I’ve just come back from Christchurch, where I lived for a year a very long time ago. It was great, catching up with dear old friends, hanging out at my friend Amanda’s house drinking too much red wine. We planned to go out, but somehow we’ve always just wound up sitting around her table, trying to persuade each other to go across the road to Northlands mall to buy more wine. So that’s what we did.
I did get some eating in, though – actually quite a lot. It’s what I was there to do, after all. Christchurch has come a long way since I lived there in 2002; it’s really come into its own. Back then, what you might call the inner city ended basically at the bottom of High Street, and turned into abandoned Victorian brick warehouses and engineering workshops. Since then, they’ve slowly developed the are that’s become known as SoL – South of Lichfield.
There’s been controversy. The Christchurch City Council bailed out developer David Henderson, who is responsible for a lot of it, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a good thing. Those lovely old warehouses have been converted into shops, restraurants and bars around narrow little laneways and courtyards. It’s a perfect respite from those long windy straight avenues.
Mitchelli’s – a deli and bar started by two sisters, the Mitchells – was a standout for breakfast: I had a bacon buttie with a fried egg, which cost a measly $10 and which fuelled me up for the rest of the day. The bacon was smoky, pleasantly dry but not tough and the ciabatta was airy.
I also loved The Twisted Hop – a microbrewery right in the middle of it all. Not so much for the food, but for the beer, which is made on site. I had the Challenger, an English-style ale, surprisingly punchy and tangy and a good dark amber in the glass. It was a bit colder than they serve it in England, but it soon warmed up. Christchurch has a great beer scene, with a handful of craft brewers – it’s just a shame more places don’t insist on stocking only local beer.
And I headed out to Akaroa to check out a little tapas bar called Vangioni’s, which a friend had recommended. Chef Steve Bradley makes all his own prosciutto, bresaola and chorizo. Dried meat products always excite me no end. I managed to convince him to give me some chorizo: I’ve been cooking with it ever since – it’s spicy and he leaves the meat quite chunky, so it retains its flavour and moistness. I’ve had to put the rest in the freezer to save for later.
Then, there was Restaurant Schwass, which is located down next to the Christchurch Stadium in a semi-industrial area with the very excellent Harrington’s Brewery across the road. Jonny Schwass has cooked all over Christchurch and Melbourne and three years ago started his own joint. The passion, he told me, is “farm to plate” – the idea that everything on the menu is traceable or, preferably, grown himself. He’s got a couple of blokes on a garden out in West Melton growing 80 per cent of his vegetables and is about to plant a small garden on the roof of the restaurant. It’s also remarkably inexpensive: five courses costs $55.
Which would matter for nought if the food wasn’t so good – it’s thoughtful, soulful even. The menu changes daily and the produce is exceptional; Schwass and his team are almost butchers and make full use of the whole animal. “When you kill an animal you have an obligation to eat the whole thing,” he said. I started with Bluffies and moved to perfectly roasted quail with a Jerusalem artichoke and apple soup, which was silky. Then there was lamb, cooked two ways – a slow-cooked piece of neck and a rare piece of loin; it came with light, chewy gnocchi and I ate it all.
It occurred to me that Christchurch is ideally placed for this kind of restaurant – the rents are lower than other centres and it takes barely 15 minutes to get to the Canterbury Plains, which has an astonishing variety of small producers. Since I was last there, a whole host of intelligent small restaurants and bars have opened, something our bigger cities seem to be losing as rent goes up and million-dollar fitouts become common. It was great to see and – in all honesty I never thought I’d say this – I’m looking forward to going back.