Havana Bar, Wellington

And so to Wellington for the final leg of what has been a wonderful festival. A few of us had been here earlier in the run to perform at The Opera House for the Gala, which was something of an honour in itself. I don’t care who you are – getting up to show off in front of a capacity crowd in a proper old venue should never be commonplace, even if it is where you’re lucky enough to ply your trade. My circuit doesn’t tend to take in that many opera houses, but it’s an absolute delight when it does.

The other place we visited on our brief trip was Havana Bar, a Cuban tapas restaurant introduced to us by the lovely Ben Hurley – an excellent Kiwi comedian who also had the honour of being my tenant when I sublet him my Battersea flat during the 2009 Edinburgh Festival. I’m pretty sure that was easily as big a highlight of his comedic career as becoming a TV star in his own country has been since. The food was exceptional and we – Mr and Mr Sinnerman and their hanger on – vowed to return.

Two funky-coloured wooden buildings lead you up a little path between themselves to a plaque on the door that says ‘Nothing Historic Ever Happened Here.’ After this meal, we beg to differ. Last time out, we had worked from the bar menu – a selection of about 9 separate tapas dishes that I’m pretty sure we ordered in their entirety, and between about 6 comics they did not last long. This time we were offered the a la carte, which we perused before asking after a number of things we remembered from the bar menu and missed very much. Whilst I am entirely sure the larger main courses on the menu would have been excellent, the small plates were what we were after and I’m afraid you may have to be prepared for a degree of hyperbole in what is to follow. Essentially we ordered almost all the small dishes from the a la carte, plus extras, plus desserts. Paul and I had Bloody Marys. They were also exquisite. We simply have not had a finer meal, certainly in New Zealand, possibly anywhere.

First up was a delicious Maori potato bread, with onion butter – a twist on a Kiwi kids classic as I understand it, which involves making a dip from butter and onion soup. Beautiful bread, surprisingly light, with pleasantly rich, oniony butter. But still at heart bread and butter. I like bread and butter, but then the fireworks really started.

To begin – prawns sautéed in chilli and garlic. Here goes. I think these may have been the best prawns I’ve ever had. These are apparently an ever present on the menu and they are perfection – beautifully seasoned with a sublime balance of heat and herb, combined with a juicy springiness that can only come form the freshest of shellfish and the deftest hand at the pan. We ordered another plate. Next, beef tongue chips, breadcrumbed and served with smoked onion mayo, a very lightly pickled ginger and a dusting of Parmesan. These were a favourite from the bar menu which Paul has consistently said were the best thing he’s eaten in New Zealand. They did not disappoint a second time, so we ordered a third.

Pan roasted mushrooms with a pumpkin seed cream were an outrageously luxurious whack of comfort eating, spread thickly on thinly sliced, crisp toast that I think was another very welcome example of the potato bread. A few fronds of dill added another yet dimension to indicate this really was a kitchen working at the very top of its game. A raw beef tataki with Jerusalem artichoke crisps and vinaigrette was so good I am simply running out of superlatives. If anything, its more delicate flavours meant it won out over the chips for red meat dish of the day for me but that is a tough call. Like comparing Pele and Maradonna, you’re never going to be happy with whoever comes out on top. (It’s Pele, as he never knocked us out of a World Cup by cheating, but it seems pretty clear the Hand of God wasn’t far away from the stove at Havana.)

Another signature is the Grilled Cubano! I like to consider myself something of an aficionado of the grilled ham and cheese sandwich with mustard and pickle – I find it very hard to walk past Selfridges without popping in to The Brass Rail for a Reuben, I would happily fly to New York just to have the Katz’s Deli version and have you been to Northern Soul in Manchester? These easily bear comparison. We had ordered them last time around, and while it may sound wrong to order a sandwich halfway through a meal of this size and quality, it wasn’t.

