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Maria’s

Marias

“Sorry, no tonight. Maybe you come tomorrow?”

“Sorry, no lunch today. No shopping yet. My son has motorbike, we only have one.”

“Sorry, no tofu, only tempeh. No pork. You like chicken? You have chicken.”

“Sorry, no more Bintang.”

Maria’s operates by Maria’s rules. It is, after all, her house and her Warung, or shop, here at the end of the main road on Lembongan. As you walk along the one lane, shoddily paved strip that is used as a two way road for motorbikes, pedestrians, chickens and dogs alike, you’ll pass twenty or so Warungs serving a similar menu to that at Maria’s. But none will be as good or as inexpensive and the diners won’t have that giddy smile that you get when you know you’re about to chow down on some delicious food.

We didn’t get served the first time we went. The bar was full, the power was out on the whole island and they weren’t taking any more customers. So, just as they suggested, we came back the next day. Again, the bar was full, but we ate inside. When I say inside, I mean inside the house, which also doubles as the dining room. We met up with a friend who had just ordered. “Hope you’re not hungry, because it’s going to be awhile,” she told us. We had a laugh and ordered a round of Bintangs, which a nine year old looking girl brought to us from the household refrigerator in the corner of the room. I laugh a little to myself every time a kid brings me a beer and it happens every other day.

We waited two hours for our food that night. Not an onion was chopped beforehand; everything was cooked to order. One appetizer came before our food, one came with a main course, and all of the main courses came at different times. Our friend who was there before us got her food last, but none of that mattered. You eat when your food is hot, offer bites to those still waiting and suffering from food envy and just hope you’re not the last one to get your plate.

I expected the mie goreng (friend noodles with veggies and egg) to be greasy and the sweet and sour sauce to be sticky and kind of gross, but nothing here is anything except exactly how it should be. It is no problem that there’s no tofu or no pork because everything is good. You eat whatever they suggest and when there is no Bintang, you just run across the street to the mini market, buy a round there, and bring it back. No problem.

Dinner for two (appetizers, mains and two beers each) was $12 USD. Unbeatable.

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A Long Weekend in Melbourne

We arrived in Melbourne at 7:30 on a Friday night, people staggering in high heels down cobblestone streets and smoking cigarettes in grafittied alleys. With our backpacks still on, Zach and I made a beeline down Little Bourke Street to Chinatown for dumplings. I’d never been in this city before, yet it felt so much like home. We asked a dude eating out of a takeaway box where he got his dumplings, followed his directions, and proceeded to order a tableful of garlic drenched Chinese broccoli, sesame pancakes and dumplings. We didn’t have much to say at dinner, mostly because chowing down was a much better use of one’s mouth.

We didn’t really have a plan for Melbourne. “I just want to go and sit in a coffee shop and spend the day writing,” Zach had said of our four days in the city. So instead of planning, we went armed with a list of cafes and bars, an appointment at Alchemy Tattoo, and no real agenda for much else. We didn’t do any museums or see kangaroos. We went to eat and write, drink coffee and feel the vibe of the city.

Birdman Eating, Fitzroy 

Robyn and Stephen, our beloved roomies from Wanaka, recommended this brunch spot in Fitzroy. A minimal space with excellent espresso and tasty, interesting food combos. The highlight of the meal was lunch dessert of homemade blueberry, rosemary and pistachio nougat and a glass of rose.

The Carlton Club, CBD

Annita, the tattoo artist that did my tattoo, sent us bar hopping in the CBD as a rainy afternoon activity. Did I mention that I like her style? We started at this swanky bar with massive taxidermied animals and a covered outdoor space that felt like a rainforest in the mid afternoon downpour.

Penny Blue, CBD 

At the end of an alley off of Little Bourke, we found this craft beer bar with Gatsby inspired vibe and comfy, vintage couches. They let us in even though they weren’t quite opened yet and being only 5:00, we were the only people there. We popped out the computer and worked on some wedding plans while sampling local beers from Little Creatures and Bridge Road Brewers.

Trippy Taco, Fitzroy

Nothing fancy. Just really good tacos. Chewey corn tortillas, black beans, smoky hot sauce, fresh lime. You don’t need much else. It had been awhile since we’d had good, cheap tacos and Trippy Taco delivered.

A few months ago, one of our friends confided that he felt “lost in travel”. He said, “don’t forget why you travel, don’t just do it for a stamp in the passport.” Why you travel can be a very personal thing, something that can’t be dictated by a guidebook of sights that you just have to see. For us, Melbourne was a familiar, comfortable place to stop and think after a life changing year in New Zealand and before diving into Asia.

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Restaurant Review: MoVida

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Even though we’re traveling on a tight budget, it’s still important to splash out once in a while on something we love to do. For some people maybe that’s a new outfit, a night out dancing, or a tattoo. For us, its eating. On our recent detour to Melbourne that meant eating at MoVida.

A few friends in New Zealand praised Frank Camorra’s restaurant up and down for inventive, delicious food. The days preceding our reservation were filled with building anticipation, like the days approaching Christmas or a birthday when we were kids. These are the moments that make breaking the budget worthwhile.

