Monday, February 25, 2008

Home again - Ravioli with Pesto

Wednesday 20 February all over again

Since we crossed the International Date Line, it was still Feb. 20 - in fact, it was officially just 4 hours after we'd left Wellington, despite our 20 hours of travel - when we arrived back in Cincinnati. So once we entered our lovely, large, COLD house, our stomachs thought it was time for dinner.

Luckily, there was a serving of Holy Ravioli in the freezer, plus some pesto cubes from last summer's harvest. We kept our noses over the boiling water, and left our coats on to eat this summery meal in the midst of - oh, Lord - Cincinnati winter again.

Air New Zealand, Somewhere over the Pacific

Wednesday 20 February

At 8 PM Wellington time, we belted in for our 12-hour flight to Los Angeles. Dinner was chicken or lamb; Holt had the lamb, Barbara had the chicken. The less said about it the better, except that Air New Zealand serves free wine - with refills - and even scotch to all those flying this route. It makes for a better possibility of dozing, if not true sleep.

Dinner with the Chefs, Wellington

Monday 18 February

Our friend Judy kindly drove us all around Wellington today, and there is a lot to go around - and up, and down, and up again. Perhaps the most beautiful scene was the rocky coastline where the ferry Wahine sank (and you can see why); the most surreal was the top of Mount Victoria, where we encountered busfuls of Victoria University students on their first orientation tour, accompanied by tour leaders dressed as Disney characters.

Judy also arranged something that we've never done before: her son Frank is a chef at a well-known Wellington restaurant, Maria Pia's Trattoria, and he (accompanied by his wife Jane and fellow-chef Stephen) would be preparing dinner for all of us at his own apartment that evening. We were a bit overawed by the concept of dining with chefs, but we were received and welcomed in so homey a fashion that we soon relaxed.

Both Frank and Stephen specialize, of course, in Italian food, so the dinner was in typical Italian style. The pasta course was spaghettoni alla frutti di mare è alla panna, made with a special pasta from Lecce, Benedettono Cavallieri; the clams, mussels, prawns, and other seafood swam in a rich saffron and cream sauce, and we avidly spooned up each drop from the bottom of our bowls.

Wines for this course were both 2002 Sauvignon Blancs: Hunter's and Glover's (also both genitives).

The meat course was a grand roast leg of lamb studded with garlic and rosemary, accompanied in more English style by potatoes, parsnips, and (NZ) kumara roasted in (free-range, organic) duck fat. It was accompanied by an Ata Rangi Martinborough Celebre 2002, which went with it beautifully.

Then came salad: home-grown (by Jane, on the apartment terrace) organic (but not free-range) cherry tomatoes with Italian bufala mozzarella, dressed with Capoleuca olive oil and 25-year-aged balsamic vinegar.

And finally, dessert: an AMAZING tiramisu (made with four eggs, and resulting in a long debate between Frank and Stephen as to whether four eggs was too many, or just enough - we think just enough) and a refreshing peach and kiwi berry (new fruit!) compote. The accompaniments at the end were Burnt Spur Martinborough Riesling and/or Toscana Gini grappa.

This was an evening we always want to remember. Thanks so much to Frank, Jane, Judy and Stephen, for making it possible - and delicious.

Curry Club, Wellington

Tuesday 19 February

Barbara was due to lecture on her excavations at Caesarea for the Wellington Classical Association, and the Classics Department of Victoria University of Wellington (Te Whare Wananga o te Upoko o te Ika Maui) gathered at the Curry Club, a downtown restaurant, to give her and Holt (who had given a seminar for the department that morning) a festive dinner.

This had never occurred to us before, but an Indian (or Chinese) restaurant is the perfect place to give a large pre-lecture dinner. You can order huge plates of varied meat and vegetarian appetizers (which was done), hot breads (ditto), and rice, and then give everybody a chance to order a different dish as well - the dishes get passed around, and everyone has a taste, or manages to avoid whatever they don't like. I know we ordered two beefs, two chickens, a fish, and a lamb, and all tasted great. Only problem is, Indian dishes are almost always in deep sauce, and some of the sauces looked so much alike that we soon couldn't tell what was what.

The other advantage is that people can depart early to get set up at the lecture hall, and the rest can finish the leftover dishes at leisure. In fact, the only problem was that Barbara couldn't have much wine before her lecture, and the wines people brought - a 1994! Dry River "Amaranth" and a 2000 Ata Rangi, both Pinot Noirs from Martinborough - were magnificent. Those Wellington classicists have excellent taste.

