The Nicest Restaurant In New Zealand

“If I spin it just right, I’m in Wellington until tomorrow seeking venture capital. That sounds pretty impressive. It’s technically true-ish, because I’m always seeking venture capital.”

Whenever someone asks me my favorite place, I never hesitate. It’s New Zealand. Objectively and subjectively the most beautiful place on earth, probably because it’s as far away from the rest of the world as possible and, thus, a high threshold of entry for humanity. If you get there, you’ve wanted to get there.

If someone asks my favorite city, any city built on and surrounded by hills is already doing pretty well. Add a coast, Old World architecture, ridiculously good coffee culture, and the single coolest street on earth (Cuba Street) and you’ve got Wellington. Cuba Street is a long row of bohemian shops, bars, and restaurants that starts in the hills and goes straight down to the harbor. It feels a lot like Brooklyn if it were less crowded, Boulder if there were a little less flower children, a college town if there were less college kids, and Camden Town minus the nasty Londoners.

New Zealand is a melting pot, even more so than the US, because it’s newer and even further away. It’s the rare Kiwi whose roots are more than one or two generations away from emigration. So the culture is very lively and diverse, with people on all ends of the spectrum; they haven’t had time to homogenize yet.

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My dad wanted me to eat at a nice restaurant in New Zealand. Because I wanted to make him happy, and also because I wanted to eat at a nice restaurant as well, I walked a block down the street to the Hippopotamus. I realize it doesn’t sound like the classiest of classy joints, but let me describe it to you. It’s located on the third floor of a very swanky hotel on the waterfront. You walk into the lobby and there are very fast, very nice modern racing motorcycles placed strategically throughout…a plush leather sofa here, a Ducati 848 there, an oriental rug here, a BMW R1200 there. If one asks where the restaurant is, a beautiful blonde woman in a suit will direct you to the elevator.

The elevator has a marble floor and is padded with velvet.

Upon exiting the elevator, one walks into the Hippopotamus itself, and if you thought the lobby was ostentatious, your senses just widen a little bit more.

First, let’s just step back a little and examine the situation a bit. I’ve been traveling for two weeks. Two weeks of travel, the way I travel at least, doesn’t lend itself to looking fresh and spruced up. I’ve been traveling with my clothes in a camera bag, and I forgot my electric razor in a hotel in Wanaka last week.

When the waitress pulls the chair out for me and spreads the napkin in my lap, that’s the point where I realize prices are for the proletariat and, also, I should have worn a suit. There are old ladies in here wearing fur. I’m in a button-up with a pullover, and a wool Marmot on top of it all. I don’t think one should wear Levi’s into such a place as this, but I am. My only saving grace is that a French barber gave me a pretty sharp haircut last week in the South Island, and I’m wearing some fairly sick dress boots that I bought at Hallenstein’s.

She asks if I’d like still, sparkling, or regular water.

Sparkling, of course. Do I look like a peasant?

She then brings out a little roll and a rosette of butter. The roll is so hard I can barely dissect it with the little silver knife. But once opened, it tastes pretty nice.

The menu is printed on vellum paper mounted on a board. All of the lunch prices are more than I paid for three whole nights at my hotel in Franz Josef. I’m not saying I paid a whole lot at my hotel. I didn’t. But I’m not looking at prices anymore. Prices are for the proletariat.

I decide to pass on wine, mostly because it’s lunchtime, and the only alcohol I drink before five o’clock is mouthwash. I order the poisson du jour cuit au four, pomme de terre au curcuma, poireaux à la crème, beignet d’anguille fumé et velouté d’huîtres.

Large or small? she asked. Large, I said.

In between the time that I ordered and the food arrived, a woman walked past in a short black dress. Her legs were longer than my entire body, and I’m 6’2″. I don’t think she was Heidi Klum, but they knew each other.

She was so far out of my league there wasn’t even any attraction to her. I was like that peasant mucking about in Monty Python. There’s some lovely filth down here!

It was good I ordered the large, because the serving size was about three ounces.

I do not consider myself a particularly elitist gastronomist. I enjoy a good Domino’s pizza along with the rest of the common rabble. But this was pure heaven. The subtleties rolled around on the tongue in a way that I’ve only ever experienced before when a San Francisco bartender mixed me a blood & sand and scorched the orange rind with a blowtorch. The beignet d’anguille was amazing, some sort of little eel pastry, and the fish melted in my mouth, hardly cooked at all, just a little braised.

Do you find it well? she asked.

“Heck yeah girl!” I didn’t actually say heck yeah girl. That’d be coarse. I merely smiled and said it’s great, thanks.

An old man walks in. The maître-d’ welcomes him and says she missed him yesterday, and the waitresses also pipe up and say hello Mr. Kent. The old man hands them a leather wine case, and the maître-d’ takes two bottles of wine out and prepares to pour.

When I am old and rich, I’m going to carry my own personal bottles of wine around in a leather case. And if someone tries to stop me, I’ll just say “Unhand me, peasant!” and take another sip of shiraz.

In the meantime, I wonder if I can pull off being some sort of young American running some sort of internet startup. If I spin it just right, I could say that I’m in Wellington until tomorrow seeking venture capital. That sounds pretty impressive. It’s technically true-ish, because I’m always seeking venture capital. If you’re seeking venture capital, one doesn’t have to shave or wear suits.

When the waitress clears away my dish, she asks if I’d like another sparkling water or some coffee. Coffee, of course. I got a long black, the New Zealand form of dark Americano. I always drink coffee. I have no idea how much the coffee cost and I still don’t. I’m just happy that I got it, because it was such a lovely drink. I looked out the window at the waterfront. The sun was shining. Little proletariat youth were walking around in the park. Little proletariat businessmen drove past in their Volkswagens and Toyotas. Little proletariat couples were holding hands, sparkles in their eyes signifying future offspring that would populate my garment factories. One of my friends drove past in his Porsche Panamera Turbo S.

All was good in the world.