The food is served tapas style, so we knew we’d have a chance to try a lot of new and interesting dishes. The problem, sometimes, with tapas restaurants, is that the multitude of choices and flavors produce a disconnected and ugly contrast. To avoid this, we left ourselves in the hands of our waiter, with whom we immediately connected.

“What are your favorites?” Christina asked.

“Oh, I love that question. Awesome.” And he ran us through five or six options.

“Great, those sound good.”

“Cool, but…you’ve got three really rich dishes in a row here. I’d maybe swap out one of these for something lighter to break things up a bit. Maybe seafood?”

“Sounds good.” And later on, “can you help us with wine to match our courses?” Christina asked.

And I said something I never thought I’d say: “I’m kind of curious about sherry.”

“Oh, awesome. I was hoping you’d say that,” our server said.

At a friend’s house the week before, we mentioned we’d be going to a well-regarded Spanish tapas restaurant.

“Do they have sherry?” Our friend Steve said. He’s worked in the beverage industry, so he knows his booze.

“I don’t know, and I’m not sure if I care,” I said. Sherry was for old people and came in jugs, or so I thought.

“You should.” Steve fished out a bottle of Manzanilla from his liquor cabinet. “Here, try this.” I tried it and was impressed, but not blown away. The flavor was intense and unusual. The biting tang and sharp acidity were so different from other beverages in the class I didn’t know what to think, but I knew it wasn’t for me…yet.

Last night, everything changed. First, our server recommended the anchovy with smoked tomato sorbet to for our first course, and with it, a sherry (of course). Our trust in Steve and our trust in the server, and maybe a bit of curiosity won out.

It was perfect. The sharp tang of the dry sherry cut through the savory anchovy, while extremely salty fish was tempered by the strong flavor of the liquid. It was as if a key were fitting into a lock on both sets of flavors, opening each other to a new world of tastes. I’ll never look back. I’m a sherry convert.

It’s not often that a beverage and a food jive so well that they transform each other. It’s even rarer that a food and beverage pairing opens your eyes to ingredients you hadn’t enjoyed in the past. Our first course at MoVida in Melbourne on Sunday did both, partly because we left ourselves open to trying new things and our server led us down the right path. Good servers can immediately read customers for certain preferences. And good customers communicate their preferences clearly.

I’ll never look at sherry (or anchovies!) the same way again.

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Winter Gallery Through a New Lens!

We just upgraded from an iPhone3G to a 4 and have been having so much fun having a phone that takes decent pictures and can load data at a reasonable speed! We’ve also activated an Instagram account for Bring a Snack, so feel free to check us out there. Here are a few pictures from the past week, walking around the lake, some of the dishes I make at Francesca’s Italian Kitchen and downhill skiing at Cardrona and cross country skiing Snow Farm.

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Restaurant Review: Pegasus Bay Winery

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When you eat at an award-winning restaurant, you can be fairly sure that you’re going to have a good meal. Those kind of places just don’t let bad food leave the kitchen. At this tier, what separates the good from the great is more subtle: things like proactive service, thoughtful menu design and a setting that transforms you to another place. On all those subtleties, Pegasus Bay shows why it was named New Zealand’s top winery restaurant three years in a row.

Think of the last time you had a hard time choosing a meal at a restaurant. You were seated and you just stared at the menu for a while. The server came by and asked if you had any questions. You said you didn’t, but needed a few more minutes. They came back a few minutes later and you picked something arbitrarily to get on with the meal. There are two possible scenarios when this happens: either nothing on the menu appeals to you or everything does. The latter is how I felt at Pegasus Bay. I could have closed my eyes and picked anything on the menu and been excited about it showing up in front of me. There were no bad choices.

Next, think of the last time you chose to eat outside, then regretted it halfway through the meal. The wind picked up, or the sun went behind a cloud and the temperature dropped precipitously, or maybe you were sweating through your t-shirt and couldn’t drink enough water to avoid an inevitable headache. Did the staff realize this and suggest you move to a table that might be more comfortable, dragging along all your plates, glasses and silverware? No, because that would be a hassle and they didn’t have time or care enough to realize you were cold. Not at Pegasus Bay. Before we even considered moving to a table in the sun, they suggested it. Thoughtful service is more than just recommending the perfect wine.

These kinds of details, plus fantastic food and a gorgeous dining space that transported us to a garden somewhere in Mediterranean Europe, added up to a memorable dining experience. Expect to spend a shiny bit of coin, but if you’re traveling near Christchurch, New Zealand, put Pegasus Bay on the to-eat list.

Oh yeah, and the wines are awesome! Try the Reisling (dry and off-dry), Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet/Merlot blend. Oh hell, just try all of them. The region (Waipara) is known for its Pinot Noir and Reisling, but Pegasus Bay shows there are many more good varietals being produced there.

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Restaurant Review: Fleur’s Place

Fleur's Place

We were running late, as usual, and didn’t have a lot of time to search around town for the restaurant. Fortunately, when the address you’re looking for is “Fleur’s Place, The Old Jetty, Moeraki, New Zealand” you can be pretty sure that there’s not much else in town.

