So...sometimes I get to do fancy things. By virtue of being a blogger. And, let's not be naive, my old-media leanings through being a newspaper cafe reviewer/freelancer. It would be stupid to lie about how great it is: it's the greatest.
It's also something I've felt really awkward about disclosing. Oh sure, I'll post the occasional instagram or tweet or passing mention, but I've never quite been able to reconcile the joy of free extravagance with the fear of making lots of people hate me by talking about it. I mean, I'm the type to immediately assume people would sneer and be resentful if they read about me writing about fun free dinners and events, rather than being interested in the dishes and so on, since, in all honesty, I tend to roll my eyes at such writing myself. Unless it's really good writing - which it often isn't.
So what made me change my stance? Guilt! No, I'm kidding. I like to challenge myself, and I think it is a decent challenge to write about this kind of thing without sounding like a dick. Also there's the fact that it may actually be of interest to some people - hearing about what ideas and innovations are happening in restaurants, about exceptionally delicious food, about my stumbling-baby-deer attempts to describe the wine I drank. And I do like expanding on this blog's scope every now and then.
I've decided to dub this segment Fancy Pants and Plans To Match, a quote from the woefully underwatched but utterly brilliant 90s TV show News Radio, spoken by the character Jimmy James. I could let this devolve into a ranty essay about why you should watch NewsRadio but I will instead say this: it's a better title than my original idea "Sometimes I get free stuff PLEASE DON'T HATE ME."
With that defensive preamble out of the way: Arbitrageur, and their Summer of Riesling Avec Menu.
The pitch: Arbitrageur, one of your unarguably more ritzy Wellington restaurants, has what they call their Avec Menu. Avec being French for "with", it pairs several courses with a particular wine, in this case Riesling. European and New Zealand examples are served alongside the dishes - and that's it really. Just well-considered food and wine pairings to get you questioning your tastebuds and providing some new stances on the delightful drink that is Riesling.
Crab and Avocado Taco with Coriander and Lime
What happened: The menu was five courses, each with a half glass of a European and a New Zealand Riesling. The Riesling itself was divided into categories. So the first course had two from the Soft and Fruity category, the second course had two wines from the Crisp and Tangy category, and so on - Luscious and Exotic, Fresh and Aromatic, and Rich and Sweet making up the rest. So as well as being generally matched with two fitting rieslings, each course was matched with an overall genre. I think I may have overexplained this, but hopefully you get the idea.
The coolest bits: Firstly, everything was incredibly delicious. But the highlights easily included the market fish (pictured below), with its delicately crunching surface and texture as tender as mashed potato. You might think seaweed on fish bordering on shuddery overkill. But nay. It was punchily flavoursome in a deep, briny way, freshly salty, and perfect with the olive oil-rich soft eggplant and tomato that it rested upon. Tim and I decided that the New Zealand riesling - F Series Old Vine '11 - was our preference of the two offerings. We also decided that tangelo was what we could taste in it, and that said element brought out the caramelised element of the crispy-skinned fish. The thing about trying to work out what you're tasting in your wine is that it becomes easier to throw around statements like that the more you drink. Wheeee!
The other stand-out was the cheese course, featuring Over the Moon brie. Based on this experience, I should like to buy myself a pallet of their cheese, take a week off all work and socialising, and to quietly eat it all while watching a really good quality TV series in its entirety. Actually even without the cheese that sounds kinda blissful right now. But then I am, as ever, underslept. Uh, anyway, the cheese: sublime. It tasted like butter, good homemade butter - soft and richly creamy yet clean with a mildly tangy finish. It was served with figs, quince paste, grapes, and walnut raisin bread. Each of which provided their own obvious complementary services to the cheese. The wine that went with it - we opted for just one option at this stage, Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese ‘10 from Denmark - was possibly the best glass of wine I've had in my life. Admittedly, most of the stuff I buy is in the $9-$12 category (oh okay, $9 - $9.50) but still. Like the cheese, it was somehow clean and rich at the same time, with luscious crisp hints of melon and cucumber and honeyed sweetness. Tim and I both felt genuinely a bit forlorn once our glasses were drained. And then we told ourselves to get over it, because: free.
And finally: I appreciated that restaurant manager Gary was friendly and relaxed. Dinners out can be a little intimidating in their own way - well, I sometimes get nervous I'm going to select the wrong fork and have every bourgeois person in the restaurant suddenly stand and point at me and cry "imposter!" or something. There was no chance of that here with Gary, who explained what was happening with each dish and wine without micromanaging our dinner in any way - more of a casual discussion whenever a new course came out. The menu itself was also substantial enough to be exciting but the courses weren't so heavy and enormous that I felt like my lungs were starting to fill up with food. It was also kinda nice to not end up incredibly drunk from all the wine on a school night - half glasses were perfect.
Crispy-skinned market fish with seaweed seasoning and Mediterranean vegetables.
Buttermilk bavoirois with rhubarb and strawberries Romanov
From a scale of 1 to "Is this a dream?": 6 - The menu was impressive but not intimidating or inscrutible, and the staff were friendly. On the other hand - one of the wines we had: a bottle of it would've put us back $161. We drank it verrrrry slowly.
Would I do this for not-free? Well, it's not a particularly good time to answer this question, considering our bank balance is forcing us into not buying anything, let alone dinners out. If it was a special occasion, and spiraling credit card payments weren't hanging over my head like credit card payments that had learned to fly, I think...yes. Honestly. All up, five courses and ten half glasses of occasionally-shockingly-delicious wine would come to around $180-ish, and if you choose one half glass per course, around $120. Which in Wellington at least, seems very comparable. Five courses. Considering plenty of places will charge you at least $30 for a main course, I mean, you do the maths. (Seriously, you do it, anyone do it, just not me. I hate maths.)
Earnest thanks for making me feel fancy to: Arbitrageur Wine Room and Restaurant. 125 Featherston Street, Wellington. 04 499 5530.