Wellington’s Plum Cafe, a bite on Cuba Street

I’m in New Zealand for a work conference and just can’t bring myself to socialize at another conference dinner. So I decided to strike out on my own tonight in this beautiful coastal town of Wellington. However, spring is lingering and the sky is seeping a bit of drizzle and fog, so I don’t want to wander too far from my hotel, the Amora.

I’ve been exploring a little bit already and found that Cuba Street, just around the corner from the Amora, is a funky little avenue lined with a hodge-podge of skate shops, high-end clothing stores, gift shops, bars, nightclubs and restaurants, and the occasional public-art installation. I want a tall cold beer, preferably brewed right here in New Zealand, but I don’t want brewery food. I want a nice, quite corner in which to eat, but I don’t want to pay “fine dining” prices. So I dove into a Google search and found the Plum Cafe, just a few blocks down Cuba Street and boasting a mid-priced menu. (Keep in mind that to budget-watching Americans, everything in New Zealand seems expensive because of the exchange rate. So a sit-down restaurant that charges only $7 NZD – or $5.50 USD – for beer is pretty good!)

The Plum Cafe’s website is somewhat deceptive. I thought I’d be under-dressed  in my jeans and fleece sweatshirt and that I’d find elderly couples sharing bites of creme brulee over candlelight. Actually, the cafe is a delightful blend of casual coffee shop and fine dining with an impressive wine list, all wrapped up in dark wood and muted decor. Two women at the table next to me sipped dark red wine and gossiped about their boyfriend troubles while two other women momentarily occupied another table while they slurped down cappuccinos. (their coffee may have been flat whites, apparently the Kiwi coffee of choice)

I ordered Mike’s Organic Pilsner, brewed in Taranaki on the north island of New Zealand. I have been in Kiwi-land for almost a week and have found over and over that locally made products are served almost exclusively in restaurants here. The origin of beer, wine, salmon and just about everything else is touted proudly on the menu. I like that.

The pilsner was delicious, it’s local and organic. Buy it.

The Plum Cafe specializes in organic, free-trade, free-range foods, so it was easy to order a dinner that would rest easy on my conscience. I ordered free-range chicken breast stuffed with herbed cream cheese and resting on a bed of sauteed mushrooms and cabbage ($26 NZD). For a side, I ordered a mesclun salad with the most refreshingly light sauterne vinaigrette ($8 NZD).

The salad was quite large and had big chunks of tomatoes and feta cheese. Absolutely delicious. If one were just the tiniest bit hungry and only wanted a light bite to tide them over until dinner, this would be an excellent choice on its own. I was famished, however, so I’m glad I ordered a full dinner dish too.

The chicken oozed creamed cheese but did not feel heavy or over-powering. Truth be told, the chicken was a little overdone, but completely forgivable since it was perhaps the most perfectly seasoned chicken I’ve ever had. The flavor was spot-on and the portion size was perfect. I ate every bite and then sat back content – not too full, not wanting more.

My meal came to about $50, which is $39 in U.S. dollars. Not bad for a truly memorable meal, two beers and a tip. I wasn’t quite sure what I was in the mood for, but the Plum Cafe was the answer to whatever it was that I craved. The food was light yet filling and the decor was relaxed yet refined.

As they say in New Zealand, good on the Plum!

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2009 Climber Red

I saved my 2009 Clif Climber Red and Climber Sauvignon Blanc for Thanksgiving to go with my quasi-sustainable meal. I won’t repeat all my reasons for why the Climbers were a great fit for the meal, all the reasons like how the winery sources its grapes from local, organic growers, and how the winery is activly reducing its carbon footprint. You can read all about that on the Clif website, but now let’s get to the to fun part — tasting the wine!

I know that white wines go best with turkey, but I’m such a sucker for reds. So I gave hearty thanks for the folks at Clif Winery, and I twisted open the Climber Red. The aroma is fruity and slightly peppery. The blend is primarily zinfandel, then cabernet, rounded out with syrah, merlot and petite sirah. The flavor is a nice, round berry — not jammy or sweet, but perfectly tart, fresh and mild — with a smoky finish. The smoke isn’t quite as prominent as in the 2008 blend; rather than making a strong statement, it is now a barely-there nuance in a very complex wine.

Clif hasn’t let me down yet, so I will surely continue to seek their every release with excitement. At $14.99, it’s a wine I’ll proudly serve to guests — guests who know their wine and guests who just want something that tastes good. It’s a sure-bet wine, and this busy mom can’t afford to waste time on anything less.

Thanksgiving

The turkey and blueberry cobbler, ready to go. Everything else is still in the oven.

My quasi-sustainable Thanksgiving was more quasi than sustainable, but a fun attempt at buying local and/or organic. The veggies were all organic, and the turkey all-natural, hormone-free. The pumpkin pie was made from homegrown pumpkin (from my grandparents’ garden), and the blueberry cobbler was made from blueberries we picked at a family farm in Oregon and then froze.

Several family members asked what “quasi-sustainable” means, and I have to admit, I use the term “sustainable” very loosely. Actually, I use it pretty inaccurately, but it sums up an overall attempt at being sustainable. For me, that attempt is basically to buy local when possible, buy organic when possible, and use our own garden goods when possible. For Thanksgiving, I was thrilled to use herbs from my own garden and to easily find organic produce at a minimal increase in cost.

