When you visit a city for just a couple of nights, the choice for dinners out becomes an absolutely serious one for the food obsessed eater. Do you go for the new kid on the block with plenty of buzz or do you go with a well established restaurant? Or do you go for one of each?
During my recent stay in Christchurch we did just that. The first evening we don coats and gloves and head towards Victoria Street or the night life area. We start off at The Dirty Land, a small bar where we park ourselves in the back room where a red light casts a seductive, dark glow. Pictures of pin up girls adorn the walls and I order a cocktail called Lady Diesel.
It's a sweet, tropical mix of rum and passionfruit in a daiquiri. We take it slow and what we don't finish we carry to sister establishment Mexicano next door. Open since November 2013, even though it is a Tuesday night, the restaurant is almost full to bursting. Inside it is a fun and colourful with plenty of day of the dead murals and quirky touches.
Lights hang from the ceiling - one is made of a magnet of terrifying looking nails, another features iron claws holding bulbs while another light has bullet holes shot through the glass.
There are paper menus on the tables and the left side is made up of food while the remaining two thirds is all drinks. We start with the guacamole with corn chips with a side of pico de gallo. The guacamole is deliciously creamy and well seasoned but I have to hold back as I know that there is a lot of food coming out. And for once, I am not responsible for the deluge of food! ;)
Is there a dish that you always gravitate towards? For me, it's fried chicken. Said to be Mexicano's most popular dish, it is served as a bowl of boneless, moist chicken pieces with a slightly sweet coating to it.
New Zealand has a great range of seafood and these scallops are perfectly cooked and served on the shell with a flavoursome salad that enhances the scallops.
Our tacos come out individually sitting on on-trend enamel plates. The fish is coated in crispy cumin batter and served with a topping of salsa mojito, cabbage and a coriander springs. It's crunchy and flavoursome against the soft flour tortilla and sauce.
As much as I love fish tacos, the pulled pork with its intensely grilled and sweet pieces of pineapple won my heart. It is enhanced with a charred spring onion crema that balances it perfectly.
I usually regard vegetarian options with some measure of sympathy but this is a very decent vegetarian filling for the taco with a good flavour and texture.
I was drawn to this more out of curiosity and the fact that I love oysters and it turns out to be my favourite entree. It features a pillowy soft toasted bun filled with an oyster fritter, watercress and smoked oyster crema. It is utterly moreish and I just wanted more. But I steady myself. There's much more food to come.
The ceviche is cod from nearby Akaroa and it's such a pretty dish that tastes as good as it looks. It is a little on the sweet side but the chilli, mint, lime and coconut enhance the fresh fish which is cut into sashimi style slices.
The flank steak is topped with cigar smoked onions and chimichurri salsa. The steak is a little hard to cut but the flavour is excellent and quite a favourite at the table.
My favourite main however is the two skewers of juicy chicken and chorizo topped with an aromatic sauce reminiscent of a satay sauce but richer and with the aroma of sweet cinnamon.
Traditionally a Mayan dish, this seafood stew is made using recado rojo, a delicious but richly intense spice paste made with achiote chile. The seafood is perfectly cooked in this dish, the fish never dry.
Although we're full, our interest in dessert is piqued when we watch the couple next to us upend their ice cream sundae and place it on the plate for easier sharing. More an exercise in sweetness I did enjoy the caramel popcorn but it was a bit heavy for my taste.
The next evening we visit the Curator's House. Situated next to the Botanical Gardens in the centre of Christchurch it is one of the city's most popular established restaurants. The Tudor style house was built in 1920 and it served as the garden curator's home until 1982. A tender went up for tenancy in 1998 and in 2000 it opened as a Spanish style restaurant under Javier Garcia and his wife Jackie.
As it is night time, the gardens disappear from view in the dark but daytime is perhaps the best time to visit to see the gardens that lie just outside the window. There are demonstration gardens that surround the restaurant including a herb garden, potager garden, fruit orchard, berry fruit garden and the modern vegetable garden. Diners can also arrive by punt down the river to the restaurant.
We start with some of the tapas dishes including their own house made chorizo cooked in cider. All of the ingredients in the chorizo except for the pimento are from New Zealand and the chorizo is richly flavoured and lightly spicy, just like Spanish chorizo.
The croquettes are incredibly soft and creamy inside with a crunchy golden crumb coating. Filled with chicken and jamon iberico, they're very moreish and Javier tells us that these take his chefs twelve hours to make.
The Cloudy Bay cockels are a good size and meaty inside. They're cooked in a white wine, onion and saffron ragout. The sauce is great soaked up on the pan tumaca or tomato bread.
The West Coast whitebait is sauteed in olive oil with garlic and they're tiny little things that are tender with an appealing lick of garlic oil.
I must admit that whilst some found the morcilla bit too "bloody" and rich I thought that it was fantastic. Javier explains that they can't use pig's blood in New Zealand as they are only allowed to purchased powdered pig's blood commercially in New Zealand. Instead they use venison blood from a supplier that has their own farm and abbatoir and the blood is stirred and chilled as soon as it is collected to prevent coagulation.
Javier explains that their morcilla " is made with a lot of onion, cooked to extract water from the onion, then pressed over night- 20 kg fresh onion leaves us with 5 kg in the end. This is mixed with soggy bread and pimentos (Spanish paprika) and salt and topside pork fat make the mix of the morcilla. After that we put it in natural casing and boil. Then we cool and dry it for a few days. I am very happy with it because I think we have achieved the real taste flavour and texture of Spanish Morcilla." The black pudding is deliciously soft and rich in texture and flavour and is served pan fried and topped with a sherry onion confit.
The fish of the day is monkfish and it is lightly coated in flour and then fried and comes as two thick, juicy fillets. It sits atop a bold ragout with plenty of seafood. It's an enormous and very tasty serve.
The high country Merino lamb is said to be a popular dish and it is slow roasted for five hours and served with a red wine, rosemary and thyme reduction with chat potatoes and vegetables. The lamb is very rich and it's a large serve and perhaps given the amount of entrees I've already had, too large and rich for me.
With a thick toffee crust, the creme catalana has just a light hint of lemon, cinnamon and vanilla in the smooth, creamy custard. The biscuit that it comes with it very thick and doesn't really enhance the dessert. Nevertheless while desserts at both establishments didn't thrill, the savouries fared much better.
So tell me Dear Reader, would you tend to go for a new place or an established restaurant if you were visiting a city for a night?
NQN travelled to and explored Christchurch as a guest of Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism
131 Victoria Street, Christchurch, New Zealand
Tel: +64 3-365 5340
Monday - Sunday: 4:00 pm - 2:00 am
131 Victoria Street, Christchurch, New Zealand
Tel: +64 3-365 5330
Open Monday - Sunday: 11:30 am - 2:00 am
The Curator's House
7 Rolleston Ave, Christchurch Central, Christchurch 8013, New Zealand
Tel: +64 3-379 2252
Open 7 days 10:30 am - 11:00 pm