rain showers and headed to Viaduct Basin, making our way to Soul.

The restaurant was buzzing when we arrived—the first restaurant so far to have a sizeable crowd. The host asked if we had reservations; we didn’t; he looked perturbed; he led us to a table anyway. He brought us menus.

We were examining the menus when someone who must have been hired from the local clown college to play the part of our waiter came over to tell us the specials. And by “us” I mean “my mom,” because he came to our two person table, planted himself facing my mom, and spoke entirely to her for about three minutes straight. Then when he asked us if we wanted wine and my mom indicated we weren’t sure, he took only my wine glass away. Hey guys! I’m twelve years old! Sweet!

We were ready to place our order, and Bozo the Waiter was nowhere to be seen, so the host eventually came over to take the order. I ordered an appetizer of buffalo mozzarella. My mom ordered the tuna nicoise salad. When my mom voiced that choice, the somewhat nervous host seemed almost afraid of what was coming, and he stammered out that the tuna was “Seared. Rare inside. It’s seared, so it’s not cooked through. It’s rare. Seared. But rare inside. It’s seared. Not entirely cooked. Is that how you want it? Because it’s seared. It’s seared, but it’s not entirely cooked.” GOT IT. THANKS. I am not making this up.

Finally, the orders were placed. We had requested bread to start, and as it seems is New Zealand custom (grrr), you have to pay for bread (the meals don’t come with a bread basket). So we had ordered a $4NZ basket of ciabatta. What arrived is below: two ridiculously paltry pieces of ciabatta, bolstered by two tiny pieces of non-ciabatta French bread. Nice, guys. Great value.

Wow. Extravagant.

Shortly after our bread, our food arrived. My very small dish came with two half-spheres of mozzarella, two pieces of basil, one green tomato wedge, three bits of roasted tomato, and two microscopic cubes of jellied olive stuff. First I tried a bite of the green tomato; it was stomach-turningly sour and astringent. To compensate, I then took a bite of the mozzarella, and what I expected to be creamy and smooth and delicious was hard (yes, hard), stringy, and gross. At that point I actually almost sent the dish back—I’ve never done that—but I decided I’d already given up on the place and just plowed through the albeit small plate to be done with it.

It looks bigger...and better...than it was

My mom’s salad nicoise was also small, but the piece of tuna was generous. We both expected an actual salad, but the garnishes were mostly shaved green beans. I tasted the green beans and they tasted disgustingly fishy. When I caught her showering the piece of fish with salt, Mom admitted that the whole dish lacked any flavor. Any flavor, that is, aside from olives, which were ground up among the green beans to flavor everything. She doesn’t like olives.

Raw and flavorless. Yum.

So, yech. But of course, there’s always dessert, right? That could save the meal! Hurrah for dessert! All of a sudden Bozo was back, and he brought the dessert menus. I immediately fixated on just what my stomach wanted: malt chocolate pudding with honeycomb ice cream and a white chocolate tuile. My mom vacillated but ultimately ordered a chocolate tart, just for a few bites.

I sat and was anticipating my cool, creamy chocolate pudding when our dessert plates swooped down on the table. Her tart looked lovely. My plate held a chocolate cake. CAKE. NOT PUDDING. GAHHHHH. Now, at this point, my stomach was way off anyway, and the smell of hot chocolate cake wafting up was literally nauseating (I know, usually I like chocolate cake, but you know when you’re expecting something and get something else, even if the something else is good, it’s terrible? Yeah. Like that). I was freakin’ pissed, too. My mom called over the waiter, said there was some misunderstanding, that maybe they had meant pudding in the British sense of the word or something… and the waiter had the AUDACITY to try to convince us that it WAS pudding, that if you cracked it open there would be pudding inside. NO. THAT’S NOT PUDDING. THAT’S MOLTEN CHOCOLATE CAKE. My mom encouraged me to order something else, but I was so agitated I just wanted to get the hell out of there. We told him to take the cake away, bring us the check, and when he did we bolted.

I’m not sure if this post really conveys the extent of it, but let’s just say being truly tired, being ignored and treated like crap by waitstaff, being served disgusting food (the mozzarella appetizer was the worst dish I’ve been served in a restaurant in recent memory), and then being bait-and-switched with dessert does NOT make a happy restaurant reviewer.

