Last week's mystery bar really seems to have stumped you, so here's a more revealing photo and a little clue about its name: it really can't be beaten.
It formed a very pleasant stop along the way of our tapeo evening last Friday, with its interesting wine list and platters of simple but delightfully fresh nibbles. I've often thought that the tapeo (and its Basque cousin the poteo-ir-de-pinchos) is a very civilised tradition that we ought to have here, despite our bracing climate and dour dominantly Anglo-Celtic heritage. The tapeo (or tapas-crawl) involves wandering with a group of friends from bar to bar, having a drink or two at each bar while sampling their unique tapas dishes. Along the way, you bump into old friends and make new ones, and in many cases it replaces a sit-down meal altogether.
In parts of Europe this is a tradition that crosses age and class divisions. Unfortunately, we still have a social environment where eating out regularly is considered the exclusive domain of the affluent, and drinking is considered as either a social evil or purely as a way to get grossly intoxicated (not that there's anything wrong with that...) rather than as an accompaniment to food and as a healthy and integrated part of everyday life. There are still some legal hangovers from the era when food and drink were strictly segregated, and can you imagine plates of grilled crab pie, tuna salad or pigeon in pastry being arranged along the public bar of the Cambridge?
So a local tapeo evening has to rely upon relatively upmarket bars and restaurants, rather than your neighbourhood watering hole, but at least there is a growing number of places offering tapas, antipasti, or other forms of "small plates" and platters. I've already mentioned our mystery bar, but here are a few other good tapeo candidates, arranged from Lambton to Courtenay:
- Arbitrageur has some fantastic "delicatessa" plates, and gives you the chance to design your own antipasto platter. It's pricy, but their gravlax, vitello tonnato and smoked cod rillete with truffle oil are definitely worth it.
- Pod has never really done it for me, as its perfectly minimalist interior can feel uninviting unless its packed, and they seem to have moved away from the small plates concept a little. Still, they had some lovely kumara and parmesan balls last time we were there, and geographically they help fill in the north-south bar gap.
- Matterhorn does the business with Mediterranean-influenced "bowls", including spiced pork & garlic fingers, irresistible feta fried in gorse honey & thyme flowers, and aquired tastes such as black pudding (Ecky thump!) with fried apple and garlic mayo. Some have suggested that "da Horn" is past its best as a bar, but for dinner or early evening drinks it's still hard to beat.
- Imbibe is the antipasto maestro, and no Wellytapas crawl would be complete without their themed platters. Stick to the Trattoria platter if you want to stay with European traditions, but it's well worth a trip to the other side of the Mediterranean to gorge on their magnificent Souk platter (we're still lacking a Moroccan restuarant, but this'll do in the meantime) - it's moreish as well as Moorish. The only downside is that they don't serve coffee.
- Zibibbo is probably the closest we get to proper tapas, and they even subscribe to the very civilised tradition of providing free tapas if you order a bottle of wine. There are some exquisite delicacies such as chicken liver parfait and suppli with aioli, and if you feel like breaking out of the tapas mould, their potato, rosemary and blue cheese pizzas are the best around. It's certainly the only tapas place in town with a Michelin-starred chef!
- Chow almost goes without saying, really, though it's a long way from a strictly Mediterranean concept of tapas. Their blue cheese and peanut wontons are legendary, the Thai chicken is great once you get it out of the banana leaves, and don't forget the smoked pork sausages with kaffir lime, lemongrass and other goodies. Not a cheap option, but after a coulpe of Rosebud's you'll be beyond caring.
- Hummingbird has done more than most to expand the "small plates" concept beyond the original tapas cuisine, and while it's expensive and the music is often cringeworthy for anyone who still has their own hair, dishes like walnut and blue cheese tortellini and their succulent duck rillette are still mouth-watering. The location makes it a great place for watching the world go by (although late on a weekend evening it's more like watching the Hutt go by), and now that Eddy's back from Neat, expect a few more absinthe-related hangovers.
- The Last Supper Club is not really a tapas place, but its antipasto platter has a good reputation. The service can be a little amateurish at times, but I've never seen it as bad as Des Britten said in today's Dominion Post. It's worth noting that if you catch it at the right time of evening, the window tables are drenched in sunlight while avoiding most of the wind.
- The Establishment: okay, I know what you're thinking. Barn-like spaces with big plasma screens showing Sky Sports don't make for a sophisticated tapeo night. But they offer an intriguing Tex-Mex take on tapas (smoked bacon with blue cheese and sweet potato, spiced lamb cutlets with chilli onion jam, corn fritters with bacon & chorizo), some rather fine cocktails and an impressive tequila list. Avoid rugby nights and naff themed evenings, head for the more intimate back bar on Blair St, and enjoy.
- The Tasting Room has what must be the closest I've seen to a Kiwiana version of tapas, including a tasting platter that's rich in game, offal and kaimoana. Not recommended for vegetarians, given the preponderance of rabbit kidneys, black pudding and goat, but for those with an open mind and gullet it's truly delicious. Again, you should avoid rugby nights, but there are plenty of seating options including outside in the sun (not always smoky, thank god) and downstairs in the pit beneath the antler chandelier.