Moeraki is on a tiny peninsula jutting into the vast Pacific Ocean, and on its lone, weather-beaten pier rests Fleur’s Place, a corrugated tin clubhouse that doubles as a destination dining experience. The once-bustling pier was where Moeraki competed with, and ultimately lost to, its northern neighbor Oamaru as the shipping hub for the area.

We learned of this hidden little gem a few months ago, when someone handed Chrstina a copy of Fleur Sullivan’s autobiography. One of New Zealand’s most well-known and influential chefs, she rose to national fame managing Oliver’s, an innovative restaurant and lodge in Central Otago. After reading her book and learning about her new concept: seafood straight from the boat to plates; her restaurant in Moeraki quickly rose to the top of our to-do list.

Like the rest of New Zealand, Fleur’s Place is casual, welcoming, and a little rough around the edges. The aesthetic is best illustrated by the array of mismatched teacups and saucers perched on the bar: what was once precious is now a little absurd. And the parallels here to other high-end cooking are almost too easy. As gourmet food has veered further and further toward molecular gastronomy and farther from its, well, bread and butter: delicious, fresh ingredients; it’s become a caricature. I’d rather ultra-fresh ingredients than foams any day. And most of all, that’s what Fleur’s Place hammered home: sometimes it’s not about complicated recipes or processes, but sourcing excellent, locally produced ingredients and getting out of the way.

While the menu has its share of classics and old standbys, we never considered anything but the fresh fish for which Fleur’s Place is famous. The seafood chowder was thick and heavy on shellfish that tasted like they’d hopped off the rocks and into the pot. New Zealand’s famous green-lipped mussels, cockles, and clams were the stars of the rich, tomato-based soup, slicing through with savory meatiness.

The day’s catch was blue cod, brill, sole, tarakuhi, and moki. Cod is somewhat of a workhorse fish, used frequently for the popular and ubiquitous fried fish and chips, so it wasn’t the obvious choice for a nice meal out. But just because something is common (and commonly done badly) doesn’t mean it can’t be delicious. And it turned out to be the perfect example of the point: use good ingredients and get out of the way.
A year ago, I never would have lobbied for a whole fish versus fillets. The sight and thought of the fish head staring back at me and the prospect of picking through tons of little bones to get every last bit of flesh off the skeleton would have directed me elsewhere. But not anymore. Through our experiences traveling (butchering, fishing, dealing with carcasses) I’m far more comfortable staring down a whole fish and digging the delicious medallions of meat out of his/her cheeks. Plus, filleting a fish leaves a lot of delicious meat on the bone. I’ll happily deal with a few bones if it means having enough left over (after completely over-eating) for fish tacos the next day. Bring it on.

Grilled and doused in a caper berry (not to be confused with their little brothers, capers) and almond brown butter, it was decadent but not excessive. The proportions of ingredients were exact, allowing the fish to stand on its own, complimented (but not dominated) by the salty caper berries and crunchy almond slices. And why else would you go to a seafood restaurant than to eat fish that tastes like fish? Too often a plate of butter is substituted for decent, fresh seafood. Not at Fleur’s.

Covert Laundry

Maybe its the rustic setting, or the fish gutting station outside the kitchen door, or the dish towels hanging to dry  in the sun just beyond the view of diners, but Fleur’s has authenticity bursting from its seams. Don’t come to be entertained by tricks of the kitchen, come for the freshest fish imaginable and simple, skilled preparation.

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Francesca’s Italian Kitchen

Francesca's logo

Zach and I celebrated Christmas by going out to dinner at Francesca’s Italian Kitchen, the restaurant where I am working as a dishy. Francesca’s had opened the day before and I had only worked two shifts, but after seeing the ingredients and the plates of food that came out of the kitchen, I knew exactly where we were going for Christmas.

The meal was phenomenal, the vibe was laid back, and the sun still shining at 8 pm when we sat down to eat. We started with cocktails, beef carpaccio and beetroot agniolotti, which was easily the best beet dish I have ever had. The beet filled pasta sat in a bath of nut butter and fried sage. We worked our way through the wine list, which featured both local Central Otago wines and a few Italian wines. Zach had the Lake Hayes 2009 Pinot Noir, which went from good to perfect when paired with the carbonara he had for dinner. I went with the Montepulciano and gnocchi with italian sausage. Chubby, pillowy, delicious gnocchi. It was one of those, take a whiff of my wine and make a delicious bite of what I ordered, then sniff and taste some of whats in front of you, and back again kind of meals that ended with a tiramisu and scotch. In my book, that is synonymous with “happily ever after.”

We hadn’t been out to dinner since July in New York. Our last meal out was at Momofuku Noodle bar in the East Village and while we enjoyed it, we didn’t appreciate it. We were spoiled rotten by good food, fancy cocktails, cheap wine, and super cool restaurants, but didn’t really know how special that was until we couldn’t find that. Most places here are either super expensive or just not that good. But Francesca’s is different. It reminds me of a restaurant you might find in New York. Except that you wont. Because it’s Wanaka’s little gem.

 

A big thank you to Pat and Lydia for dinner :D

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