The call of In­ver­cargill

A wind of change is blow­ing through our south­ern­most city as In­ver­cargill Brew­ery sets out to en­ter­tain the lo­cals. Michael Don­ald­son re­ports.

The Press - Your Weekend (The Press) - - Drinks -

Ihave some sym­pa­thy for the cou­ple who bought one of Air New Zealand’s mystery hol­i­days and ended up in a less than de­sir­able ser­viced apart­ment in In­ver­cargill.

My sym­pa­thy, how­ever, ex­tends only to the fact that the ac­com­mo­da­tion didn’t meet the stan­dard promised. In­ver­cargill it­self I have no prob­lem with.

I can’t re­call a bad ex­pe­ri­ence in New Zealand’s most south­ern city – and I’ve been there a few times: from the bril­liance of 27C days on end at the na­tional track cy­cling cham­pi­onships in the early 1990s through the joys of play­ing golf at the un­der-rated Oreti Sands.

From Bluff and its oys­ters, up to the Catlins and across to the re­mote beauty of River­ton’s beaches, there’s plenty to do in and around In­ver­cargill.

And if you’re lucky enough to get a mystery week­end in In­vers, I’d sug­gest vis­its to Zookeeper’s Café and, more im­por­tantly, In­ver­cargill Brew­ery, which is un­der­go­ing a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion.

In­ver­cargill was at the forefront of con­tract brew­ing, a prac­tice that has helped cre­ate many of the nearly 200 brew brands that now ex­ist in New Zealand. I say “brands” be­cause the con­tract model al­lows any­one – you, me, the bloke next door – to get some­one to make, bot­tle and la­bel beer for them.

It’s a model that al­lows brands to flour­ish with­out the cap­i­tal cost that comes with buy­ing a brew­ery. Plenty of the best brands in New Zealand have cho­sen this path to suc­cess – most no­tably Yeastie Boys, which launched over 10 years ago by brew­ing its famed Pot Ket­tle Black at In­ver­cargill. Yeastie Boys is now ap­ply­ing that model on a global ba­sis, brew­ing beers on other peo­ple’s hard­ware in Bri­tain and Aus­tralia.

But af­ter more than 10 years at In­ver­cargill, the re­la­tion­ship has ended. There’s rea­sons on both sides for the un­cou­pling – pro­duc­ing beer in In­ver­cargill and get­ting it into mar­kets in the North Island is hideously ex­pen­sive, not to men­tion lo­gis­ti­cally and fur­ther fis­cally challenging since last year’s Kaik­oura earth­quake. On top of that, In­ver­cargill Brew­ery sees its fu­ture as a re­gional brew­ery ser­vic­ing the needs of its com­mu­nity. To that end, own­ers Amanda and Steve Nally are fo­cus­ing on turn­ing the brew­ery into a brew-venue, for want of a better word, and are cur­rently crowd-fund­ing to set up Asy­lum, a mu­sic and en­ter­tain­ment venue within the brew­ery.

Yeastie Boys is mov­ing its New Zealand op­er­a­tion to the re­cently opened Ur­ba­naut in Auck­land un­der the eye of Bruce Turner, who earned his stripes at two of Bri­tain’s best brew­eries, Fullers and Mean­time.

And in a round­about way we end up where we started be­cause Ur­ba­naut’s theme is beers named af­ter some of the great in­ter­na­tional ur­ban cen­tres of the world. Hence they have, Kings­land (Auck­land) Pil­sner, Brixton (Lon­don) Pale Ale, Wil­liams­burg (New York) IPA, a Gas­town (Van­cou­ver) Red IPA. It’s a great idea and all the beers are well-balanced beau­ties. I’m par­tic­u­larly fond of Gas­town Red IPA, which is ro­bust in flavour but de­liv­ers it via a silky smooth mouth­feel.

It’s a great con­cept and who knows, to com­plete the cir­cle, one day it might make a beer in hon­our of In­ver­cargill … a mystery ale per­haps?

It wasn’t just be­cause I scored a park right out­side that made me de­tect a whiff of magic in the air as I stepped in­side Cafe Valentino. At 7.30pm on a Fri­day, the large, warm restau­rant was buzzing. The ta­bles were full of happy-look­ing peo­ple and – best of all – I could smell the rich, tomato tang of pizza sauce.

