Conventional wisdom has it that New Zealand’s two largest cities have distinct Australian correspondents. Sydney is analogous to Auckland, while Melbourne is a cross-the-Tasman parallel to Wellington. There is at least one way in which Wellington doesn’t sync up, however, and that is when it comes to food. It’s not that our food isn’t great, but Melbourne has the “foodie capital” allure. We have a variety of cheap, mostly unpleasant Malaysian BYOs. Sure, we tried valiantly to rep our eatery steez with “Wellington on a Plate”, but when a university cafe qualifies as an entry you know something’s amiss.
This is strange, because Wellington offers quite a few fine dining establishments—Capitol, Hippopotamus, Bistro on Boulcott, The White House (if you’re familiar with the Auckland variation, do hold your titters), Shed 5. But all of them fly, albeit at a cruising altitude, under the radar. Except for one. Somehow Logan Brown, situated at the top of Cuba Street (the dead part) has become the archetype of fancy restaurants in Wellington. A bit of light canvassing revealed that everyone asked had heard of Logan Brown, knew it by reputation, although only one had ever dined there. It’s fairly safe to presume you know it by reputation too. Why this one?
The buzz that surrounded it in 2009 when it won the coveted NZ Restaurant of the Year award—International Guest Judge and Wine Expert Ralph-Kyte Powell claimed “if I had to select an international flagship for Wellington Cuisine, Logan Brown would be hard to go past”—has surely murmured out by now, though the restaurant’s website prominently displays this half-decade-old judgement. Similarly, a five-star rating from the Dom Post’s resident gourmand, David Burton, can’t be the only thing keeping it in business. Mr. Burton would award five stars to his own smegma, and no doubt label the experience “authentic” and “bold”*.
Somehow the restaurant continues to thrive. I say “somehow” because, as I tried to allude to earlier, its location is incongruous to its function. I don’t want to belabour Cuba Street’s “quirky charm” or “hip altyness”, but suffice it to say it doesn’t exactly exude the kind of chic elegance you’d expect from a 175 year old street. Logan Brown isn’t even situated in the street’s vibrant, delightful lower clusters. Instead it’s in the heart of Cuba’s dead badlands, surrounded by failed industrial experiments, on a stretch whose two main commercial attractions are a (now defunct, never 4get) novelty sock store and a punk record store whose opening hours are dependent on how bad its owners’ hangovers are on any given day. That whole Upper Cuba stretch is empty in a way that only places that were once raucously inhabited can be empty; nestling their restaurant amongst the gloom seems like a dubious business decision.
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This incompatibility was highlighted by the recent Cuba-Dupa festival. Logan Brown’s stall looked ill-at-ease, and their offer of $15 whitebait sandwiches wasn’t quite concession enough for the ethos of the event. Some would argue the fact they needed a stall at all belies their very function as a high-class restaurant. In a commercial climate in which Martin Bosley’s primely-located waterfront restaurant couldn’t stay in business, you wonder how Logan Brown manages it.
The other issue is their menu. It’s not that any of the food looks unappetising—far from it—but there’s no sense of cohesion or uniqueness. The White House has lauded seafood platters, Capitol has its bisque, Bistro on Boulcott promises—and delivers—homely meals. Shit, even KK Malaysia has its renowned Mee Goreng, and KCs its Duck on Rice. Logan Brown’s menu is basically “expensive food, a miscellany of”, and looks like it’s been curated by someone whose only concern is using astronomically priced ingredients. Its one ostensibly identifying promise—“restaurants don’t need to be formal to serve fine food”—is transparent, cynical bullshit. All those episodes of Gordon Ramsay I’ve seen qualify me to be curious: a lack of cohesion is a number-one deal-breaker, or would be if the food wasn’t divine. So how good is the food really?
One cold night, the queue at BK was too long so I sauntered to Logan Brown instead to satiate my hunger (I lie: I stole the Salient chequebook because my curiosity got the better of me). I was briefly concerned that I wouldn’t be allowed in (wearing as I was my “hello, I like Animal Collective and Borges” attire; for all their claims to informality, Logan Brown will, do and have turned people away for not meeting an unspoken dress code) but I managed to infiltrate the premises somehow. To be fair, I did tuck in my shirt.
The first thing I noted was the decor, which occupied a middle ground between opulence and ordinary. The building Logan Brown rents used to be owned by a bank, a lavish spiral staircase remaining as evidence. Yet it’s not breathtakingly palatial or gorgeous or anything like that, just pristine and pleasant enough to fade into the background. This, I suspect, is a calculated move, designed to appease their unpretentious ethos without alienating their high-class audience, and to draw attention to the food, wine and company. It was certainly a lot nicer than tanks with crayfish staring mournfully at you in the background.
The second was the service. There are two cliches that dominate conceptions of waitstaff at schmancy eateries. Either the service will be well-mannered, shit-eatingly obsequious, or bored and haughty. Neither of these are fair to the staff that bust their arses to make their well-earned bucks, but I experienced a toned-down version of both. One was by proxy. A party of four were led by a handsome old woman within hearing and—if I used my peripherals—viewing distance, and they were waited on hand and foot by a gently genuflecting waiter. My waitress fell on the other end of the spectrum, cool and pleasantly disinterested, though I can’t exactly blame her—it was obvious to everyone that I was not going to be a big tipper or V.I.P., and I have no doubt that in another setting she would have been lovely. She made me laugh too. Good shit.
