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.