The space it­self is the­atri­cal: high, ex­posed wooden ceil­ing, dra­matic light­ing fix­tures and brick walls crammed with framed posters and signed me­men­toes from the many en­ter­tain­ers the restau­rant has fed, from blues leg­end Taj Ma­hal (“Yo! This is the best it GETS!”) to Me­tal­lica, who re­quired blacked out win­dows so they could dine in peace.

Black and white Sophia Loren movies were play­ing in the bar and signed por­traits of the volup­tuous star hung in the bath­rooms. Af­ter all, what better icon for an Ital­ian restau­rant than the woman who once told an ad­mirer: “Ev­ery­thing you see I owe to spaghetti.”

Like Loren, Cafe Valentino knows that food may form the body but it is per­for­mance that de­lights the mind. From the bar­tender whip­ping up cock­tails at the showy back-lit bar to the cooks twirling dough in the open pizza kitchen to the black-clad wait­ers seam­lessly de­liv­er­ing food like stage­hands plac­ing props, this is a place where every­body knows their part in the script.

That may make the restau­rant sound stagy or pre­ten­tious, and per­haps the glass-doored wine cab­i­net with its $1000 bot­tles of Pen­folds Grange does err on the side of New York bom­bast, but mostly the per­for­mance feels au­then­tic. This is not a place de­signed to im­press and in­tim­i­date but to wel­come and pam­per.

That started with friendly, pa­tient ser­vice as our waiter helped one fussy eater or­der what he later said was the best dish he’d ever eaten. He wanted a creamy pasta but was du­bi­ous about some of the ingredients in the rec­om­mended fet­tuc­cine Apollo. Could we switch out the smoked chicken for roast chicken and hold the mushrooms? Oh, and make it pap­pardelle in­stead of fet­tuc­cine? No prob­lem.

In the mood for pasta and piz­zas, we set­tled on a Patata pizza (potato, ba­con, rose­mary, truf­fle oil) and a half pep­per­oni, half Alpina (mushrooms, blue cheese, pro­sciutto, rocket, shaved pecorino).

In ad­di­tion to the mod­i­fied Apollo pasta, we or­dered bu­ca­tini al arra­bi­ata (manuka smoked ba­con, chilli, gar­lic and fresh basil in a tomato and herb napo­le­tana sauce), and starters of arancini (fried risotto balls with mush­room, spinach and ta­leg­gio cheese) and fo­cac­cia br­uschetta with four pestos.

The three cricket-ball size arancini were served with a tomato rel­ish spiced with cumin. It was a sur­pris­ing note in a per­fectly ex­e­cuted dish, with the crisp crumb giv­ing way to the creamy rice and molten cheese tex­ture and earthy mush­room and spinach flavours. Although billed as a starter, it could eas­ily make a main.

The wood-fired piz­zas had crispy thin crusts and were loaded with qual­ity ingredients.

The home-made pap­pardelle was ide­ally al dente – just a touch chewy – and the creamy sauce was pi­quant with its hint of chilli.

The “an­gry” bu­ca­tini was sat­is­fy­ingly spicy and smokey although the fun-to-eat straw-shaped pasta was slightly over­cooked.

De­spite be­ing far be­yond the point of need, the dessert menu proved im­pos­si­ble to re­sist. The kids loved the sound of the dou­ble cho­co­late brownie, served warm with salted caramel sauce, vanilla bean ice­cream and a mini iced cho­co­late milk­shake.

The de­li­cious brownie had a chewy yet molten tex­ture, the rich milk­shake was no mere dec­o­ra­tive ad­di­tion but a se­ri­ous cho­co­late bomb, and the sauce, ice­cream and a slice of tamar­illo were ideal coun­ter­points. The dessert spe­cial of a triple cho­co­late mousse cake was served with ad­dic­tive candied cashew nuts and a berry sor­bet.

We ended up spend­ing al­most three hours lin­ger­ing over din­ner, but the ser­vice was so good that we never felt ig­nored nor rushed. It was an evening of the best kind of indulgence.

Co-owner Steve Nally is crowd-fund­ing and ready to party at In­ver­cargill Brew­ery. PHOTO: JOHN HAWKINS/STUFF

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