The White House, Wellington

The White House, Wellington
Sunday 17 February

We left Kaikoura on the Tranzcoastal Train, which goes through stunning (as usual) scenery, including the Marlborough Wine Region (oh, to get off the train and linger longer), and with some nervousness boarded the ferry to the North Island. The first time we crossed the Cook Strait, in 2002, we experienced our first and only episode of seasickness. But today the Strait was as calm as it gets, and we had a pleasant journey and bask in the sun on the upper deck.

Our friend and colleague Judy met us at the ferry, carried us and our ponderous baggage to the hotel, and gave us tips on where to eat in Wellington. Her first suggestion was the White House, and we managed to call and get an immediate reservation. Then an easy stroll along the harborside (past Te Papa Museum, through another clever kiddy park, and with views of lots of ships, kayakers, helicopters, and clever public sculptures) brought us to Oriental Parade and the White House.

The restaurant is on an upper floor, with an excellent view over the harbor. It's a nouvelle, white-tablecloth, attentive-service kind of place, which happened that night to be filled with Americans. After a quick glance at the menu, we saw that once again we would be having both red meat and fish, so again a Pinot Noir; but to celebrate our arrival on the North Island, we had a Martinborough wine, 3 Paddles from Nga [w. macron] Waka vineyards. And our attentive server brought us a fabulous amuse-bouche to go with it, a Tarakihi ceviche with tomato, coriander, and red onion.

Holt couldn't resist a new oyster, so we ordered a dozen Clevedons. They are small and musky, and, surprisingly for this place, had some bits of sand and shell still in them. Nothing wrong with the sweetbreads and mushrooms, though, served with a luscious buttery brown sauce.

Then a very clever palate-clearer: shot-glasses of mojito jelly topped with citrus foam. Effective, elegant, and I bet we could do it at home.

Our main choices were beef and lamb (what else?). The lamb was a loin crusted with harissa, served on crushed fresh peas with its own jus, mint syrup, and a fresh tomato coulis, all very flavorful. The beef was a mignonette wrapped in bacon and topped with a spoonful of truffled sauce soubise (onions); it sat in the middle of an oxtail jus, and was accompanied by cute little manicotti stuffed with oxtail too.

We walked back along the harbor, replete.

The Pier, Kaikoura

Saturday 16 February

Today was not so magical. The weather gods of the Land of the Long White Cloud had been kind to us so far, but today they just decided to relax and let it rain and be lousy. Our whale-watching trip was cancelled. We got quite wet walking two kilometers into the charmless town, and once there, had our first truly bad meal in this country - at the Craypot. We should have been warned when the sullen waitstaff wouldn't make eye-contact, or when they told us that their advertised "awesome seafood chowder" contained kamaboko, that pressed crab substitute. (We now recognize that this sort of puffery is one of the telltale signs of severe restaurant malfunction.) Nonetheless, we unwarily ordered and ate mussel chowder whose main ingredient was apparently mucilage, and continued to taste it for the rest of the day.

Still, we can be happy in most situations. We went to the bright-pink local theater, the "Mayfair," and saw "The Golden Compass." We had a glass of wine and dried off in the hotel room while Holt finished Orlando Furioso. And we went out to dinner to the Pier in the evening.

This was another trustworthy Lonely Planet recommendation (in fact, as we dined, several people walked into the restaurant carrying the guidebook). The place is an old hotel, subtly renovated and painted. When you walk in, you notice that all the chairs are placed at one side of their tables, and that tables on one wall are built up against the window, with taller chairs to accommodate them. That's because that side of the restaurant looks out at a fabulous view of the bay and the mountains beyond.

The wine was a Matahiwi Pinot Noir - we needed a red on such a cold night, though we'll take any excuse for drinking New Zealand pinots. Our starters were simple steamed mussels with garlic and thyme, and crispy-skinned salmon with Nelson bay scallops (always with roe; why are American scallops never served with their roe?) topped with red bell pepper and fennel piperade. Took the taste of mucilage right out of our mouths.

The mains were ribeye steak with baked shallot, potatoes, and greenbeans in beef jus; and char-broiled rare venison with plum sauce, along with arugula and beets sprinkled with feta. Simple and well-prepared, with crisp vegetables, none of which was billed as "fabulous" or "awesome." And our server smiled, looked us in the eye, and actually got things we asked for (he got tipped, natch). The Pier is obviously a good, dependable, and especially functional restaurant.

Kaikoura Seafood BBQ

Kaikoura Seafood BBQ
Tuesday February 15
(before picture)

By the time we arrived at Kaikoura, whale-watching center of New Zealand, and checked into a motel with a staggering view of the bay and the (snow-capped!) Seaward Kaikoura Mountains, it was around 5 PM. Our hostess noted some points of interest on the map, including a fur-seal colony at our end of town, so we started walking east, following the coast. About halfway along, we encountered Kaikoura Seafood BBQ - just a few tables by the side of the road, a covered space for the coolers of seafood, the grill, and the barbecue, and a boy and a girl cooking and serving.

