Mad about Wellington's Matterhorn

No visit to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital of cool, is complete without a night out at Matterhorn on Cuba Street. Established in 1963 by two Swiss brothers, Matterhorn started life as one of NZ’s first purpose-built cafés to be housed in its own modernist arcade complete with bookstore, tobacconist and florist. It was a time in New Zealand when liquor ceased to be sold after 6pm. Matterhorn, it must be said, was Very Continental. It used to have Swiss waitresses dressed in the cute black and frilly white outfits. The city had a lot of European migrants who arrived after WWII, bringing their own traditions and foodie culture. They must have thought New Zealand to be a total backwater (it was), and some set out to change the social landscape. Thank God for that.

A dessert cocktail comprising spiced rum, cointreau, spumante rose and grenadine

Wellington and New Zealand have changed dramatically since then, and Matterhorn is still a treasured local haunt, while maintaining its historic European bohemian style. It’s had down times as well. When espresso culture brewed in Wellington in the 1990s and a cafe was opening on every corner, Matterhorn was a faded relic. But it has reinvented itself, changed owners several times, and is now one of the city’s most awarded establishments, owned by Sam Ansley, Simon Ansley, Mark Keddell, Matt Bould and Kate Prangnell. Some recent accolades include:

  • 2012 Riki Carter, 2nd place overall, Angostura Aromatic Bitters Global Cocktail Challenge 2012;  Riki Carter, 1st place Best Rum Cocktail, Angostura Aromatic Bitters Global Cocktail Challenge 2012;  Finalist (Top 50) in the Cuisine NZ Restaurant of the Year
  • 2010 16th Best Bar in the World, voted by Drinks International Industry Poll
  • 2009 Matterhorn named in top 20 bars of the world (12th place) – Bar Tender Australia Magazine and  named as 17th Best Bar in the World – Drinks International Magazine
  • 2008 Matterhorn voted NZ’s Best Restaurant – Cuisine Magazine; voted “NZ’s Best Bar” – NZ Bartender Magazine Awards; voted 2nd Best Drinks Selection in the world – Tales of the Cocktail – New Orleans

I recently had late night dessert at Matterhorn with my goddaughter Emily (who ended up taking the photos on her iPhone because my Canon threw a tantrum) and wow, did the sweets rock! Dave Verheul leads the kitchen team at Matterhorn having honed his skills at London and Sydney hotspots such as the Fat Duck, The Savoy Grill and The Bentley. Matterhorn’s interior doesn’t seem to have changed much recently, or maybe it’s so perpetually twilight  it’s hard to spot the updates. It’s all dark wooden floors, dark, minimalist wooden tables lit by small candles, so small in fact you need help to read the menu. Bring your smart phone, the one with the bright light. The noise bounces off all those hard surfaces, and when the restaurant is busy it is very loud.

Dessert menu selections included: Poached cherries, milk mousse, roasted white chocolate with olive and white beer ice cream; hazel nut praline souffle with blueberry compote, lemon creme and buffalo yogurt sorbet; lemon and yuzu curd, white chocolate, spiced rum and coconut sorbet; , all priced a reasonable $NZ16. Yuzu is a sour mandarin, a native fruit of Japan.

The Pineapple Lump was a contemporary take on a much-loved Kiwi yellow and chocolate candy, or lolly as it’s called colloquially: Poached apricot, apricot custard, tarragon, virjuice and olive oil ice cream, also $16.

We tried Matterhorn’s version of chocolate fondant – pretty damn good with its oozy centre.

Matterhorn’s version of the popular chocolate fondant with an oozy centre

Matterhorn has a seven-course degustation dinner matched with a cocktail for each course. How you would quite stagger out of there and find your way home is another matter. The menu changes seasonally. Highlights of the winter degustation dinner include: Char grilled quail, mushroom rice, crisp parsnip, witloof & wood sorrel; Monkfish, Cloudy Bay surf clams, mussels, caramelized fennel, nasturtium, rouille & bouillabaisse consommé; The Whole Lamb’ with goat yogurt, crushed peas, garlic, buckwheat & chamomile.

CHECK LIST:
Open menu 7 days, from 5.30pm
Brunch menu Saturday & Sunday from 10am to 2.30pm
Tapas menu, 7 days, 3pm until close
106 Cuba Street
Wellington,  New Zealand
Cafe +64 4 384 3359

Pictures ©Emily O’Brien 2012