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The Wandering Palate - Best Meal of the Year 2013 - Martin Bosley's Yacht Club Restaurant, Wellington, New Zealand
You might say I'm getting in a bit early on the 'Best of the Year' accolades but I have that unnerving feeling that if you blink, it will be Christmas. And you're assuming I work to the Gregorian calendar. However, my life is very much ruled by another more strategic timeline; my daughters school calendar or more specifically (international) school holidays where we head off 'Wandering' on gastronomic adventures all over the world.
So, looking back on the last twelve months, the cut off being back to school in mid-August 2013, it's been a very diverse year of dining and eclectic eating: An extraordinary culinary expedition to Japan taking in Osaka with the 3 Star Michelin Hajime the most spiritual and complex seasonal produce and vegetarian encounter I have ever had. Also, another 3 Star Michelin in the mountain foothills of Kyoto in an exclusive 2 room ryokan (Japanese Inn) Ugenta with a totally unique in-room dining experience framed in an impossibly beautiful forest and mountain-stream view.
In England, after an underwhelming degustation at the 2 Star Michelin Midsummer House in Cambridge, where we subjected to overly stiff (Downtown Abbey) service and a menu with so much green froth and puree we thought it might be an ode to Saint Patrick's Day; we went on to encounter the 'Best Restaurant of the Year' having a brilliant experience at The Quality Chop House Farringdon Road London. A thoroughly enjoyable lunch on a gloriously sunny (Wimbledon) day and some of the best Italian food in memory at the uber-slick The River Cafe, then down south in Devon, the best pub meal in my lifetime at the Millbrook Inn, put England well out in front in our culinary stakes.
The gastronomic capital of Australia, Melbourne, offered so many good meals I could write a book on it, and a return trip to Brook's, (previous Restaurant of the Year) and an outrageously long and lavish 50th birthday dinner party with friends confirmed this is one of the best eating and drinking houses on the planet. And in fear of over simplifying its mind-bogglingly delicious simplicity, I'm tempted to say the souvlaki from Hellenic Republic is 'The Best Dish of the Year'.
But then, thinking more about the 'Best Dish of the Year', perhaps it should be the Sergovian whole suckling pig slow-cooked for 12 hours till tender and roasted just before serving at Catalunya, Singapore's slickest, sexiest new restaurant serving up modern Spanish cuisine in cutting-edge style.
Honestly, I thought nothing was going to compete with the intensity of the (Zen) dining experience and painstaking, meticulous detail of Hajime Yonde's unique cuisine for the 'Best Meal of the Year', but then came an unparalleled experience of seafood splendour that eclipsed everything, at Martin Bosley's Yacht Club Restaurant in the beautiful harbour city of Wellington, New Zealand.
This whole experience took us by surprise, although aware of Chef Martin Bosley's reputation and talents along with the restaurants many accolades including New Zealand's touchstone magazine, Cuisine, and its annual awards naming Martin Bosley as 'Best Specialist Restaurant 2012', this was our first time dining here.
Staying at the excellent Museum Hotel, it was a leisurely walk to Martin Bosley’s along the foreshore of Oriental Parade, on a beautifully mild winters evening with the harbour lit up with the city lights and yachts slumbering at their moorings; the cool air scented with sea salt engendering the mood for a seafood dinner. It reminded me of when we went to Rick Stein’s in Padstow, Cornwall with the backdrop of wharf and fishing boats ensuring you’re sufficiently psyched for seafood.
The first thing that struck me on entering the restaurant was how spacious the tables were; restaurants with such luxury of space and intimacy are rare these days, and once seated at your table, you are ensconced in your own widescreen view of the yacht club moorings and the picturesque harbour city backdrop.
Having studied the tantalising menu and seduced by the specials of the day with all number of different shellfish on offer, we wanted it all! It wouldn’t be the first time that we have eaten the entire menu, but it was not necessary as the amiable front of house manager, Ryan McKenna (son of Larry McKenna at Escarpment winery) guided us we ease to the Kai Moana - A Mini 'Degustation' of Seafood Tasting Plates (for two NZ$86) with a few extras added.
This was a wonderfully engaging and harmonious degustation with a perfectly choreographed crescendo of temperature, texture and flavour starting with piping fresh oysters from the crystal clear waters of Te Matuku Bay, Waiheke Island and Clevedon Coast.
Next came Trio of Tartars – Snapper with Mandarin Peel Puree, Freeze Dried Mandarin, Mandarin Oil; Salmon with Hummus, Pea Salad, Buffalo Mozzarella, Jamon Iberico, Rye Crumbs, and Crab with Umeboshi Plum, Chawan Mushi, Cucumber—all palate titillating and pairing brilliantly with our Kumeu River Chardonnay.