ZERO SPATULAS, SOUL. Dear readers, if you ever, ever, ever go to Auckland and even contemplate going to Soul, please don’t. For my sake if not for yours. It sucks.

Fortunately, my mom knows when palliative action is needed, and she took me straightaway to White, the Hilton’s restaurant (home of the awesome breakfast buffet), and got me a hot white chocolate mousse. For the record, it was delicious and powerfully sweet, but it wasn’t really mousse either—it was like a hot soufflé with a liquid interior. The desserts are weird here.

This silly little dessert improved my night immeasurably.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Auckland Day 2: So far away, yet close to home

Our second day in Auckland found us both well-rested and refreshed (sense sarcasm here). We indulged again in the breakfast buffet, which was as good as ever, and then took off in our rental car to explore the area around Auckland. We were headed to this bee-keeping place (don’t ask), but it was closed, so we spent the morning touring around various wineries. One case of wine shipped home later (heehee), we were back in Auckland, ready for lunch.

Now, the day before, right after we head eaten at Aquamatta, we spotted a Wagamama nearby. My mom LOVES Wagamama, which is a chain of noodle-bar-esque type restaurants that’s based in the UK. They recently opened two restaurants in the Boston area, their first in the states, and my mom hasn’t been to them yet. But hey—travel all the way across the world, see a Wagamama in Auckland, and all of a sudden she’s got to go. Sigh. In any case, I wasn’t really hungry (see: overindulgence at breakfast buffet), so we headed to Wagamama for lunch.

It was a typical Wagamama setup, with long wooden communal tables and waiters toting PDAs, except this particular outpost was almost completely empty at lunchtime (first moral of this trip: Auckland is not crowded). We looked over the menus, skipped dishes that consisted primarily of ingredients we had never heard of, and placed our order.

My miso soup came out first. It was standard miso, nice and warm, and it came with a cute little dish of pickles. Awww.

Itty bitty little pickles

After I finished my soup, we watched my other dish and my mom’s entrée being completed in the open kitchen lining one side of the restaurant. Then we saw the dishes placed on the counter and slowly cool while the one waiter futzed around at the cashier. Finally, he noticed that—hey!—there’s food in this restaurant, and he brought over our two dishes.

My other dish was wok-stir-fried greens. It was a pretty good selection of Asian greens, including baby bok choy, which I love, in a tasty soy-based sauce. Yum, but could have been a little hotter (duh).

Simple but well-executed

My mom got a seafood Thai red curry. She really loved this dish, and I tried a few of the udon noodles forming the base of the seafood pile. It was…weird. The top note of the sauce was coconut milk, so it tasted warm and soothing, like a dessert. But then it had the curry kick. It was bizarre and addictive and I kept on downing the noodles hoping they’d taste different, but they didn’t. Hmmm.

Nicely plated... with pretty green-lipped mussels

Anyway, that was it for lunch. We then walked to Newmarket, a so-called “cool shopping area.” By the way, it looks sort of close to our hotel on the map, but it’s not. Also, it’s not cool.

Auckland Day 1 continued continued: Groggy dinner

On the evening of our first night, we were profoundly exhausted and I was far from hungry, but I guess we needed dinner. So we soldiered on, to a Japanese restaurant near our hotel called Umi.

Umi had a large outdoor seating area, which is weird because, um, it’s winter, but we elected to sit inside. I had suggested Japanese food because in my completely un-hungry state I wanted only seaweed salad. Of course, we chose the only Japanese restaurant on EARTH that doesn’t serve seaweed salad. Oh well.

My mom got the salmon teriyaki. It was a really good-sized portion—not too large, but definitely enough for dinner. I tried some of the soba noodles forming the salmon’s bed. The noodles were slurpy and absolutely drenched in the really strong teriyaki sauce. My mom even remarked that the dish was over-sauced—and she’s right; the sauce was just a bit too salty and powerful.

The spreading pool of blackness is the sauce. Oh, so much sauce.