We continued our walk out onto quiet Kaikoura bay's rutted shelf, where seals snooze, away from the surf-pounded Pacific side. As we found when we climbed to the observation point above, this is the faultline where the Indian/Australian tectonic plate meets the Pacific plate - its siltstone is a risen sea-bed, which must be why the seals look so comfortable lounging on it. It was momentous, monumental. And after its grandeur (and our tiredness), we were happy to walk back to Kaikoura Seafood BBQ for a roadside dinner.

We started with whitebait, a new Zealand specialty we haven't had before - tiny whole fish, transparent and about an inch long. They're thrown into a pan and fried up with some beaten egg, for a sort of fish foo-yong. It was served on wholemeal bread, with lemon and mesclun. It was fine, but didn't really taste like much.

It is part of the Kaikura experience to eat the local crayfish - Kaikoura apparently means "food - crayfish" in Maori. Holt, who spent some of his crucial palate-forming years in New Orleans, couldn't understand at first what this involved. $47 for just ONE crayfish - not a bucketful? "One" turned out to be a healthy lobster-sized monster. Anyone from the Big Easy would have said, "if these are your crawfish, cher, I'd hate to see your alligators." It had been caught (in a pot, lobster-style) by the girl's uncle the night before, and was halved, slathered with garlic, and grilled on the barby as soon as you pointed to it. It came adorned with mesclun, rice, lemon, and a nasturtium. All you got to deal with it was a dinner fork and some napkins, no crackers but your teeth, though Barbara obtained a spoon with a nice sharp end to poke the succulent meat out of every narrow little leg, and even the antennae. And that's what we did.

Later, we saw crayfish at twice the price, doubtless at half the freshness and quality. We are glad we stopped at Kaikoura Seafood BBQ - it topped off a magical day.

(after picture)

Akaroa Fish & Chips

Tuesday February 14

It was Valentine's Day. Usually Holt buys Barbara flowers, Barbara buys Holt chocolates, and they take each other out for (or cook for themselves) a splendid dinner. But we were on the road; flowers wilt, chocolate melts. And we were eating splendid restaurant dinners pretty much every night.

The answer: go down to Akaroa's famous fish & chips place, from which we have seen countless locals carrying paper-wrapped parcels at dinnertime (and where we ourselves tested the batter-fried oysters - quite good - the day before). Get our own parcels: the fish of the day, blue warehou, tender dark-edged flakes in a deep-fried batter coating; and another new fish (to us, though it's standard on the menu): hoki, half in batter coating, half in crumbs; each with a mountain of soft-centered hot chips and the oddly American accompaniments of lemon, tartar sauce, and ketchup instead of vinegar.

Bring the steaming parcels back to our nice room overlooking palm trees, and spread them out on the wooden table. Pop open a bottle of New Zealand bubbly, Lindauer special reserve brut cuvée. Toast each other, and Saint Valentine, and New Zealand.

Bully Hayes, Akaroa

Tuesday February 13

After a magical morning spent sailing on the 47-ft. yacht Manutara (as we were the only passengers, our captain gave us the helm for most of the trip), and our afternoon swim at the bathing beach (temperature tolerable in six inches of the surface, ice cold below), we chose a patio table at Bully Hayes to further enjoy the blue skies and view over the long harbor of Akaroa.*

And what better to enjoy them with than a 2005 Akaroa Harbour Chardonnay? It was nice and varietal, but also had that fruitiness that New Zealand wines are famous for. And we were set on having seafood, starting with the Seafood Platter: a large prawn, a crayfish (normal-sized, not a Kaikoura giant, above), one steamed and four smoked mussels, smoked scallops, some squid, and a little pot of creamed seviche.

On our sailing trip, we had seen the sea pools in which Akaroa salmon is farmed, so we ordered it here. It came as two sides of a steak with the center bones removed, basted with "Mediterranean" pesto (green and herby, but not entirely basil), served with a "tart" of potatoes on polenta, and dusted with bell-pepper confetti. Also tasty was grilled groper (apparently the same as grouper, which is NOT the same as most Atlantic grouper, but what the hell), served in a lime cream sauce with tiny new potatoes and a confetti (the chef must like them) of cucumber with tiny pink shrimp.

After a coffee, we walked over to the Akaroa Cine-café (two theaters, 16 seats apiece; spaghetti bolognese a bargain if you buy a movie ticket) and saw a good French comedy, "Hors de Prix" ("Priceless"). Maybe there are significant French aspects to Akaroa after all.

*Courtesy of the Department of Redundancy Department. Guess what Aka-roa means.

