When I left Alexandra, it was sunny and a little hot. In nearby Cromwell, it was warm but cloudy. A half-hour away, in the Gibbston Valley, it was milder, but with returned hints of the sun. And just up the road in Queenstown, the air is decidedly crisp, and a light rain falls. None of these places are far from each other, yet the climatological differences (and their inevitable effect on viticulture) are writ large.
All that said, I’m not here for wine. I’m here for coffee.
Theresa, fresh from her relaxing day at the spa (and her even more relaxing post-spa nap) joins me on a dubious side street, rife with American fast food and truly tacky knick-knack shops, to try what is alleged to be the best café in all of New Zealand. That, as we’ve discovered, is a mighty strong claim, but we’re prepared for a thorough assessment.
It’s not easy to find Joe’s Garage (Camp St.) from the front, mostly because there’s not really a sign, nor are there street-facing windows to indicate what’s inside (there’s one in the back, alongside some outdoor tables, but no one would ever be back there unless they knew precisely where they were going). In this way, it’s a little like The Bunker in its self-conscious invisibility to passing throngs of tourists, and though the word on this place is definitely out, I suspect many are simply unable to locate this venue.
Inside, however, things are a bit more amusing. Joe’s Garage is a single, high-ceilinged room (that does, in fact, look like a converted commercial garage), with a studied mess of haphazard décor that suggests some sort of geographically indistinct road trip…a little Route 66, a little Paris-Dakar, perhaps even a little Southern Scenic Route…and the cornucopia of tchotchkes assembled along the way. In the room: a few small tables, a few stools at a bar, and that’s it. It is strikingly hip via its very indifference to the concept.
I note, however, that the entropy of the main room does not extend to areas behind the bar, where a four-person staff works in pristine, efficient precision. I take a quick look at the menu of breakfast-type comestibles (scribbled on a large board far above the bar), and order a “brat” and a flat white. Here is what transpires:
A sausage is plucked from a rotisserie, glistening and plump. It’s placed on a hot grill, while an even fatter roll is produced. This is toasted in its native state, then sliced open and toasted a second time, while the sausage is rolled and tossed around the grill until it has developed a fine sear on all sides. A canister of a smoky barbecue-type sauce is set next to another full of piquant, English-style whole grain mustard, and these are carefully applied to each interior face of the now well-toasted roll, after which the sausage is arranged precisely in a position to be enveloped by these condiments. The price for all this excellence? $5 NZ.
Meanwhile, the barista – unquestionably the most brooding and serious of the café staff, so much so that Theresa begins to refer to him as Bono – begins the process of making a flat white. With a series of fresh presses from the elaborate brewing machinery behind him, he assembles a lineup of cups and begins to work his art: an espresso here, a cappuccino there, and then a series of flat whites. A dark, almost inky shot of espresso is immediately pierced by a folded mixture of steamed and frothed milk, though top-riding foam is held back by the careful manipulation of a knife. The barista gently adjusts the direction and amplitude of his pour, leaving the finished coffee topped with a delicate leaf pattern traced in the tiny amount of foam that rises to the top of the cup. It is an absolute work of art.
It’s taste, however, that matters…and here, Joe’s Garage unquestionably surpasses its reputation. The bratwurst sandwich is in perfect proportion – meat, bread and condiment in satisfying marriage – while the coffee is utterly flawless and stupendously rich. Laughing with delight over our purchases at a freshly-emptied table, we have only one question: what took us so long to visit this place?
Learning to hate baths
We nurse a second pair of stunning flat whites, then head back to the house to change for dinner. Little do we anticipate the turn our evening is about to take.
(Continued here, with tasting notes and more photos…)