I’m not a health freak or crunchy organic goddess. I just like to balance convenience and health. I try to use whole wheat flour and pasta when it’s a comparable price to white versions. I try to support local farmers by buying produce at farmers’ markets. But I also have to keep my budget and time in mind. So it’s a balancing act, as most mom-duties are. I’ll tell all about the wine in the next post. Stay tuned…

Almost-organic Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving I’m staying home and cooking dinner just for my husband and kids. No relatives, no friends… more leftovers!

I’m trying to keep it organic and/or local, but bearing in mind that I have limited time and limited budget. As much as I would have loved to sign up for a fresh, free-range turkey from the local co-op, a $50 bird just isn’t in my financial forecast.

Raley’s has natural, fresh, no-additives turkeys for $.89/pound, so I picked a 14-pounder for under $15. Tomorrow I will go to the co-op to stock up on all the veggies and other ingredients for the rest of the meal: potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, mushrooms, onions, celery, eggs, butter and bread, as well as dry and canned goods.

As much as I love the idea of being totally organic, free-range, sustainable, etc., it’s not realistic for a busy working mom on a budget in a small town, or not for this busy, working mom at least. But I think everyone can do their part, so this Thanksgiving meal is my way of doing my part.

Oh, and the wine! I’ll be pouring Clif 2009 The Climber Red and The Climber Sauvignon Blanc. Clif has earned my respect for doing its part too. Producing entirely organic wines isn’t realistic for the family-run winery yet, but the farm (they raise chickens, olives, fruits and veggies too!) became CCOF certifed organic in 2009. The grapes are sourced locally and from sustainable vineyards — 30 percent of the grapes are from CCOF certified farms — and the farm and winery have a carbon-offset program to put their money where their mouth is. They don’t just admire organic and sustainable farming, but they actively strive to achieve it.

It’s appropriate, then, for me to pour Clif wines as part of my semi-organic/sustainable dinner. I know my efforts are meager, but it’s a manageable start for me. And we all have to start somewhere.

(I’ve tasted and reviewed the Clif 2008 Climber White in March and the Climber Red in April. I already know I like the wine, I can’t wait to try the 2009!)

Clif climbs to new heights with Climber White

While I’m not big on trends or fads (will someone PLEASE tell me who this Justin Bieber character is? I have no clue!), there are a few bandwagons I’m happy to hop on. Organic, sustainable farming is one of them. I’m guilty of feeding my children processed macaroni-and-cheese more often than I care to admit, but I try very hard to fill them with healthy foods, preferably from a source I know. I know my garden and what it took to grow our carrots there. I like buying fair-trade coffee (not always organic, but that’s another story of its own) and knowing that the earrings I bought my sister for her birthday were made by a fellow mom in her own home. I can’t always stick to these ideals, but it means a lot to me to try.

That’s a very long-winded way of introducing tonight’s wine: Clif Family Winery & Farm’s 2008 Climber White. Yes, we all know Clif for the delicious snack bars, (Oh my god, the carrot cake bars are to die for!) but I have a feeling we’ll soon know the Clif Family even better for its wine.

A little bit about the Climber White: I tasted it without reading the description and found a fascinating blend of tastes that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Fruity and melony like the sauvignon blanc I suspected made up most of the blend, but with a delicate note of honey and flowers that I just couldn’t quite figure out. So I cheated. I read the description and found that it’s primarily sauvignon blanc (88 percent) with 4 percent muscat, 3 percent riesling, 4 percent chardonnay and 2 percent chenin blanc.

My palate isn’t trained well enough to pick up the minute presence of chenin blanc or to differentiate the chenin blanc from the chardonnay. But I KNEW there was something delicately floral in it, and that’s the muscat.

Clif Family owners Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford have been making Clif bars for, well, a long time. But they opened their St. Helena, Calif., winery in 2008 with the mission to “craft unique, regional wine and foods using practices that care for our earth; to support growers who use sustainable, organic farming methods; and to contribute to a more vibrant, healthy food community.”

Clif sources its grapes from local growers that raise organic or sustainable grapes. While the winery doesn’t yet grow its own grapes, it supports farmers that mirror the winery’s own dedication to good-earth practices. Besides wine, Clif Family runs a farm that raises turkey and chickens and grows olives, fruits and vegetables — all organic, naturally. AND all the farm vehicles are bio-diesel. Yeah, baby!  And they sent the wine (bottled in lighter-weight glass bottles) to me in recyclable, not-excessive packaging.

Sure, you could say this is just a fad, but isn’t it a smart one? (and I’d argue that it’s NOT a fad, it’s a smart business choice) Shouldn’t we support local farmers whose kids we help send to college by buying their produce? When we eat an apple, wouldn’t it be nice to know we’re only eating an apple, not chemicals and dyes?

Ok, I’ll get off my biodegradable soapbox. And I’ll drive my admittedly not-so-eco-friendly SUV (hey, I can’t do it all!) to the store and stock up on the Climber White for my next family barbecue. My family may not know they’re drinking my philosophical statement, but I’ll smile knowing that my $14 is supporting another family and protecting our earth. Who knew you could get all that in a bottle of wine?