C'est la Vie, Akaroa

C'est la Vie, Akaroa
Tuesday February 12

We came over the mountains to Akaroa, "the French Village," which the French thought they'd bought in 1840 - but when their boatload of settlers turned up, they were met by Her Majesty's Ship Britomart and the news that New Zealand was British. Many of the French couldn't face the trip back, so they settled here anyway. Today little seems left of their culture except for street names like "Rue Jolie," the Tricouleur on its flagpole in the center of town (the Union Jack still flies at Britomart Point), and C'est la Vie, which says on its facade that it's "au bout du monde."

It's a tiny little restaurant, tables jammed in, many for sharing, and a myriad notes and compliments from friends and customers scrawled all over the walls, pictures, slightly dusty decor, and even on the ceiling. Our hostess flicked an embroidered linen cloth onto our table, and said that the house only offered what was on the chalkboards just outside the restaurant's door. Luckily it was a nice night, and the door was often propped open, for what she called "C'est la Vie air-conditioning."

On her advice, we ordered a 2006 Mt. Difficulty Pinot Noir, whose beautiful structure showed what Pinot Noir is all about. Pinots are also good with both red meat and seafood, and we were resolved on both. But our first starter was really neither: escargots in a deep brown buttery sauce, lavished with garlic of course, but also mushrooms. It was served with doorstop-sized chunks of brown bread for soaking up the sauce, a thoughtful touch. We also had scallops in a creamy St.-Jacques-style sauce with mushrooms (the chef was in a mushroom mood that night - we could see his hands tossing them in a saucepan in the kitchen), this time with a mound of white rice for sauce soakage.

The mains took the meal to a yet higher level. A perfectly-cooked fillet of beef San Marino was topped with spinach and blue cheese, and came with scalloped potatoes. The venison special was a fan of medium-rare slices in a creamy sauce with various wild forest mushrooms (again, the chef's idée fixe), with perfect puffed potatoes, spiced pear, and a blackberry and juniper sauce. Another contender for our "best venison in New Zealand" prize.

At the end, our hostess gave Holt a magic marker and allowed him to climb up on a chair ("not everybody is tall enough") to draw a small heart with "H+B" on the ceiling. Go to C'est la Vie and look for it - it's worth it.

Strawberry Fare, Christchurch

Strawberry Fare, Christchurch
Monday February 11

Today we went on a winery tour through the Waipara Valley, starting at the new Mud House (south), a big Napa-style place where we tasted wines accompanied by a lunch of hors d'oeuvres; then to Torlesse, where the winemaker, Kym Rayner, apparently wanted us to sample right through all his available stock; on to Waipara Springs, a quiet place with a pleasant garden; and finally to our favorite, Pegasus Bay, with its fabulous wines matched by beautiful gardens and elegant, quirky decor. It started raining there, and what was pleasant mist in those gardens became a downpour in Christchurch.

When it's raining and mucky and you're a little sloshy from tasting wine all day, dinner should not be too complicated. So we stopped at Strawberry Fare, a place we had walked past on the first day we arrived because Lonely Planet touted its desserts, and we thought it was a dessert place only. (Okay, we misread.) Now it was open and warm and busy on a rainy Monday night, and what's more it was only a block from where we were staying.

Though we'd had four or five tastes at each winery (eight at Torlesse, including an amazing port) and we don't spit, we still had room for a bottle of Mud House (the original Marlborough, not Waipara) Chardonnay 2007. But we ate pretty lightly. There was a "Salade Niçoise" - no lettuce, but a couple of well-marinated and grilled fresh tuna slices piled on top of green beans, little potatoes, tomatoes, olives and onions. Also a duck leg confit in a dark sauce redolent of five-spice, with a potato gallette and a very tasty spiced plum. A little side salad was dressed with sweet rice vinegar to continue the Asian theme.

We watched the desserts go past, and they looked truly magnificent: elaborately composed, of various luscious ingredients, on big presentation plates. Maybe next time we're in Christchurch.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Retour, Christchurch

Sunday February 10

We had tried to eat at Retour, a picturesque rotunda right on the Avon river, during the conference. But there was a mixup: when we first phoned, they said they had no tables, then they said they had one, but when we arrived, that turned out to be wrong. We went across the street to Indochine, so we didn't suffer. But Holt loves follies, and eating in such a lovely copper-domed one was not to be missed. When we returned to Christchurch, he e-mailed their reservations site, and later we dropped in (the restaurant is midway between our motel and the city center) and affirmed that Sunday would finally be the big day.

It was worth waiting for. We were greeted like long-lost relatives, and led to a table looking right out on the river. It's a small place, but the windows on every side and cheerful striped awnings give it an expansive feel.