I ordered the vegetable tower salad (or something like that). It was a very interesting portion of mixed greens (not just mesclun—other greens in there too, which was cool). There was shredded carrot and shredded something else on top—something white that I couldn’t identify. Sorry, but I was exhausted. A few slices of carrot and zucchini garnishes rounded out the salad, and there was a sprinkling of nori on top. Overall, this was one of the most delicious salads I’ve ever had at a Japanese food place—the nori, especially, added an interesting and distinct flavor, and the dressing was delicious. It was perfect for the occasion.

Veggie salad with nori hair

And then, on our way back, we stopped at the ice cream store a few doors down from our hotel. We both got small (HUGE) dishes of berry yogurt, which was extravagantly good. Happily ice-creamed, I fell into bed and slept for 12 hours straight. Ahhh.

Yum yum yum yum yum

Auckland Day 1 continued: Eleven dollar water

[Note: Also written on Monday. Jet lag warning applies. Furthermore, this computer is terrible with the blogger application so all these posts will have messed-up formatting.]

After our restorative naps, my mom and I set out to explore Auckland on our first day here. One of our first stops, of course, was lunch. We poked around a few places but finally found a cute alleyway with several restaurants spilling out onto the pedestrian sidewalk. We looked at a few menus and ultimately settled on a place called Aquamatta, primarily for the reason that the restaurant had enclosed indoor tables rather than a storefront open to the elements. It’s sort of cold and windy here.

Anyway, the restaurant was empty except for one other party there for lunch. We were handed the menus and wine list, which we ignored, because it was 1PM on a Monday afternoon and neither of us had slept appreciably in the past 48 hours. But we studied the food menus, made our choices, ordered drinks, and waited while the cook in the open kitchen clanged noisily in the echoing restaurant. Did I mention it was pretty empty in there?

My mom’s order of sparkling water appeared, presented in a cool artisinal bottle. As soon as I saw that bottle, my “this is absurdly expensive” alarm bells went off, and sure enough, when the bill came it was revealed that that modest bottle of water cost $11NZ, which is about $9, for all you non-cosmopolitan folks. Whoops.

Water. Made of gold.

After a long enough wait to know that the chef was truly making everything to order, our food appeared. My mom ordered a Caesar salad with squid and anchovies. The squid came fried, which perturbed my mom, but she decided to suck it up and eat it anyway. The ultimate verdict: very good, and salty (which is a good thing).

Caesar salad, in tiny bowl

We shared an order of bruschetta. The bread was fresh, thick, and dense, with oil from the topping soaking into the bread and causing a mild sog effect. The topping was a simple tomato concoction—not much seasoning to speak of, but pure-tasting and good. I added a sprinkle of grana padano cheese, which came from my entrée, to the bruschetta, which improved it immeasurably.

Plank of bruschetta. They weren't messing around.

That same entrée was a bowl of pureed vegetable soup. It came as a HUGE tureen of piping-hot soup with a faint trail of olive oil drizzled on the top. The soup tasted mainly of tomato, but it had a bit of texture, not velvety but with the merest bit of distinction between the broth the vegetable matter. The soup came with a small mini-tureen of grana padano cheese, which, when put on the soup, melted completely with no trace of flavor left behind (it was much better used on the bruschetta). There were also some accompanying croutons, which I gave to my mom for use on her salad.

Note: there is no picture here because I thought I took a picture of my soup but apparently it disappeared into the bowels of my camera, never to be seen again. See also: Extreme jet lag.

Overall, it was a good and extremely filling meal (I’m still full and am writing this on Monday night). The food was fresh and clearly made with care, although some of it could have used a bit more seasoning. And I’ll admit that I’m new to New Zealand, but I’m not sure where they get off charging $11NZ for a bottle of water. No matter—it was a good meal, and it got our shopping day off to a good start.

N.B. I don’t think I’m going to award spatulas on this trip, because I really don’t feel I have enough of a rubric to compare NZ restaurants to American ones, so I’m not sure I’m being fair. Also I’m lazy, and I’m on vacation! No spatulas for you!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Getting there... and Auckland day 1!