A plate of sashimi followed—a selection of the days catch—precision-sliced glistening translucent slivers of the freshest most delicate fish melting in your mouth. Then a succession of shellfish, molluscs and crustacean, Littleneck Clams (New Zealand name for Cockles), Diamond Shell Clams (New Zealand clams harvested from remote beaches in the nutrient-rich 3 to 5 metre surf zone), Green Shell Mussels, and Mooloolaba King Prawns, all with individual sauces, the Espelette & Lime being an absolute knockout.
By this stage it dawned on us this sashimi and seafood was as good as anything we have encountered in Japan at the very highest levels of dining and ceremony, but at a fraction of the price.
This had me thinking of how seafood lovers are probably familiar with iconic fishing places such as San Sebastien on the Spanish Atlantic coast; the many historic fishing villages of Cornwall with Padstow the home of Rick Stein; the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo; Boston Bay oysters; Maine Lobsters; all famous for their seafood with food writers extolling the virtues of provenance, freshness and tradition—and yet the extraordinary bounty of New Zealand’s seafood is perhaps relatively little known beyond the ubiquitous commercially trawled Orange Roughy and farmed Green Lip Mussels.
And Wellington? Hardly on the (global) radar as a seafood destination and yet Bosley serves up wonderfully plump scallops in season right out the city harbour. You can stand on the harbour docks here looking down into the water and see right down to the bottom; the water so clean and clear you can watch schools of fish darting about. How many harbour cities could think of with such an unspoiled dockside and bay? Moreover, have some of the most abundant and pristine fishing grounds in the world right on its doorstep.
Sure, there is New Zealand’s ‘Green’ and ‘Pure’ image, but would (they) know that New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or sea-zone is the fourth largest in the world, covering approximately 4 million square kilometres; that’s fifteen times the land area of the country! Furthermore, 65% percent of this area is too deep or is closed to commercial fishing along with 30% protected from bottom trawling or dredging (Benthic Protection Area) and that’s more than four times the size of New Zealand itself and largest protection area of seabed in the world. Yes, there is more to New Zealand than just sheep.
Preservation of these pristine, relatively untouched waters and sustainable fishing is in inherent in New Zealander’s chromosomes and strict fishing quotas ensures that this precious resource is maintained and accessible to everyone. This fundamental ideology is palpably obvious at Martin Bosley’s, their menu espousing this philosophy “Our fish are wild-caught by day boats, using sustainable fishing methods.”
Indeed, Bosley works closely with the dynamic Rachel Taulelei, owner of the Yellow Brick Road seafood company, championing and sourcing the very best of sustainable fishing and aquaculture in the Southern Hemisphere. Taulelei also has a partnership with Bosley in the Wellington City Market, a fantastic artisan food and wine market held every Sunday in the Chaffer Dock Building on the Wellington waterfront, where you will find her providoring the catch of the day and Bosley cooking his legendary bacon butties.
Bosley also sources from Leigh Fisheries, based in Leigh, a small village in Cape Rodney in the north island of New Zealand, where the long-line day boats fish for Snapper, John Dory, Groper, Gurnard, Bluenose, Southern Bluefin Tuna and Swordfish.
Our mini 'Degustation' of Seafood complete and taste buds and dopamine receptors exhilarated, we moved on to the main course, where one can chose a fish from the daily catch with a choice of different accompaniments or as the menu emphasizes, you can have it simply grilled.
This is where a seafood chef comes into their own. I have always had the greatest respect for chef’s specializing in fish, which can be so unforgiving in the cooking; not only do they need to have a rigorous and meticulous approach to sourcing and handling their produce, but also an exacting precision and rigid compulsiveness (read anal retentive) in cooking it—often by the simplest of techniques and presentation—which invariably does not engender the kudos it should.
Actually, chef’s that have truly mastered fish a rare thing in this world; such individuals as Michael Bacash at Bacash, Donavan Cooke at Atlantic, Rick Stein at The Seafood Restaurant, Eric Ripert at Le Bernadin, and I would definitely put Martin Bosley and his head chef, Stephen Mahoney, in this league, are among the few chefs I have encountered that have persevered with this demanding calling moreover survived financially.
In the dead of winter, on a Friday night, in this small city of Wellington (population 300,000, or 200,000 if you narrow it down to the city proper) there a couple of tables unoccupied at Martin Bosley’s, which does not overly concern me knowing the mood swings of the New Zealand diner. However, if this restaurant was in New York, London or Singapore, you’d have to book weeks in advance to get a table, and easily be paying two or three times the price.