For some reason no-one I knew wanted to dine with me, although at least in this instance I can ascribe this to the exorbitant prices rather than my execrable company, and I was seated alone on an oblique angle from the door. Logan Brown’s layout is panoptic: those lucky or wealthy enough to reserve tables on the second floor and climb the serpentine stairs up to a mezzanine have a view of the entire restaurant, while those sitting at tables on the lower level can, in theory, see no-one else.
Dining alone was vaguely unsettling, especially as the laughter and camaraderie of other groups spilled over to my table. I wondered whether the waitstaff were talking about me condescendingly or, worse, pityingly: “hey Tess, look, it’s your new boyfriend!” “That pathetic loser? Not in a million years!” etc. Fortunately, this all-too-plausible eveningmare was derailed by my waitress’ arrival at my table. It was time to order.
Now that I’ve sufficiently whet your appetite, it’s onto the main course: THE FOOD. To begin, I ordered from the “Tastes” menu the Warm Marinated Olives with Aegean Garlic ($8) and some Hot Thai Sausage ($10). Predictably, I discovered the “tastes” menu to be aptly named but nonetheless satisfying. The olives were perfectly marinated, with the garlic not too overbearing without losing that piquant tang I love. Admittedly it’s pretty hard to fuck up olives, but a bite of the Hot Thai Sausage helped persuade me I was in safe hands. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the dish, but the delicate red-curry infusion was bloody delish.
So far, so good. To stave off boredom, I’d put my iPod in, and let me tell you right now—consuming those tasters while Harsh Noise of Kazumoto Endo’s “While You Were Out” assaulted my taringas. A marriage made in heaven. Who needed “friends” or “companionship”, I mused. I had everything I needed.
I agonised over my next course, almost ordering a $28 starter that promised “Seared Wild Hare Loin, Mulled Wine, Garlic Custard, Gingerbread & Figs” alongside a main. Ultimately my concerns for Salient’s bank balance superseded my love of hare (if you haven’t eaten rabbit and are of the omnivorous persuasion, do try it—it’s like chicken with oomph). I opted for two mains instead.
Kind of. At Logan Brown, you order fancy steak by the gram. At eleven cents a gram for Grass-Fed Beef Bafette—i.e., a cut you will find God in—it seems deceptively reasonable, although the corresponding $110 per kilogram is less persuasive. I get that it’s a good cut y’all, but for that kind of price one hopes the cow was slaughtered on the premises, and the meat taken out by high-end precision technology.
I ordered 100 grams of the stuff, which seemed like a reasonable amount, alongside a Main Proper consisting of line-caught Hapuku* [footnote: does making it line-caught make it taste better somehow?], Tuscan Bread Salad, Basil Gnocchi, Black Olive & Squid Rings ($49). In an unforgivable brain-fart moment, I forgot that the steak would be weighed before it was cooked. As such, the portion was only a couple of bites, but what beautiful bites they were. Bafette is a cut of steak that is infamously tough, and so is a) infinitely more flavoursome if cooked on the “barely at all” side of the spectrum and pursuantly b) requires delicate supervision while cooking. To the chefs, ironically, I say Well Done (I’m sorry, but steak puns Rarely leave me feeling Blue). I like this kind of steak to be somewhere between blue and rare, and the morsels were delivered with such succulence and subtle flavours that my mouth is watering profusely just thinking about it.
The Hapuku dish was delicately arranged and the star of the dish melted in the mouth, while the black olive tapenade and gorgeously nuanced gnocci proved that the adjective “astringent” need not be incompatible with the phrase “pants-crappingly delicious”. It was a curious experience crunching on squid rings, which I usually associated more with local fish ‘n’ chip shops than with haute cuisine, and despite adding a couple of esoteric spices to the batter there wasn’t much detectable difference between those and AroChips’ offerings. This is a petulant complaint, though. The flavours of each component of the dish were carefully chosen to compliment each other, and the black olive enhanced the Hapuku sinfully. The serving quantities weren’t huge, but sufficed to fill my savoury stomach up good and proper.
While waiting for my mains to digest (I admit it: I gorged. Very improper, I know) I peeked at a table adjacent to me as best I could. The matriarch was having a sip of newly uncorked wine and swishing it around her mouth while the waiter cradled the bottle as one would nurse a child. I’ve always found watching this ritual inexplicably alluring, even when I found out they’re not sampling the wine but tasting whether it has been properly corked, and I vicariously felt the relief and happiness of the table when the matriarch gave it her regal imprimatur.
I walked to the bathrooms—so elegant I half-expected an assistant to pop in and give me a hot-towel shave and shake my member for me—and on my way saw a predictable clientele: a bald 50-year-old silently looking over his much younger date (or daughter, I guess, although that would have made their hand-holding a bit questionable); a couple of dressed-to-the-nine business suits losing half their bites in ostentatious peals of laughter. I don’t want to complain about the experience too much—I know how lucky I am to have even been able to go—but I have to admit I felt at a loose end, a sullen child sitting at the grown-ups’ table, a fringe acquaintance at a party of close friends. I was out of place.
