Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Churches, Mountains, Oceans and Crayfish

Christchurch - Kaikoura. Christchurch is a picturesque and architecturally beautiful city in an 'Adelaide' kind of way. I believe they share a Sister City relationship. But outside of NZ's peak tourist season, Christchurch was all but quiet and vacant. And this was despite some glorious early Spring weather in which we occupied a morning strolling around the centre of town to admire the impressive buildings, the most grandiose of which invariably were the city's churches.

When it came time to grab a bite however, we were lucky to stumble onto an innocuous little sushi and ramen bar known as the Samurai Bowl. After numerous meals of somewhat rich food during our previous days on the road, it was just what we were looking for. We ordered large steamy bowls of Miso Ramen, their broths laden with slices of pork, bamboo shoots, nori flakes, spring onion and other bits of wholesome goodness. Slurpy heartwarming soul food.

We also shared a very delightful plate of Tuna Uramakizushi, which was as good an offering of sushi I'd eaten anywhere...just gaze at their picture below and drool.

Samurai Bowl, 140 Gloucester Street, Christchurch, NZ (Spot Score: 16/20)

We had one last day in NZ before we were due to fly back across the Tasman. Kaikoura is a seaside township about three-hours drive north of Christchurch, its name which roughly translates from Maori as 'to eat or to have a meal of crayfish'. All the excuse we needed to make it the destination of choice on our final day. In addition to the waterfront, the village has a spectacular backdrop of snow-capped mountains that appeared to stretch their roots right down to the ocean shoreline. In the right season, it is the place to go for nature cruises and Sperm Whale watching. But for now we had another priority, to find a venue where we could get our hands on some of its famous local Southern Rock Lobster or Crayfish. Naturally, a bistro named The Craypot caught our attention and it wasn't too long before we were tackling half a lightly grilled Crayfish Mornay each, served with a dressed salad and a small mount of risoni. Those Kaikoura crayfish were not large critters and could've done with less Mornay, but were certainly fresh and a very sweet bookend to our trip through NZ's South Island.

The Craypot Cafe & Bar, 70 West End Road, Kaikoura, NZ (Spot Score: 14/20)

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

North by Nor'West!

Haast - Hokitika. From Wanaka we hit the NZ west coast, travelling north along coastspectacular Highway No.6. Exactly halfway between the southwestern township of Haast and the geographic drawcard of Fox glacier we came across the Salmon Farm Cafe & Shop, a nondescript lunch-stop that appeared suddenly out of the World Heritage listed coastal greenery. The establishment consisted of a number of salmon and trout ponds next to a main building housing a cafe plus a deli and store that sold fresh and smoked salmon products and tourist souvenirs. There was a sign by the ponds suggesting that we could pay to feed the fish but we opted to wander indoors for us to be fed by fish instead! The place would probably be quite a popular stop for tour groups making their way to or from the glaciers during peak season, but we were here definitely out of peak and practically startled the two ladies fronting the cafe awake as we walked through the door. A browse of the cafe's menu board revealed choices that naturally centred around salmon, which was fine by us!

We settled at our table with a hearty bowl of Salmon Chowder which was creamy and tasty enough, and with a requisite amount of fish. Next were Doorstopper Sandwiches generously filled with flaked salmon that had been hot-smoked over Manuka wood. A generous amount of filling was held together with some melted cheese between nicely toasted white bread. With the weather a little wet and chilly outside, our smokily savoury meal together with a cosy open-fire within the cafe definitely more than met with satisfaction. The hospitality from the ladies however, were what you'd expect from two bored people made to spend a long day manning a shop stuck in the middle of nowhere. You felt like they wished you'll get your meal over and done with quickly so they could get back to their mid-day TV program. Sensing this, we deliberately wandered back to the counter to order slow leisurely coffees before moving on!
The Salmon Farm Cafe & Shop, Haast Highway, Paringa River South Westland, NZ (Spot Score 14/20)