What does concern me, despite all his accolades, Wellingtonians may not fully appreciate what Bosley is all about—and the extraordinary lengths he is going to in sourcing produce, moreover the incredible dedication to such a high level of quality that he is achieving—might well be lost on many (local) diners.
One also needs to make the distinction Martin Bosley’s is not an eating house; the casual restaurants that cater to the ever-growing demand of food as entertainment and a lifestyle statement. This is a truly specialist restaurant committed to the most serious level of cooking professionalism along with a painstaking approach to seasonal and local freshness. The unpretentious presentation and minimalist technique may appear modest but you should not lose sight of the intricate detail and harmonious flavours.
This may well be a designated a special occasion destination for many, but by no means is it a formal restaurant or intimidating bastion of cuisine. On the contrary, the service here is genuinely friendly and attentive, in a wonderfully laid-back New Zealand way. It’s the sort of place that I would instantly adopt as my local and dine here at least once a week—like we used to in Melbourne, every Tuesday, craving for Michael Bacash’s ‘Oysters Toofey’ and the ‘Best Spaghetti Marina in the World’—and even if I lived in Auckland, I would fly down here regularly for a seafood fix.
Returning to Wellington a few months later, we ate again at Martin Bosley’s, this time on a sunny, although somewhat blustery north-westerly, spring Sunday evening. The restaurant was full this time, indeed they were turning the tables with the more savvy locals taking advantage of their ‘Fish + Chip Sunday’ special, serving “Yellow Brick Road's premium line caught fish in a Tuatara beer batter with a box full of crispy French fries for just $30.00 including a glass of wine… Stellar Fish and Chips, right by the seaside and I won't mind at all if you throw chips at the seagulls.”
Actually, my daughter had ordered the beer battered fish on our first visit, and almost mortally wounded the chefs (pride) when he asked what she thought of the fish n chips, to which she replied, “It was really good, although not as good as Bobby’s in Tauranga, The Best Fish n Chips in the World”. Young gourmands can be brutally honest, but thankfully our chef is exceptionally good humoured.
This time we were dining with friends and decided it would be a good opportunity to give the a la carte menu a good workout, sharing some Stewart Island oysters to start. These are farmed oysters and what they might lack in that strong (fishy) steely, minerally bite of the legendary Bluff Oyster, they are substantially plump and creamy, and sufficiently flavoursome but mild enough to be the perfect oyster for both beginners and seasoned seafood palates. With a squeeze of lemon they went brilliantly with the Mount Edwards Pinot Blanc 2012 from Central Otago.
The highlight of the meal though goes to the fresh whitebait, in full season now with Bosley’s interpretation of this New Zealand classic—the whitebait fritter—consummate, although his crispy-fried whitebait with asparagus and lemon-butter sauce sublime.
Consistent with our last visit, our main course fish (Blue Moki) was grilled to perfection, to which I would like to point out on both occasions, we paired with a pinot noir. A red wine with fish?! Indeed, a sufficiently elegant pinot noir with fine tannins and a degree of savoury complexity goes very well with the grill-charcoal-broil flavours and the subtle salty/fishy umami nuances of grilled fish. A Pyramid Valley Earth Smoke Pinot Noir 2009 and Rippon Mature Vine Pinot Noir 2010 were equally palate-stimulating fish partners.
And on that note, the wine list here has a good representation of New Zealand’s top producers, with a suitably eclectic mix to keep a Sommelier like me entertained. The selection criteria also appears to be malleable with the list distinctly different between our visits and refreshed enough to have me inquisitively engaged. Expert advice is also on hand with front of house manager Ryan Mckenna who has wine in his DNA.
So, there you have it, the Wandering Palate circumnavigating the globe several times, just to bring to you informed commentary and advice on where to have the ‘Best Meal of the Year’. And if I can travel 40,000km for a seafood fix, surely Wellingtonians can go that extra mile, or 15 minute drive and treat themselves (regularly) to some of the most awesome fish and shellfish in the world, cooked to perfection, within the most stunning of views, for not a lot of money.
If you are coming from further afield, say Timaru or New York; Wellington is a wonderful city to visit with an abundance of good eating and culture, and within spittoon distance of the Marlborough and Martinborough wine regions.
Oh, just in case you don’t like fish…and I don’t want to confuse you, but Bosley also does a brilliant Roast Canterbury Duck Breast… and Hot Pot of Slow Cooked Pork Shoulder… and seriously good steaks… and there’s always plentiful seaweed, if you’re vegetarian.