And just when you thought things couldn’t get any better, we had our socks blown off by a vegetarian dish – yeasted butter poached cauliflower florets doused in aged cheddar and a sauce made with prune, shitake salt and that most over-used of ingredients – truffle. Here it was added sparingly, and unarguably. This, with all due respect to the good people of Partick Duck Club, is the best cauliflower dish I have ever eaten. We ordered another. Obviously.

That was, of course, quite enough food. There was no need for dessert. Absolutely no need, and we set our minds against it. But then there was no need for the second order of beef chips, prawns and cauliflower either. The rum baba Olly and I ordered was perhaps a slightly heavier end to the meal than was ideal, but I just wanted to taste it and it did not let me down – shards of toasted coconut meringue, boozy raisins and a sprightly lemon curd to cut through all that richness. Paul pronounced his chocolate mousse excellent and we asked for the bill before any more damage could be done. I’m not sure if the fan at a neighbouring table who came over to ask Paul for a selfie had noticed what we’d eaten, but if she had that might explain the note of surprise in her voice when she congratulated him on how svelte he was looking.

The final surprise was the bill. The entire meal, including a tip for our South African waitress, who seemed to warm to us the more we ate, came to just under £50 each. That is spectacularly good value for food of this, well – brilliance can be the only word.

To quote Paul, word for word, Havana is “Right up there as one of the best restaurants I have ever been to,” and he’s a Chaser and they know their stuff.

Me? I’m just looking to find out out if there’s a comedy festival in Cuba next year. 

May 2019

Auckland

I’ve never been to New Zealand before. It’s wonderful, as if someone had towed Scotland somewhere nice. It is, undoubtedly, a long way from home, but I had the pleasure of incredible hospitality from The New Zealand International Comedy Festival and especially Scott Blanks and everyone at The Classic Comedy Club. I was also lucky enough to be sharing the trip with several old friends, including Paul Sinha and his fiancée Olly, who were kind enough to act as my surrogate family when it became clear my wife was unable to join the trip for heavily pregnant reasons.

I have known Paul for twenty yearsand he is a superb, craftsman of a comedian, though still better known to the general public as ‘The Sinnerman’ from ITV’s enduringly popular daytime quiz show ‘The Chase’. He is a general knowledge fiend, who delights in pointing out when jokes contain factual inaccuracies (I know there are homegrown exhibits in The British Museum Paul, but it really doesn’t help the punchline.) What I don’t think any of us realized is quite what a sensation ‘The Chase’ is on New Zealand TV. It’s on every day. Often twice. Most of us spent our first few days getting over jetlag – Paul spent his getting over how famous he is.

We have eaten very well. Regular haunts have included our local Asian food court, just down the road from us on Queen St, where Hanoi Corner do a particularly good pho. Unfortunately I had to pay for it, unlike Paul, who ordered from the Indian/Chinese next door and received his food gratis simply for being The Sinnerman. If you want a decent burger, you could do a lot worse than ‘Burger Fuel’ – a cracking Kiwi chain that needs to expand to England, although it might be worth sending Nandos with it, as the New Zealand outpost is not a patch on the UK version. There are any number of decent Koreans, a fantastic Szechuan (Yummy Dumpling House, indeed) opposite the hotel, a wonderful Japanese (Tanuki’s) right next door to The Classic and even a coffee chain (Colombus) who do a breakfast/brunch menu so good it would get them kicked out of Crouch End for unfair business practices.

There have been some higher end highlights. In the first week, as we walked up the popular K Road, past the excellent Thai Street Food restaurant where we’d somewhat over-ordered lunch the day before, we came across Coco’s Cantina. This was a superb Italian, offering a limited range of unimpeachable dishes, which we realized as soon as we looked at the prices, but by that time – well, we’d sat down. There was a little confusion until we worked out the best course of action was to divide a ‘date menu’ between Paul and me whilst Olly ordered a couple of separate dishes. This is perhaps not a move that would go down terribly well with most couples, but if I was being a terrible gooseberry, they were both far too polite to mention it.