Pinot Noir again covered all the red meat/seafood bases: this one was Main Divide 05, and it went very nicely with our amuse-gueules of grilled brill (new fish!) on fresh tomato coulis with lemongrass, but also with our very varied starters. One was prawn and crayfish ravioli (made with shu mai wrappers, so really Asian despite the Italian name) in a soy-infused beurre blanc over bok choy; the other was a "pied de cochon" - actually a confit of slow-cooked and pulled wild boar wrapped in caul fat to resemble the porcine limb - with mushrooms and a julienned Waldorf salad with bacon.

The red meat mains seemed most attractive, so we had the venison: partly slices of medium rare roast loin, partly a venison timbale, with grilled potatoes, great cloves of roasted new garlic, in a red wine jus. That was good, but even better was the pair of grilled beef medallions in a miso glaze, topped with kikorangi blue cheese, accompanied by crisp vegetables, mushrooms, and perfectly-turned chateau potatoes.

When we finished and were lingering over our wine, our server said that, to make up for all the confusion over our reservations, dessert would be on the house. As all our faithful readers (both of you) know, we don't often have room for dessert, but in this case we were prepared to make room. So we had a beautiful slice of lemon meringue tart, sprinkled with berries (straw, blue, and perhaps red currant) with a scoop of toffee ice cream (hokey-pokey in this country). We could make some joke here about returning to Retour, but we won't. We're glad we did, though.

Willowbank Nature Reserve

Saturday February 9

We are both fascinated with Maori culture and language, and have been watching the Maori TV station (including a game show like "Password" and something that Barbara could have sworn was called "Pimp my Waka"). Unfortunately, we were told that the Marae near Christchurch was no longer bringing in visitors, so our best option for any sort of exposure to Maori culture (outside of the friendly Maori people we've been meeting and talking to) was a show called Ko Tane, at the Willowbrook Nature Reserve. We don't like packaged "cultural experiences" much, but they worked in Bali; and this one came with a nature walk that promised us a glimpse of real live kiwi, AND a dinner.

The show was a pleasant experience, including a mock marae, haka, and several pretty songs and dances, in which we got to participate and make fools of ourselves (Barbara couldn't catch her poi, but Holt was praised for how far he could stick his tongue out). We also got to chat with Dave, the emcee, afterward.

The dinner was very good too. It started with a selection of seafood: mussels in a soy-based sauce, a juicy rock oyster, peppered salmon fin, a prawn, and a tasty smoked fish paté. We got a bottle of Stoneleigh Savvie 2007 to start us off right. The hupa of the day was spicy tomato (yes, soup; Maori has no "s"), served with good bread and a salad bar. Everything was house-made and fresh-tasting.

As we couldn't have a real hangi (a meal steamed for hours in a pit full of hot stones), we got a lamb shank cooked in that fashion. It was tender, its flavor straightforward and meaty, served with kumara, potato and blue cheese mash. The ribeye steak was grilled, and there was about a ton of it, surrounded by roast potatoes, kumara, parsnips, and carrots.

There were desserts, including the requisite pavlova, but we skipped them to go look at the animals, including a tuatara and, in a dark enclosure, three furry soccer ball-shaped kiwis, rootling around with their long beaks. At last we have seen the national bird, and can go home content.

Cook'n' with Gas, Christchurch - Reprise

Friday February 8

Since we had tickets to "Scared Scriptless," improv night at the Arts Centre, we couldn't resist going back to Cook'n' with Gas, which is right across the street from the theater. We were greeted by the restaurant cat, and ushered (not by the cat) to the very same table we had had the first time - I guess they class us as regulars now.

We wanted to have both meat and seafood, so our server advised us to go with a Charles Wiffen Reserve Pinot Noir 2005. New Zealand pinots have lots more body and less acid than the Californians; our Wino notes this particular one as being dusky, with notes of bing cherry, and more chocolate and leather flavors than usual.

Starters were seafood. Mussels were steamed with Cook's spruce beer and topped with gruyere and speck, on a mound of silverbeet (swiss chard to us) shredded and fried until it looked like seaweed, and in a creamy sauce with bright green parsley oil. Sort of a New Zealand version of oysters Rockefeller. Also Nelson bay scallops, with their tasty roes, piled (along with apple and lemon zest) on a smoked artichoke and brie tart composed very cleverly on a base of phyllo leaf with a top of arugula or other leafy green.

One main was Seafood at the Gas, a salmon fillet (unfortunately a trifle overbaked to our taste) topped with fluffy crabmeat and its own crisp skin, reposing on a bed of "wild and tame rice," plus a shrimp, spinach and cucumber salad with tarragon vinaigrette. And the other should have been called "Beef Three Ways": one was a beautifully rare grilled sliced fillet; two a mound of braised brisket with syrah glaze, caper berry, and smoked paprika oil; and three a corned beef and potato napoleon, and a side of little green lima beans and tomato that even Holt, ace lima-bean despiser, liked.