Soon, my waitress—nothing if not attentive—found her way to my table. Could she tempt me with a dessert menu? She could. What would I have? The Whittaker’s Dark Chocolate & Brandy Marquise, Blueberry & Ginger Brittle ($18) looked sumptuous, thanks, and could I possibly refill my water glass? Despite the reasonable half an hour wait between ordering my main and the moment of joy I experienced when I saw it arriving, my dessert arrived promptly and with little fanfare. It looked grand, brilliantly arrayed, and honestly at this point I don’t even need to tell you it was scrumptiously delicious, the blueberry and ginger a surprising but effective combination of antioxidants. Here’s the thing though: while the expensiveness of many of the other items on the menu seemed justified, the dessert menu was where everything started to, err, crumble. A couple of rhubarb donuts with ice-cream for eighteen bucks? Lemon Meringue Pie with yoghurt for the same price? I don’t mean to question the love and attention the chef put into their craft, nor do I want to see Logan Brown be unable to pay their overheads or suitably reimburse their staff, but COME ON.
The moment I’d licked my plate clean, the waitress emerged and discreetly tucked a bill underneath a dome, told me she hoped I’d enjoyed my experience (I had! Very much!) and departed in a flash of sleek black ensemble. The grand total was $96. There went, in one 90-minute experience, almost a week’s worth of rent. “I’ll settle the cheque honey,” I said aloud, momentarily forgetting I was alone. No regrets. I’d always wanted to do that.
Let’s talk about food for a second. One thing that’s always baffled me about fine dining is that, unless you’re a really seasoned foodie, the quality of food isn’t really quantifiable. Just because you pay fifty dollars for a meal doesn’t mean it will be five times as good as a ten dollar one. There is room for subjectivity based on mood and personal preference. If I were craving duck, I’d sooner pay 50 dollars for a mean Peking Duck than five dollars for a cheeseburger combo—but it’s all pretty vague and unscientific. Was Logan Brown fives time better than, say, KK Malaysia, or twice as good as, like, Arizona? How can you measure value for money? I don’t know. I had a great time and ate great food. I might gently suggest it as a location for my parents to take me out for dinner—OMG you totally should too!—but I wouldn’t go back there recreationally. For me it was very much a one-off, even if I did have enough disposable income to dine there for every meal. I can’t put my finger on why (the atmosphere?) but it had nothing to do with how good the food was or how full I was when I left. I just think I can get better value for money elsewhere.
Then there’s the whole “fine dining” craze itself: is it all, y’know, a sham? Are we turning something we need for basic survival—nutrition—and turning it into a weird elitist pissing contest? I don’t personally think we are. The fact we’ve transformed a biological imperative into an aesthetic experience says wonders about the human spirit. According to one theory, the only reason humans evolved the way they did is because we experimented with our food by cooking it instead of eating it raw, thus meaning our bodies gained more nutrients and we could put our brains to work.
Equally, there’s no doubt that fine food, like fashion, is mercurial. Two centuries ago, human rights organisations protested feeding prisoners lobster—not because it was too quality a foodstuff but because lobster was perceived as a last-resort food, like eating a rat. Today, they represent fine dining and largesse. Likewise, what we’ve come to associate with quality in dining has shifted from immediacy to its opposite. The cultural consensus is that good food costs time—yours and someone else’s—while “fast food”, in both senses, represents unhealthy stodge nigh-on unfit for human consumption. This is, historically, a very recent development. By all means enjoy your wagyu, truly! Just remember that what we associate with “fine dining” and the glamour it entails are, in part, constructed, unfixed, hardly redolent of the Platonic Now. Breath easy if you’d rather pot noodles to foie gras. It’s all a matter of taste.
I went home via a circuitous route. I walked down Cuba, past the bustling storefronts. I encroached on JJ Murphy’s patch of sidewalk, glared at that fucking magician (his signature trick, you ask? making all women in a ten-metre radius disappear), heard some buskers playing jazz versions of Pixies hits. From there I walked up the rolling hill that leads to the university, through the graveyard, the snaking streets of Kelburn, among middle-aged family homes and dilapidated student flats alike. It was misty, and I couldn’t tell whether the smoke I was exhaling was because of the cigarette in between my fingers or just the fucking brisk Wellington cold.
Wellington doesn’t need a “flagship” restaurant, let alone one as built on artifice and rituals as Logan Brown. Wellington is so many things, to so many people, that the idea that it—or any other city—can be encapsulated in any dining experience is myopic. Logan Brown was delicious, don’t get me wrong, and well worth experiencing once, but relegating an entire city’s fine food experience to one restaurant is tenuous enough. Wellington is hard to draw an archetype out of, but one thing it has going for it is being a frustrating, lovable mess. When it comes to living up to this standard, Logan Brown doesn’t fit the bill.
*I’m just joshin’ ya Dave, love yew.