Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Rest(aurant) in Peace

Today's Dominion Post carries a small story (on page A4) saying that three Wellington bars and restaurants (Rouge, Bouquet Garni and Kopi) are facing liquidation under pressure from the IRD. All were owned by Vim Rao and Gnanaprasham Kunda.

Vim Rao was once called "Wellington's reigning queen of cuisine" by Condé Nast Traveller, and certainly has been a major influence in driving Wellington's restaurant and nightlife scene. However, she'd recently had trouble retaining a license for Rouge: I guess it doesn't help to have drink driving convictions (according to the DomPost) and have allegedly served underaged drinkers. Two of the restaurants were near the corner of Manners and Willis streets, and the owners at the time blamed the council for loss of business due to the notorious stormwater roadworks that went on for so long. Whether this played any part in their demise is hard to say.

Rouge was always a strange beast, with a famously expensive fit-out that never really worked in design terms. It was certainly full of design ideas, and some quite good ones, but far too many to be crammed into a small space. The food was tasty and inventive, and the wine list by roving sommelier Stephen Wong was innovative and well crafted. But once Stephen left, the service went into a tailspin, with many tales of arrogance and incompetence topped off by rumours of bizarre happenings in the dry goods loft. The cocktails never quite lived up to their promise, and I had a Martini there recently that was worse than mediocre (review coming soon).

Kopi was a pioneer in the local Malaysian food boom, and while reviews have always been mixed, some people always swore by it. However, there are a lot of competitors out there now: some better, some cheaper, and some both. It was always strangely cramped, and perhaps the premises are better suited to a small café, as it used to be some years ago (anyone remember Kahlo's?)

Bouquet Garni is perhaps the biggest loss. The restaurant has always served some of the best food in Wellington, under the guidance of great chefs like Rex Morgan. The wine bar remained pleasant, with a sunny terrace that made up for the braying suits. The building itself, formerly a famous brothel, is such a landmark that I can't imagine it will remain empty for long. I'm just irritated that I didn't get a chance to tick it off my list this year.

All three have been on the market for a while (without selling) and are currently closed "for stocktaking". I hope this isn't a sign that the economic downturn is starting to bite: there have been enough recent openings to indicate that the failures might instead be the result of something specific to these particular businesses. Here's hoping.


At 11:58 am, February 10, 2006, Blogger Will de Cleene said...

Hospitality is a good indicator of local economic fortunes. I hope this isn't the start of a crash. We don't need yet another nail in the coffin of communal hedonism.

At 2:16 pm, February 10, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

I get the feeling that Rouge's extravagant design (allegedly over $1m) made it impossible to recoup the costs unless it was roaring success. When it turned out to be a bit of a flop, its failure may have dragged down the whole group.

It's been a while since I tried to track the openings and closings across Wellington as a whole. When I last did it in August last year, I summarised it like this:

"While the market has been volatile, it seems that there are enough hungry and thirsty people in Wellington to support new restaurants and bars. But we're fussy and fickle people, so proprietors will have to offer a compelling combination of food, drink, service, atmosphere and location to attract our custom."

There are still new places opening up, so I don't think it's a crash yet. The conventional wisdom is that Wellington will be spared some of the downturn, due to the presence of government. If so, expect the Occidental and Ministry of Food to continue to thrive!

At 5:17 pm, February 10, 2006, Blogger s. said...

Rouge was truly awful. Full stop. Good riddance.

Reshsshhion? Whash a recshhession? *hic*

At 3:31 am, February 11, 2006, Blogger Miramar Mike said...

Do you keep a running trend of openings/closings/change-of-owners?

If so ... why/who/when (to be smart) but can ya tell us?

I'm sure it's crossed your mind that such info would be extremely useful to the Council, properrty dudes (possibly same as "Council"), investors etc etc

At 8:41 am, February 13, 2006, Blogger Hadyn said...

I think we can drink through the "economic downturn" just so long as well follow the late Rod Donald's idea: If you drink, drink NZ made.

So from now on I'm all about the Founders Redheads, Te Whare Ra gew├╝rztraminer and Feijoa (or kiwi or manuka honey) 42 Below.

At 4:06 pm, February 13, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Mike: I don't keep a formal record, but I do keep my eye out (always looking for new mystery bars!). I've sent my bar list & addresses to the guys at Zoomin with the hope that it'll help them update their files, but it looks like they haven't used it yet: does anyone remember this place?!?

Hadyn: that's all very well in theory, but I haven't heard of any NZ-made vermouth, so it would never work in practice.

