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The Hungry Hobbit

A quest for New Zealand cuisine

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Last September when I wrote about the small 40-seat New Zealand Café Seafood Grill & Sushi Bar on Sardis Road North, New Zealand cuisine was new to the area. Then in late November 2004, Queenstown Bistro, a 174-seat full service restaurant also featuring New Zealand cuisine, opened in the university area. Why two New Zealand restaurants in a town that has a reputation for not being open to offbeat ethnic eateries? Is New Zealand cuisine the next big wave to hit the country? Probably not. However, Queenstown Bistro is a franchise operation with a location in Columbia, SC, as well as locations in, yes, New Zealand. The owner of the franchise is David Zhou - yes, of New Zealand. Chinese native Andy Gao is the owner of Charlotte's Queenstown Bistro. He became familiar with the concept when he managed the Columbia location. He is not from, nor has he lived in, New Zealand, but he says that cuisine is heavily influenced by Asian cuisines.

This is true. According to the 2001 New Zealand census, the Asian population is expected to double in a few years, and more than one third of the current 1.3 million residents of Auckland, the nation's largest city, are Asians. New Zealand fare is a variation and adaptation of the foods from the various ethnic groups that make up the population.

Besides the obvious New Zealand mussels and lamb, some products are garnering international recognition such as manuka honey and avocado oil. Other components of the New Zealand diet include kumara, a type of sweet potato tuber, and pikopiko, a fiddlehead fern. Of course, as an island nation, New Zealand is known for its seafood, including many species of fish that live in the icy waters south of the country, as well as shellfish such as the black abalone, or paua, which is made into fritters. Pavolva, a meringue, is the national dessert. The award-winning Sauvignon Blancs of Marlborough on the southern island include my favorite, Cloudy Bay. And the restaurant's namesake, Queenstown, is at the center of the Otego wine growing region, an area renowned for Pinot Noirs and Rieslings.

Queenstown is located on New Zealand's southern island, made famous by the filming of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. With the ocean, large lakes, snowcapped mountains, greener than green valleys and other magnificent natural wonders surrounding you, does the food have to be exquisite?

If Queenstown Bistro is any indication, the answer is evidently not. The menu at Queenstown has Asian elements from many Pacific Rim nations. The kitchen is manned by Gao's cousin Jimmy Gao, also of southern China. Navigating this lengthy menu seems complex, especially if you're unfamiliar with Asian and New Zealand cuisine. But the server will bring you a large photo album with detailed colored photographs of all the items on the menu. This can be very helpful.

The Asian dishes are the best dishes. Take the starters, for example. I figured the gigantic green-shelled New Zealand mussels would be extraordinary. But they were not. They were large and beautifully plated, but tasteless. The mussels had been roasted to taste more like an oven than the sea and were topped by a sweetened hit of pickled slivered carrots. The pot stickers, on the other hand, are perhaps the best in town. Gao imports the wrappers from Japan and the result is a diaphanous covering whose interior, once bitten, explodes its succulent contents into an unexpecting mouth. We'll have more of those, please.

Equally good was the Thai Fish Soup with large pieces of salmon, a few shrimp and thinly sliced scallops redolent in a bath of coconut fish broth. The pepper on the menu indicates the heat, but this soup is not lip-searing Thai-hot. Salads are crisp and tangy with a Pan-Asian sweet dressing.

The entrees are a mixed bag. At a New Zealand restaurant, you must have lamb, right? Well, in this case, the rack of lamb was thinly sliced ribs doused in an overly sweet hoisin concoction. The meat, although tender, was overpowered by the sauce and the accompanying steamed vegetables do nothing for this uninspired dish. Another entrée, the Seafood Delight, has the fundamentals of a typical Chinese stir fry with loads of shrimp, scallops, a grilled lobster tail, and oriental vegetables with a classic, yet sweet, brown sauce. These entrees are served in gargantuan proportions. You may consume only a one third of the plate before giving up in dismay — and taking home small boxes.

Most of the desserts also have a candied quality. The only dessert made in house is the won ton wrapper deep fried banana spiked with cinnamon and served with vanilla ice cream and a caramel cherry sauce.

Thumbs up on the service. Gao and his service team are attentive to the customers, which range from large family groups to couples.

Unfortunately, the wine list is wanting in a good selection of New Zealand wines. Sauvignon Blanc, as it turns out, would cut the sweetness of many of the dishes.

Gao never intended his restaurant to be a bastion of New Zealand nationalism or cuisine — he'll be the first to tell you that this Queenstown has more Asian influences on the menu than the Columbia location. Authentic isn't everything: LOTR director Peter Jackson is currently filming King Kong in New Zealand, recreating 1930s New York. Soon after, he'll once again recreate Middle Earth in New Zealand for the LOTR prequel, The Hobbit. Which raises the question: Do Hobbits eat stir fry?

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: tricia.childress@ creativeloafing.com.

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