You've got to give the place credit for its creativity, excellent ingredients, and friendly atmosphere. Certainly one of our fave spots in all New Zealand.

Ironside Thai Restaurant, Christchurch

Thursday February 7

A ride on the scenic Tranzalpine train brought us back to Christchurch, which is beginning to feel like home. There were four Thai restaurants within a block of our motel, but when we asked its proprietress which she recommended, she sent us about five blocks away (big deal!) to Ironside Thai.

The restaurant is a big old house, subtly painted, with white roses nodding in the windows. Inside, there are a few Thai touches on top of Victorian domestic decor. The proprietors are young Thais, and their food differs a bit from your typical menu.

Our waitron advised us on wine choices, and we settled on a 2006 Allan Scott Marlborough Riesling. It went very well with the piquancy of our starter, Nam Tok: a northeastern style salad of sliced beef dusted with roasted ground rice and flavored with lemon, chili, and Thai herbs.

Having started with beef, we went on to seafood. The new fish of the day was monkfish, again a different sort from the one we know at home, thinner and falling into tender white flakes. It was served as Choo Chee Plah, battered, deep fried and drenched in a creamy red curry sauce. The other main was Goong Phad King, fresh-tasting prawns (or shrimp, to us) stir-fried with lots of ginger, dried mushrooms, and vegetables. Both dishes included cauliflower among their vegetables, which we've never seen in other Thai restaurants, but they went along beautifully.

It shows that Thai cooking is about the style of preparation and the sauces and condiments, not about the individual ingredients. I think I could eat possum in that red curry sauce and enjoy it - and I'd know I was doing the ecology of New Zealand a big favor as well.

Blue Ice Cafe, Franz Josef Village

Wednesday February 6

The only reason for the existence of Franz Josef Village is the Franz Josef glacier. Once you've walked to, on, or around its magnificence, or been ferried over it in plane or helicopter, you must return to one street of backpacker motels, hotels, some bars, and two or three restaurants. So we asked the driver of our Eco-Tours shuttle what restaurant she and her daughter Tasmin (who was collecting fares) liked. They recommended the Blue Ice Cafe, so we were sold.

As it was Waitangi Day the place was pretty crowded, but there were tables on the patio, and soon after we got our bottle of Brookfields Ohiti Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (and just before the sandflies started to bite), they were able to move us to an inside table. Our starters were tender calamari, cut Thai-style into diamonds, in a fine mustardy vinaigrette on a bed of fresh greens; and mussels again in Thai style, coated in coconut crème thick as housepaint, with a hint of green curry paste and a lingering blast of chili. We requested spoons and sucked up every drop.

The chef plainly considers himself artistic, because each main dish had a one-word title and an elaborate description, including its spiritual qualities and its mystic wine-marriage, in the menu. "Irish" was very tender beef tenderloin slices topped with chimichurri, piled on a heap of coarsely mashed potatoes marooned in a lake of dark oniony sauce with a shot of Jameson's; the garnish was thin chips of grilled chorizo knifed into octopus tentacles. "Red" was venison, again in tender and perfectly cooked slices, on mashed kumara with beets AND a grilled tomato AND red cabbage sauerkraut AND demiglace with blueberries.

The individual elements were inventive and tasted great, but with all that traffic on the plate, the dishes were incoherent. If half the sides had been removed, the impression of excellence would have been stronger. The chef is already a very good cook, and we think that advancing age and experience - plus maybe a little Zen thinking - should calm him down to achieve better results.

Wai, Queenstown

Tuesday February 5

We had tried to get into Wai on Saturday, when we'd ended up at Fishbone. It looked so nice that Holt forethoughtfully made reservations for the night we'd be back in Queenstown, after our day cruise on Milford Sound. It's a very dressy place, so we burnished our wind-chapped selves and put on some fancy duds to walk out to Steamer Wharf, where we were ushered to a white-clothed table overlooking patio, lake, and mountains.

Wai aims for a sophistication atypical of New Zealand; they do that bit about their choice of waters, and actually charge for bread. But the bread was a procession of five faultlessly tender little rolls, to be dipped into good oil and balsamic. We did plenty of that, with a bottle of 2007 Rock Ferry Sauvignon Blanc - peachy keen.

We started with a half dozen Nelson oysters, meaty and sweeter than their musky Pacific cousins. They came with mignonette, shredded dilled cucumber, and white balsamic; the latter was best at not disguising their slight briny tang. Even better was a starter of pan-seared Wahoo, perfect circles rolled in chopped green herbs, along with pinwheels of panko-crusted calamari dusted with fleur de sel. Amazing.