There were beautiful breads, a wonderfully rich chicken parfait, goat’s cheese with pear, charcuterie, and an excellent mushroom pasta (I think – it was Olly’s and I didn’t wish to intrude any further than I already was.) I also had broccoflower for the first time, which is exactly what it sounds like. There was a very creditable Scotch fillet with salsa verde and a fig leaf ice cream and rhubarb semifreddo to finish. The produce and cooking was of the highest order, chosen from a menu limited by authenticity rather than any sense of parsimony. There was also a complimentary grappa, but unfortunately we were unable to secure anything further on the strength of our celebrity companion. We did, however, get the entire kitchen staff coming to the table for selfies with him. They were charmingly polite about not having the faintest clue who Olly and I were, which was both thoroughly charming and completely understandable. Although Olly is the eleventh ranked quizzer in the UK and I did completely sell out my festival run, for future reference. (A younger person would probably put a winking emoji here.)


The best part of a trip to the island of Waiheke may well have been Scottish comedian Chris Henry yelling ‘The Chase is on’ as Paul ran for a late ferry. Luckily the captain waited until we’d all stopped laughing hysterically to allow us on board, which we thought might have been professionalism, but turned out to be because he was a massive Chase fan too. Waiheke is a delight. I have never been offered ‘wine tasting and archery’ before (what could possibly go wrong?) Nonetheless, the trips through the vineyards were both stunning and…refreshing. The Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant is an Auckland institution that really deserves a blog all of its own, but I’ll just say I had A LOT of oysters followed by a stunning venison dish and I want to go back. Repeatedly.

Today is Sunday, and to celebrate our last day in Auckland, at lunchtime we went to the Grand Harbour Chinese Restaurant for Dim Sum. This is a must visit destination – a huge, bustling dining room with enormous lobsters in tanks and floor staff criss-crossing the floor as though they were driving demented mobility scooters loaded with goodies. We were found a table remarkably quickly, which I think is testament to the efficiency of the operation rather than their nascent celebrity guest.

That level of professionalism also extended to the food, which is probably the best Dim Sum I’ve ever eaten. From crispy chilli chicken wings to shell-on tiger prawns, there wasn’t a false move, and we were constantly updating our order from the passing trolleys. I couldn’t work out why a green bean dish was quite so tasty, until I came back to the hotel and Googled it to find out the lip-smacking umami hit came from pork and olive mince, which is a new one on me. There were beautiful, plump dumplings bursting gelatinous skins to reveal generous fillings of prawn and spinach. Pork bao buns, a cold chicken dish I didn’t think I was going to like but did, and probably the highlight of the whole meal, roast pork. As Paul pointed out, this should surely be the signature of this type of restaurant, and it did not disappoint. Imagine the best pork belly you’ve ever tasted got married to a crispy duck and you were eating the result. Perhaps not a brilliant metaphor, but a sensational piece of cooking. I even had my first Chinese dessert – an oozing custard tart that gave Portugal’s version serious competition. I still think I prefer the slightly more caramelized tones of a Nata, but it was a close run thing. Our overall bill came to just over $150, which was nothing short of an absolute steal.

Tonight, we went to see Paul’s extra show at the 700 seater SKYCITY Theatre with a lot of the other comedians here and we could not be happier for him. I know how much he loves his quizzing, but he also takes his comedy equally, if not more seriously. Which is why, despite a wonderful performance to a capacity crowd, I still think his highlight of the trip may well have been the waitress at Grand Harbour, who approached the table to say,

“I know you. You’re that comedian, aren’t you?”

Auckland has been awesome, I know all of us can’t wait to come back. I just think next time a lot of us need to start appearing on one of ITV’s enduringly popular daytime quiz shows to really get our numbers up.

The Sinnerman Selfie queue, post show at SKYCITY 19/05/19

May 2019