We spent a fascinating afternoon at Fox, then Franz Josef glaciers, which were definitely spectacular but also looking a bit weary from a difficult few decades battling the accumulating effects of global warming. Wished there was more time to explore but we still had a long drive ahead if we were to make Hokitika by nightfall. "Hoki" was our last stopover on the west coast before crossing overland back to Christchurch. Following a leisurely morning spent looking around shops displaying the green jadestone and paua shell (NZ abalone) jewellery and artisanwares for which the area is known for, we found Cafe-de-Paris with further aid from Lonely Planet for a late breakfast of Eggs Benedict with Bacon (NZ$15.90) and strong coffees (NZ$3.50-$3.80). Keeping with the Parisian theme, it wasn't the cheapest plate of bacon and eggs (or coffee for that matter!) but the centrepiece eggs were poached pretty well, with rich runny yolks that blended seamlessly into a good hollandaise. A nice traveller's breakfast to send us on our way.

Cafe-de-Paris, 19 Tancred Street, Hokitika, NZ (Spot Score 15/20)

Monday, 1 October 2007

To Milford Sound and Back Again...

Arrowtown - Milford Sound - Wanaka. Wincing satisfactorily from aching seldom-used muscles, KB and I left the fanatics behind on the ski slopes to head off on a scenic tour-de-force of NZ's southwest and back. First stop was a mere half-hour away to the quaintly named, historic gold panning township of Arrowtown. A drizzle-dampened walk around its modern incarnation of re-vamped historical buildings and faux heritage craft shops brought us to lunchtime at The Stables. This inviting restaurant & cafe is housed within a stone building that originally served as stables to a hotel dating back to the 1870's. Rustic equestrian paraphernalia which decorated the dim interior reminded patrons of its heritage.

My choice of lunch was a very good Beef and Dark Ale Pie. The pot pie was topped by an incredibly light and flaky pastry lid which gave way to a flavoursome stew of chunky beef and mushrooms. Served with a side of potato mash infused with cheese, it was traditional English fare at its most appealing. KB's choice had a more continental flavour, an equally satisfying Penne Carbonara rich with a creamy tomato and capsicum sauce. After such a delightful lunch, we were fortified to hit the road again for the long drive onwards.
The Stables Cafe & Restaurant, 28 Buckingham Street, Arrowtown, NZ (Spot Score: 17/20)

The following few days were a blur of unforgetable scenery but forgetable meals taken 'on the road'. We'd hit spectacular Milford Sound just in time for a cold weather change but the rain and snow in no way spoiled our experience, only served to make the wilderness more dramatic and breathtaking. It was all too soon when we ran out of days and regretably had to turn the car back north. We bypassed Queenstown this time round and headed very tired and hungry into Wanaka instead. Because it was late and already dark, we depended only on our copy of the Lonely Planet guide to orientate ourselves. It led us to Thai Toko, a curious restaurant not so much offering inconceivable Thai-Japanese fusion, but more two restaurant-halfs in one. We were only too willing to go with the flow, ordering a bowl of Tom Yum Goong (prawns) (NZ$16.50), a Mixed Sashimi Platter (NZ$16) and the Deluxe Katsu Don (NZ$18.50) for Mains.

The substantial bowl of soup that arrived at our table was not the most photogenic we'd seen but what did catch our attention was that it was full to the brim with all that's good in Tom Yum; plump fresh prawns, tomato slices, champignons, tofu, chilli, lemongrass, kaffir lime, and a sour and spicy kick that had the immediate effect of soothing away our road weariness. The sashimi plate was also not a particularly innovative presentation of four tiles each of a trio of sole, tuna and salmon laid over shredded daikon and served with pickled ginger and wasabi. But importantly, the fish were fresh and clean tasting. The katsudon was also good, with crispy but moist slices of pork (tonkatsu) served with rice and a garnish of salad. I am guessing that 'deluxe' must also have deferred to the unusual inclusion of a panko coated floret each of broccoli and cauliflower? Mention must also be made of the beer we had, a locally brewed award-winning dark ale (NZ$7) with malty caramel tones that was the perfect counterpoint to the Tom Yum spiciness lingering on my tastebuds. Thai Toko was certainly the place we were hoping to find after a long and exhausting day of travel. Recommended when in Wanaka.
Thai Toko Restaurant, 43 Helwick Street, Wanaka, NZ (Spot Score: 14/20)