Holt was still eager for what he'd missed at Redcliff, so he ordered a braised leg of Bendigo hare in vanilla sauce. That was an intense dark demiglace, just this side of toasted, with the long slice of vanilla bean still garnishing it. Little pillows of potatoes and french beans helped soak it up, and a glass of Gabriel's Gully Pinot Noir went with it.

Barbara went for the new fish of the day: Fiordland grouper, which is apparently different from other groupers throughout the world, and from the "groper" they also serve around here. This was rich fish, its crisp skin dusted with almonds. Its complex, well-balanced flavors reconciled us to that trite trout-amandine combination. So yes, Wai aims at sophistication; but it really is sophisticated.

Redcliff, Te Anau

Monday February 4

Fiordland is a huge national park with a delicate rainforest ecosystem. It has rough impassable terrain and deliberately few roads in order to keep it lightly populated - and that works, because we've never seen such gorgeous scenery with so few people in our lives. The disadvantage is, if you want to go from a cruise on Doubtful Sound to one on Milford Sound, you can't go directly between the two, but have to overnight somewhere.

We spent the night at Te Anau, which is far quieter than Queenstown - indeed, almost geriatric. The only amusement (beyond walking around the lake, reading in the sun, and swimming in a hotel pool almost colder than Doubtful Sound) was watching the volunteer fire department run hose drills in Lion Park.

Of the restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet, we chose Redcliff for its imaginative menu and funky decor (the other two places were too Olive Gardeny). But first we tested it by lunching there. We had two "stacks," tall sandwiches like gourmet Dagwoods: one of greenbone, a new fish to us and very savory, served with pickled peppers and arugula on good white bread; and one of wild venison with tomato and pepper confit, roast peppers, and arugula on herb bread. Also, their dinner menu said they had wild hare. We were so there.

Redcliff doesn't take reservations, so when we came back from our do-nothing day we had a bit of a wait, only sweetened by a bottle of Dry Gully Pinot Noir 2005. Eventually we were seated out on the garden patio to watch some French children play patenque, and to split a billy of mussels - a traditional bucket full of greenlipped beauties, drenched in their own juices and creamy aioli.

Alas, they were out of wild hare, so in honor of the herds of beef cattle we'd been driving past, Holt had the local Southland beef. It was toothsome and tender, served with yummy roast potatoes, baby carrots, and onion and pepper relish (we sense a theme here, as peppers and relishes were also prominent in the afternoon's stacks).

Barbara ordered medium-rare rack of lamb, but when it came - well after Holt had already been served, which is a restaurant sin - it was two mingy little end ribs, overdone to boot. So for the first time in her life, she sent a dish back. Many apologies from the youthful and plentifully tattooed waitstaff, so she [Barbara, that is, who lacks tattoos] strolled in the garden, sniffing flowers and picking plums, until they could get another one ready. This time it was au point and a decent size, on a bed of Israeli couscous with (guess what) peppers, onions and olives, and garnished with nasturtiums and honeysuckle fresh from the garden. We were the last people in the place, but Redcliff eventually redeemed itself.

The Fiordland Navigator, Anchored in Doubtful Sound

Sunday February 3

The highlight of our trip was an overnight cruise in one of the longest inlets in all Fiordland, Doubtful Sound. The weather was clear, the meandering shoreline deepest green, and sunset on the Tasman Sea unruffled except by dusky dolphins and sea lions that appeared and basked for our delectation. Magical.

We admire how these cruises manage to give a whole bunch of unrelated people of many nations and all ages the correct balance of amusement (in our case, nature watching and a bit of blue-lipped swimming), picture-taking, quiet, company, drinking, sleeping, and eating. The eating is especially chancy, as people tend to be particular about food. So the general rule is, bring on the buffet!

The other general rule is just as important: keep the bar open. So we progressed from an early bottle of BenSen merlot (which we carried all over the decks as the scenery demanded) to a Matariki pinot noir that took us through dinner.

There were many salads to start with, though we stuck to the Greek variety - quite good. The many main courses included thick cuts of lightly-smoked salmon (the best choice) with waldorf salad; a chicken curry; and carved roast lamb and beef; all with their requisite accompaniments. There were also assorted vedge, though we stuck with the very tasty roast herbed kumara and potatoes.

For dessert, Kiwi pride made it essential to have a slice of pavlova, more meringue than anything; and just a nibble of the dense chocolate cake. There was also a nice service of New Zealand local cheeses, which went well with the last of the pinot noir before we took a last stroll of the moonlit deck and fell into the twin bunks in our tiny but well-equipped cabin. Only the dawn chorus of bellbirds - and the starting of the ship's engines - would awaken us.

