The amazing-sounding "Wellington on a Plate for Christchurch" dinner was put together by the Restaurant Association and Wellington Tourism, with a stunning cast of chefs and an army of volunteers making it happen. Somehow I managed to convince Mr Cake that we could afford the $195 per head to attend - how could we refuse, really, with the takings all going to Christchurch?
We arrived to canapes and bubbles, and a fabulous looking town hall - isn't it stunning?
A little mingling and nibbling and then it was time to be seated. Mark Hadlow was the MC, a Cantabrian himself (though currently residing in Wellington for The Hobbit), so he is close to the cause - his wife was working on High Street at the time of the quake, so her workplace is no longer.
My enduring memory of Mark Hadlow is as Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar in 1994 - our Christmas present from Mum and Dad was tickets to the show, which was a pretty big deal at the time, and I still think he was the star of it. He did sing a few bars from King Herod's Song at one point during the evening but on the whole left the singing to Tre-Belle - more on them later.
Before each course Mark visited the kitchen with a camera in tow, and we watched him chatting with the chefs on the big screen, because, as he put it, there is no better way to annoy a chef than interviewing him when he's plating up. It was quite cool getting the behind-the-scenes view, annoying or not - and it didn't seem to negatively impact our meals in any way.
The first course was prepared by Shaun Clouston of Logan Brown. Shaun was amenable to the interruption and kindly refrained from taking a cleaver to Mr Hadlow, much to our relief. ;-)
The service began as soon as the camera left the kitchen - and it was incredible. The servers were volunteers from a vast array of Wellington restaurants, and were choreographed to perfection, with a team of five attending each table of ten. Each server carried two dishes, and when the five were in place around a table they would place first the plate in the left hand down, in sychronisation, and then, a moment later, the plate in their right hand. This meant not only were we impressed at the fabulous timing and neatness of it all, but also that everyone at the table was served at the same time, so there was none of that awkward oh-my-food-looks-so-good-but-I'll-just-sit-on-my-hands-till-yours-comes thing that so often happens at events of this size.
Shaun's dish was sauvignon-vine smoked salmon, with horseradish, lobster and caper salsa, which was just so good - the salmon was smoked to perfection, with a strong but not overwhelming flavour - I am often underwhelmed by smoked fish, but this was excellent. The horseradish was mild and light and matched well with the salmon, without overpowering as horseradish so often does. And the lobster - well, it was delicious, smothered in a creamy sauce but the flavour of the lobster meat came through clearly - I only wish I had more! All the components of the dish worked well together, and it was gone in a flash. There were bottles of wine on the table, and I enjoyed a very flavourful Stonecroft 2009 Sauvignon Blanc throughout the night - I thought it was a great match for this dish.
Next up was Rex Morgan's chicken dish - described more than once through the evening as KFC, jokingly (though there was some resemblance - more on the food soon), and Rex was jolly and joking when accosted in the kitchen.
The chicken was wonderfully cooked and the meat was flavourful, but there was a common feeling that the dish lacked something - I found the crunchy coating, though texturally good, a little bland, and the maize mousseline that accompanied the dish was quite strange and didn't seem to go with the chicken - some at our table found it not to their liking at all, and most of the rest of us ate it separately from the meat. The tomato reduction helped give little more flavour but there wasn't enough of it to lift both the chicken and the mousseline. There wasn't anything bad about the dish, it just seemed a little disparate and lacklustre. The chicken would have been great with a zingy sauce or gravy and perhaps some mash (continue the poshed-up K-Fry theme, perhaps?). ;-)
In between courses Mark auctioned off fantastic items (a behind-the-scenes tour of Te Papa followed by a degustation meal for 10 in Hippopotamus' private dining room, for example) for the cause, which was cause for much hilarity (and a little frustration) as he kept losing track of the current bid, and on several occasions asked for subsequent bids that were much lower than he'd already been promised. He was genuinely entertaining - quite the madman - aside from the memory lapses, and much of the evening was spent clutching our aching bellies from laughing so much.
We were also serenaded on two occasions by a group of pop-opera singers called Tre-Belle, who were wonderful and who also became an auction item by the end of the evening (for a 40 minute performance only, though you may have been forgiven for thinking it was for keeps given Mark's sales pitch!). As well as performing to us they led the national anthem at the beginning of the evening, something that is seldom sung outside of formal services but which I thought was a good way to set the tone and remind us that it wasn't just a big party.
The next chef off the rank is Zibibbo's Adam Newell. I've dined at Zibibbo more than any other restaurant in Wellington, a couple of times with work groups as they have a very affordable set lunch menu. My all-time favourite dish at Zibibbo is the dessert tapas - well worth a try!
Adam's on the main tonight, though - sirloin steak with porcini mustard and creamed celeriac. Both the celeriac and mushroom mustard are fantastic - the mustard is zingy yet rich, and goes perfectly with the meat. I am a sucker for pretty much any restaurant variation of mash (well, you know, the amount of butter chefs throw at that kind of thing mean it's almost always a win), and a red wine jus deepens the flavour of every mouthful. I found my steak a little on the tough side, though no-one else seemed to be finding that a problem - but the flavours were good enough that I still really enjoyed the dish. This was Mr Cake's favourite of the night (the salmon won me over).
We also have a cheese board - the Over The Moon OMG Triple Cream Brie lives up to its name, and is officially my new favourite soft cheese. The Whitestone Windsor blue is also really nice but can't top the OMG-ness!
At the end of the evening Mike Egan from the Restaurant Association announced the total raised, which was an astonishing $70,000 - just incredible. We had a wonderful evening - worth every cent we paid - and we are so pleased that the event did so well for Christchurch. A magnificent effort by all concerned.
Hamilton is having a long lunch next Monday - a table to seat 300 will be set up in Hood Street, sounds like great fun. Do you know of any foodie fundraisers in other parts of the country?