The Ambeli is not your average neighbourhood restaurant. It has a French bistro feel, a distinct Mediterranean influence on the menu, and showcases the best organic produce and wine of New Zealand. It’s tucked away on a steep street up Mount Victoria, the mountainous hill overlooking the centre of the capital city of Wellington. Mount Victoria is etched with winding roads and crammed with graceful, wooden Victorian villas. Views of the harbour are stupendous.
Eating where the locals go is one of the best ways to get to know the heart of a city. I had lunch at The Ambeli courtesy of Vera, a Greek/Kiwi friend who was most insistent that we had to go THERE, and she wouldn’t consider going anywhere else! The Ambeli is suitably cozy, as a neighbourhood eaterie should be and needed to be on a bleak day with rain sheeting down (thanks again, Wellington), with seating for just under 30 in the main dining room. Black and white photographs of generations past adorn the walls.
Runner-up in Cuisine Magazine‘s 2011 Best Smart Dining category in its annual NZ Restaurant of the Year awards, The Ambeli is owned by Shae Moleta who grew up on a farm on remote D’Úrville Island, across the other side of that bumpy stretch of water called Cook Strait. Moleta’s passion for the purest of ingredients is attributed to his grandfather who believed in organic farming before most of us ever thought about it.
“My grandfather’s presence and charisma was immense,” he told us over a glass of Esk Valley Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2008. “He gave me a whollistic understanding of the world. The family farm was organic, always had been organic.”
Animated Moleta also won Cuisine’s Personality of the Year award in 2008. His better half (!) is Eli, or Elisavet, whose Cypriot heritage has influenced the menu. Ambeli is the Greek word for vineyard. Wellington has had a strong Greek community for generations and from the early days many went into the business of doing what Greeks do best – feeding people!
Vera and I lunched on duck ham on green gage plum chutney (pictured above), marinated yellowfin tuna with eggplant, orange and rocket pesto (below), crispy duck leg with button onion tarte tartin, and rosemary potatoes with aoli. Among other dishes!
Wines also included the Darling Marlborough Gewurtztraminer 2010 and the Neudorf Pinot Noir 2008. The choices were Moleta’s and they were inspired. I had a quiet chuckle about our uber efficient waiter, John, too macho and burly to be lifting mere plates. He looked as though he could shift a bus.
The menu changes regularly, almost as often as the wine list. Here are some current highlights: Porcini risotto stuffed quail with mushroom wrapped in vine leaves (The Ambeli smokes the quail on the premises) $NZ26; organic free-range chicken stuffed with chorizo with red pepper and paprika roasted cauliflower salad and Romesco, $NZ38; pan-fried fresh sardines with sherry capsicum dressing, salty, sweet and aromatic, $NZ24.
Unfortunately my meal was a bit dine and dash, as I had a plane to catch. Here’s what I didn’t have time for on the dessert menu: toasted rose marshmallow with rhubarb and yogurt gelato, hibiscus pearls and coconut, $15; warmed gingerbread with roast pineapple, honeycomb ice cream, black olive caramel and macadamia praline $NZ15. Guess I’ll have to make another lunch date next time I’m in Wellington. My shout, Vera.
The Ambeli www.ambeli.co.nz/
Lunch by reservation only, Tue-Fri 11.30am-2pm
Dinner, seven days, 6pm-12am Mon-Sat, closing 11pm Sun.
18 Marjoribanks St, Mt Victoria, Wellington, New Zealand. Tel +64 384 7577
Read more about Taste for Travel’s foodie adventures in Wellington here