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.
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.