I was both honoured and privileged to be invited along to the first of the Tasting Room's wine matched dinner series, with Black Estate wines of Waipara, in North Canterbury. The TR has filled in their pit with a smart new dining area, which was perfect for the table of 16 that congregated last Tuesday. Notable guests included Alistair the grape grower, Cam and Ella from the TR, James from HospoTrain, a certain regular and his lovely girlfriend, David Burton, and yours truly.
I've noticed a few restaurants around offering these types of dinners lately, for something different I suppose - and they're a great idea. Tickets for this one were $80 (I dined courtesy of the Tasting Room though, thank you thank you thank you!) and as guests we were treated to 4 courses with constant refills of each of the 5 wines on show, making it an absolute steal. I think this type of thing would be a great first date ice breaker for anyone remotely sociable, especially if you get nervous and are terrible at ordering off menus (I've had my moments, I can tell you).
Black Estate has most recently hit headlines for it's 2007 pinot noir taking out the top honour at the recent International Wine and Spirit Competition in the UK. Black Estate is a small family-run business whose focus is on quality not quantity. Alistair the grape grower and Nicholas (his brother in law) the wine maker are ("and here is where it gets kinky", Alistair declared) married to twin sisters, who keep other aspects of the business in check.
Len Baldwin and Janet Gray of the Tasting Room were at the helm in the kitchen, and upon being seated, a quick glance at the place-mat menu saw me eagerly anticipate pork belly, scallops and oysters, duck, and cheese. I've had iffy experiences with both duck and pork belly before, and I've attempted cooking neither, but after my dinner at Boulcott St Bistro, and now after this, I can announce that I am officially a fan of both. It exceeded any expectations I had, and was an absolute joy. And I'm even going to talk about the wine!
|the beautiful Ella, Tasting Room's general manager|
After taking our seats, course number one appeared, glorious, in front of us. Crispy skinned pork belly, granny smith puree and sweet honey lime dressing. Sitting across from Cam, he let me in on Len's pork belly secret - apparently to cook to perfection one must season well and then put another oven tray and weights on top, and cook at a low heat, slowly increasing the heat over time. This apparently renders the fat down and condenses the flavours. You then remove the oven tray to crisp up the top. The pork was offset beautifully with the tang of both the granny smith and the honey lime dressing. It was an absolute treat to wash down with the 2009 Black Estate Riesling.
Alistair explained that they aim for a clean mineral taste with their wines, and that their grapes are grown in clay. The Riesling is apparently 43% sugar, but still had an incredibly dry finish. It was delicious, and a superb match.
The next course considerably raised the bar. In print, it was 'seared scallops, battered oysters, vanilla beurre blanc and dressed leaves' but on the plate it was so much more. We were even treated to a hidden pile of flash fried whitebait - so fresh and creamy.
I started with the scallops - I was actually lucky enough in January this year to spend a week in Awaroa, in the Abel Tasman national park, where the boys would go scalloping daily. There's nothing quite like a freshly shucked scallop - unless it's a hot, freshly battered oyster. I'd have to say this was my favourite course - it was simple and classy and tasted like the beach!
I was in utter heaven at this point. Fresh, simple, tasty - I cannot rave about seafood like this enough. Especially when paired with my current wine of choice, chardonnay. Even though I could have had that Riesling all night, and even though my Barista recently told me he won't drink chardonnay because he's not 60, I enjoy it a lot. The Black Estate one we had was a 2009, and it was described by Alistair as a big, oaky, old fashioned kiwi chardonnay. It was buttery and full-bodied, and with the seafood a perfectly formed classic combination.
Banter across the table ensued as we paused before the duck. As I said above, I've never been fully sold on duck, having had a confit duck leg once which just tasted like fat and made me feel exceptionally ill. Matched alongside the 2009 Black Estate Pinot Noir, we had confit duck leg on potato galette with red cabbage and pomegranate jelly. The potato added the requisite texture and the sharpness of the red cabbage pomegranate combo cut through the richness of the duck. It wasn't fatty tasting; it was a beautifully balanced plate of food. The 2009 Pinot Noir was described as "dark cherry and plum on the nose". I can't pretend I noticed, but it was a classic Pinot Noir, and I kept going back for mouthful after mouthful, after each mouthful of food. It was quite the experience. Especially since it was served with asparagus as the side vegetable.
By now we'd all had more than a few, and a certain food reviewer got a little silly and pretended to snort the limestone off the rocky samples that adorned the tables, just as Alistair was encouraging people to try licking what they grow the grapes in. The cheese course came out as the wine was expertly decanted. We applauded the best pinot in the world, as Alistair humbly asked us to simply "Enjoy!". To be honest, I probably had already downed a couple too many glasses to fully appreciate just how good this was... however, even after a few, I could appreciate that it was concentrated and powerful for a pinot, but beautiful and soft all at once. I was really very full, but simply had to try the Tarago Gippsland blue cheese, served with lavash, baguette and plum chutney. I'm desperate to make chutneys as the moment - I've decided my dream job is a stay at home wife who spends all day in the kitchen. Just joking, my dream job is actually to be a travel TV food presenter. As if! I don't actually know what it is. Either way - this plum chutney was flippin' tasty. The chefs came out in time to also witness the one guest who liked the cheese more than I did. She bit into one of the blocks like a sandwich, which gave us a very entertaining end to a highly decadent and enjoyable evening.