The mussel fritters at Fork & Brewer were the best either of us had tasted.
New Zealanders may be drinking less beer these days, but clearly pub goers now want a much wider choice.
Unencumbered by ties to either of the big breweries, five “free houses” have popped up in central Wellington this year – The Hop Garden, BruHaus and its sister TapHaus, The Little Beer Quarter and now Fork & Brewer – selling dozens of craft beers from tiny independent breweries.
An offshoot of The Malthouse, Fork & Brewer is the most ambitious venture of the lot. A micro-brewery is taking shape on site, and it is hoped the first batch will be brewed by Christmas.
Unusually for a brew pub, they have 35 beers from other craft breweries on tap, and even several from Lion. You’ll find Mac’s, but nothing from DB. (Strange that. I mean, Tui is a craft beer – right?)
The taps are arranged around a circular bar, designed by local hero Trace Murdoch to suggest the curving wooden staves of a giant beer barrel, the “handles” of which are hilariously lateral: a microphone, a silver flute, a pistol, a roller skate and a kitchen whisk, to name but a few.
Where some of the other new free houses struggle to present food much above the level of a bar snack, Fork & Brewer offers bar snacks and a seriously sophisticated a la carte menu.
Head chef Anton Legg will be familiar to patrons of the defunct Beaujolais Wine Bar. From food and wine matching, he now turns his attention to beer. All the ingredients that formerly would have clashed with the wine at Beaujolais – nuts, chilli and Asian flavours generally – Anton now uses with gusto at Fork & Brewer.
I have to admit that until now, I’ve always treated beer and food matching with scepticism but one reason Anton’s food matching works so well is that he has begun with the beers and then worked his food flavours around them. Another is that many of his dishes literally have had the matching beer poured into the cooking pot, often causing remarkable flavour transformations.
Using stout in Welsh rarebit, for example, takes this homely dish to a new level of malty complexity, even though the stout in question (Cooper’s Extra Stout) is at the lighter coffee end of the flavour spectrum. The rarebit was especially delicious with sauteed mushrooms in the Spent Grain Tartlet, with contrasting crunchiness from their pie crust, made with grains left over from boiling the wort for beer. These Anton dries, grinds and then passes through a sieve, ending up with particles about the size of polenta.
These spent grains had also been used to great effect as the coating for deep-fried chicken wings, their accompanying chilli-hot barbecue sauce showing synergy with the bitter, hugely aromatic hops of the Epic Pale Ale.
Pouring Emerson’s Bookbinder into the casserole dish also seemed to have a transforming effect on the Faggots of Bookie-braised Lamb, which I could have sworn was braised hogget.
At dessert time, I couldn’t for the life of me work out what had flavoured the Tuatara Porter Marshmallow. But I should have read the menu properly – the mystery ingredient was a slosh of Tuatara Porter, its toasted coconut and peanut notes echoed precisely by the toasted coconut coating the giant marshmallow, and the peanut praline served on the side.
The gaps between our courses were well timed, and what our waitron had to say about the various beer matches on the menu made perfect sense. It was just her robotic, impersonal delivery that made us feel we were being lectured. If you are really tuned into being a good waiter, you stand ready to catch the eyes of the customers, so you can deliver that glass of water when it is needed, rather than disappear for ages and then cruise past intermittently, butting into customers’ conversations to ask if everything is all right.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
My brother and I were in agreement: the mussel fritters at Fork & Brewer were the best either of us had tasted – tender, almost to the point of mushiness, and emanating an intense mussel flavour. When Anton came out at the end of our meal, I asked for his secret, which as it turns out, is dead simple. You take a bread and butter knife, hammered at the edges to make it thin, and use this to shuck the mussels raw (most chefs would diminish the flavour by steaming the mussels open first). This raw mussel meat is then finely chopped by hand, bound with a lot of egg and very little flour, and the fritters are fried on one side only.
Price range of mains: $24-$32
Cost: $98 for two (excluding beer)