[Note: Written on Monday in a state of extreme jet lag. Read at your own risk]

It is now almost noon on Monday in Auckland, and my mom and I have been traveling for just about 24 hours. First up: a flight from JFK to LAX on American. Because my mom is a super VIP platinum member of American’s frequent flier program, even though it was a totally full flight we were upgraded at the last minute to business class. Woohoo! What follows is the food we got from our lovely and alarmingly perky attendant Terri:

Warm mixed nuts to start
Salad course, on nice linen "tablecloths"

Multigrain roll from the breadbasket selection...mmm

Mojito prawns, which I did not eat

The entree-- beef (they had run out of the cheese ravioli by the them they got to our seats). I ate the veggies, which were a peculiar combination of dry and not-quite-cooked

Dessert: Vanilla ice cream with a choice of toppings. I decided to forgo the butterscotch and hot fudge for the blackberry topping. This was delicious.

For "dessert," my mom went for the cheese course to pick out the fruit. She got a small sprig of grapes and a few dried apricots.

Once we landed at LAX and reluctantly left our plush business class digs, we did the ol’ sprint through the airport to claim our bags, check in with Air New Zealand, go through security again, and make it to the gate on time. And then, of course, we waited for about 45 minutes while our plane boarded late. Sigh. Anyway, we were most certainly hoi polloi on ANZ, we still got food. Hooray!

Sadly, the first meal of the trip—dinner (what time was it in New York? Who cares! It’s dinner time!) – caught me in mid-doze, and when I woke up to find a vegetarian meal on my tray, it was the last thing I wanted. A few hours later when I woke up again I peeled back the foil of the entrée to find some sort of pasta and veggie dish, but I never got to try it. I saved the bread and cheese, though, for later. Hopefully on the way back I’ll get this meal again and will faithfully report on it then…

About 11 ½ hours later, they served the second meal of the trip: breakfast! It was, after all, about 3AM at our destination, so of COURSE it was breakfast time. This time around I was ready for it. The pre-ordered vegetarian meal was a cheese omelet with beans, mushrooms, and a roast tomato. The beans were okay but a little bit much for the moment. The tomato was good—standard warm tomato; the mushrooms were icky; and the small bite of the omelet I took was just as you’d expect, but I don’t particularly like eggs so I passed on that. The rest of the meal contained a delicious and fresh but TINY fruit salad; a blueberry muffin (very cold, sickly sweet and sort of soggy); a single Nature Valley granola bar plank (interesting that they make them one-at-a-time over here), which I swapped out for more crackers and cheese; and OJ. After consuming my pitifully small fruit salad, I later learned that one of the non-vegetarian options was “fruit platter,” which I would have preferred… but my mom got it and it wasn’t much bigger than my own fruit cup.

Air New Zealand vegetarian breakfast... there's a Nature Valley bar under the silverware

Under the foil. Omelet and garnishes. I ate the tomato.

My mom's option... fresh but small fruit salad

Inside her muffin. There was one blueberry. Sweet.

So that was that—after a solid 13 hour flight, we disembarked in Auckland, went through the dispiriting maze that is customs, and emerged into the taxi line. A quick cab ride into Auckland, and we were at our destination, the Hilton Auckland. We were both zombies at this point, but we were HUNGRY zombies, so we did what any exhausted pair of women who have been traveling for 24 hours straight would do: we headed straight to the breakfast buffet.

The Hilton Auckland has a beautifully modern and apparently well-respected restaurant called White, which offers daily breakfast. We opted for the continental breakfast buffet, which was one of the most appealing breakfast spreads I’ve ever seen. In the beaming light of the sunrise over Auckland harbor, we stuffed ourselves silly on fruit, bread, cheese, cereal, tea (from the tea bar, naturally), and—of course—vegemite. Seriously. Below are some pics-- there are many, many more but I chose just a few to give you a sense of the delightful bounty.

Our lovely table, bathed in sunshine

The cheese board

Stewed fruits. There was poached rhubarb that was truly delicious, and poached figs...mmm

Fresh fruit. Watermelon, honeydew, pineapple, kiwi...ohhhhh

Awesome spreads. Nutella...vegemite... what more could you ask for?

Ridiculously full, we stumbled upstairs for a quick nap before we headed out into the world—and that’s where we are now. We’re off! Till next time…

Update: I just received word from my mom that because the Hilton was unable to upgrade our rooms (in addition to being an American Airlines VIP, she’s also a Hilton Diamond member… let’s just say she travels a lot for business), they have offered us free continental breakfast for every morning of our stay. Oh. My. God. GREATEST UPGRADE EVER!!!