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Coffee, sausage, bathhouse, bait

It's not always about the wine

by Thor Iverson


Remarkable Queenstown
U2 brew

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.

[Cecil Peak at sunset]

Cecil sunset
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?

[Cecil Peak at sunset]

Cecil is ready for his close-up
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.

Back in Portobello, the only actual town on the Otago Peninsula, I’d called the King George V Coronation Bathhouse (despite the name, a Queenstown restaurant of some repute) and no one had picked up the phone. The message on the voice mail: “we are busy with service and cannot come to the phone” or some such excuse. Well, OK, fine. So the next day, from the same phone booth in Portobello, I’d called again – a little earlier this time – and asked for a reservation at 7:30. They’d counter-offered 7, which I took.

So when we arrive at 6:55 to an already-packed restaurant, and a waitress comes charging towards us with a panicked expression on her face, I’m already afraid of what’s to come. “Do you have reservations?” she breathlessly demands; Theresa immediately concludes she’s being rude, whereas I just find it odd. In any case, it turns out that they’ve somehow lost our reservation, and cannot find room for us. An apology is never offered, and an attempt on our part to see if we have somehow mixed up the day fails to draw much interest; instead, an interrogation to ferret out how we are at fault follows. “We only take reservations at 6:45 and 8,” she insists. Well, OK, then someone on the phone screwed up. Then: “we have people trying to sneak in here all the time, claiming to have a reservation.” Excuse me? This is the point where I start to lose my temper. She backs off just a bit – still not apologetic for having moved from error to accusations of chicanery so quickly – and insists that we must have made a reservation at the similar-sounding (to her, at least) Boardwalk. In response, I produce my self-composed reference sheet that has every restaurant of interest (to me) in a given area, point to their listing (there’s none on my sheet for the Boardwalk), and ask if the number below it is theirs. She huffs bit, insisting that I must have made some sort of mistake, and again hinting that we’re trying to bully our way in. Having finally had enough, we leave.

To this day, she remains the single rudest New Zealander I’ve ever met.

Back at the house, Theresa makes two phone calls. The first is to the number I have listed for the restaurant. The same woman with whom we’ve just dealt picks up the phone, all cheer and lightness. Theresa asks “is this the King George the Fifth Coronation Bathhouse?” The woman apparently recognizes Theresa’s accent, because her “…yes, it is…” is quite hesitant. Theresa smirks. “I thought so.” She hangs up as the woman starts to sputter.

[Theresa & Lake Wakatipu at sunset]

Wakatipu twilight
The second is to a restaurant that everyone in the area has told us we need to go to: The Postmaster’s House in Arrowtown. We’d decided that four expensive dinners in the area (after The Bunker, Saffron and The Bathhouse) would be too hard on our budget, but suddenly we’ve freed up some dining funds…and so a quick call leads to a reservation two days hence. Which also means another visit to the Blue Door Bar. I can’t quite decide which venue I’m more excited about.

Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water

An unplanned dinner is often going to be a haphazard one, but I do the best I can with the ingredients at hand. There’s whitebait, which turns out only decent as I don’t have the proper ingredients or equipment to deep fry them, and a sort of “succotash” of corn, onions and bacon, plus green beans dressed in the leftover marinade from a jar of cocktail olives purchased at Rangihoua on Waiheke Island. It’s actually fairly tasty, and easily overwhelms its vinous companion, a rather unique wine from Wanaka.

Rippon 2004 Osteiner (Central Otago) – Osteiner is one of the zillions of riesling/sylvaner crosses produced in Germany, and may just be unique to the Central Otago and even to Rippon…at least in terms of wine production. Since there’s nothing to compare it to, it’s hard to see what the benchmarks might be, but this one shows tart green fruit and grass with an attenuated finish. It’s cute, but of no sustainable interest, and not ripe enough to be a fun quaffer. With highly acidic food, matters might be improved.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.