Fishbone, Queenstown

Saturday February 2

Queenstown is more of a hyped-up resort town than anything else we've seen in New Zealand - a mall in its center, motels stacked around its edges, lots of loud teenagers in its streets and bars, and paragliders coming off the top of the mountain and landing along its otherwise lovely lake. So the loud music coming out of Fishbone made us walk right past it, despite its high recommendation in Lonely Planet. But all the other fish restaurants in town were full, and everybody we asked said that the best alternative was Fishbone. So we finally returned.

As it turned out, the music was mainly in the front, and people were doing some serious eating in the back. We started with a dozen Pacific oysters (nice and musky), accompanied by a Chard Farm Savvie 2007.

In our constant search for fishes we had never had before, we ordered the Blue Warehou special. The fish is meaty like tuna, but more tender, and falls away in big flakes. It was served on a zucchini pancake with a grilled and parmesaned tomato on the side. Delicious.

We also had the South Island Flounder (patiki, so the NZ fish-spotters' guide informs us). Unfortunately the little floundery thing had NOT been well-cleaned, and a dark bitter patch of guts was clinging behind his head and gills. But once that was cleared away, the flavor was subtle and mild, like Dover sole. It was baked with citrus butter and laid out on a layer of excellent chups (or french fries, as they also say here), along with a good aioli.

Save for the cleaning error, Fishbone was on the whole a very good thing, and from now on we won't judge a restaurant by its music - so much.

Bell Pepper Blues, Dunedin

Friday February 1

Dunedin, in the far southeast of the South Island, is a very Scottish town, with the Free Kirk, its raison d'etre and major monument, slightly rainy and windswept today. The Lonely Planet guidebook (which has proved to be VERY reliable so far) only had two restaurants that sounded good, and luckily one of them was not far from our hotel, as we'd already walked our feet off to and around the Otago Museum.

Even the waitresses couldn't explain the name Bell Pepper Blues. The place is nondescript on the outside, plain but serene within. We warmed our bones with a bottle of Hatton Estate merlot, which like most merlots here was meatier than even a Cab Sav. And the special soup, a delicate seafood bisque, helped a lot too. Our other starter was scallop tortellini, an exquisite lineup of little dumplings stuffed with big chunks of scallop as well as lovely pink mousseline and decorated with scrawls of lemon and wasabi cream sauce, each topped with a tiny chip of prosciutto.

For mains, we had a char-grilled elk loin - probably wapiti, a deerlike elk or elklike deer which was imported from America to New Zealand for the hunters, and as usual, got loose, overpopulated, and decimated this delicate ecosystem. They were finally rounded up using nets from helicopters, and are now extensively farmed in the South Island. It was perfectly cooked, sprinkled with pepper and porcini mushroom dust, with a roasted white kumara aioli and a sweet red wine and juniper glace de viande, not to mention a smoked bacon yorkshire pudding alongside. Though we still think that our best venison was the wood-smoked stuff at Cook'n' with Gas.

As every NZ restaurant seems to have pork belly on the menu, we tried it here. It was a streaky roll, so unctuous that a mouthful felt like a full meal, and came with puréed potatoes, roasted parsnips, and a muscatel, muscovado sugar, and apple juice glaze. At the end, I could hardly get my jacket on, and the cold wind was no longer a problem.

The Curator's House, Christchurch - Reprise

Thursday January 31

We enjoyed this place so much on our afternoon visit that we reserved a dinner spot for the last night in Christchurch before our tour of the Southland. And as an appetizer, we booked a romantic punt ride on the Avon - of course, taking along a bottle of Savvie (Sauvignon Blanc to you, pardner) and a couple of glasses. It amused the ducks, and our Edwardian-costumed punter got a sip as well.

Once at the Curator's House, we were seated in the bow window, looking out over the lawns of the Botanic Gardens to the Peacock Fountain (named, presumably, for its complete lack of peacocks - though there are storks). We didn't want to repeat the tapas we'd already had there, so we started by splitting an appetizer of "fish cakes," the fish having been given more body by admixing "tuna of the land," i.e. chicken. (As we'd later find at the Bush Man Café near Harihari, "chicken of the forest" is possum in these here parts). With it, we had a bottle of Earth's End Pinot Noir, which has on its label a move-by-move depiction of the All Blacks' famous haka (and if you don't recognize any part of that, feel free to Google).

One main course we chose was a "Zarzuela" of seafood - mussels, those genuinely "giant" prawns, clams, and tender tranches of various sorts of fish in a subtly seasoned tomato broth. Sort of a Spanish take on bouillabaisse. The other was "cervena" - lovely rare slices of roast venison among delicious vegetables. There is a "Cervena Council" here in NZ, and it seems to mean something different from place to place - venison yes, young and tender yes (it's apparently required to be from an animal less than three years old) but from red deer, or elk, or some crossbreed of both?

No room for dessert, but a nice stroll through the gardens as the sun set, about 9:30 PM. Summer near the South Pole has its advantages.