Perhaps buying local is the key, though: I've heard scurrilous rumours that these current closures have something to do with buying too much of a product usually associated with Colombia. Allegedly.

At 4:58 pm, February 13, 2006, Blogger Martha Craig said...

I remember Kahlos, and I wish there were more mellow cafes around like it now.

At 5:49 pm, February 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think Rouge's overall building strengthening costs may have been a mill, but no way was their fitout worth anything like that. but it will be mourned, nonetheless. Incredibly hot waitresses (at first anyway) and always packed full of single girls on the prowl (they liked the pink fake fur settee...) so i liked going there too. Only thing is, made you feel like a Pimpdaddy....

At 8:43 am, March 01, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Bouquet Garni will certainly be missed, but personally I can't say the same for Rouge. The food definitely was inventive and delicious (they did some great things with sweetbreads), but the design was too fussy and precious, and the staff found new ways to combine arrogance and incompetence. I hope that someone can take over this location, which is still a prime spot, and focus on doing the simple things right.

I don't think that these failures were due to Wellington not being sophisticated enough. There are other fine dining restaurants (Citron & Martin Bosley come to mind) that certainly go beyond "cafe food", and as far as I'm aware they're still going strong. No, I think there were very specific issues behind the downfall of this specific mini-empire.

At 1:14 pm, March 23, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many People dont know exactly what is happening inside the restaurants especially kopi. Vim had employed people from India and other countries and pay them $4 an hour rate and make them work upto 18hrs a day 7 days a week.. I guess all goes around comes around...no surprises here that she went on getting smart with IRD

At 6:24 pm, March 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rouge had a grand arrival and a quiet departure. Too many changes of identity in too short of time have cost a restaurant its life. Nail your crowd or else nail your coffin. Great food, great wine list, some staff were great while others were not. It is too bad that such a classy space is now closed. Whoever starts up the next restarurant on the corner of Cuba better know their clientelle.

At 1:09 am, April 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, the next time you write any more articles, GET YOUR INFORMATION RIGHT. Your article on Rouge is complete bollocks and after reading it I've lost recpect in you. I found the staff at Rouge ok (the innitial ones) Mind you the Chef Karlos and his partner Rebecca are A grade Morons. But every thing else was really good. I do know Vim and she never served or was charged with serving minors.She also said that there never was any happenings up in the attic, prehaps it was you up in the attic.So before writing a bunch of rubbish just get your stoy right before you loose that little creditability that you have.

At 9:26 am, April 27, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Anonymous: I didn't say that Rao had been charged with serving minors, just that there were allegations, and I linked to the article that made those allegations, based upon a Dominion investigation. Here's the relevant excerpt:

5.50pm, Bouquet Garni, Willis St. Vanessa buys a glass of wine for $6. As with all the other outlets, staff didn't ask any questions and didn't ask for proof of age.

"They just handed it over," she says.

Bouquet Garni owner Vim Rao says she is puzzled about how a 15-year-old could have been served at the bar because staff are aware it is their duty to get ID from anyone they suspect of being under age.

As for the "incident in the attic", that's based upon a story that I've heard from several people, including from a former staff member who said she saw it. Whether it's true or not I can't judge, and I didn't say it was: I just mentioned that there was a rumour, and that's certainly a fact. I wouldn't expect the owner to necessarily be the last authority on every little event that occurred in her restaurant.

As for the rest, those are matters of opinion or of particular experiences. I had several experiences of off-hand and arrogant service myself, and I know plenty of people who refused to go back after similar treatment. Whether or not that's an accurate reflection of the usual standard of service doesn't really matter: the fact that it gained such a reputation does, and that's what I wrote. Believe me, there are some much worse allegations floating around.

So, there was an allegation (which I linked to, so readers can judge the veracity of the source themselves) of underage drinkers being served at one of her bars, and there were tales of bad service and odd antics. The former wouldn't have helped when it came to license renewal, and the latter would have been a factor in loss of patronage, so I thought these were relevant to mention when considering the demise of these places.

At 4:28 pm, May 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

can you find out what these owners of these business are doing? Just a curiosity..

At 4:01 am, May 29, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vim's Kitchen, serving Malaysian fare, has just opened in the Eastern Suburbs Sydney-side. The phoenix rises - all power to her!

At 6:53 pm, July 30, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah...yeah...with all her work and personal ethics...wonder how long Vim's Kitchen will last.....burnt one bridge in NZ. hope she hold this one pretty tight.....


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