The New Zealander, at the end of Alameda's Webster Street strip, has the distinction of being the Bay Area's only New Zealand restaurant. What does its cuisine taste like? Green-lipped mussels steamed with sauvignon blanc and chopped horopito leaves? Kiwi-lemonwood pavlova? How about mince pie and a pint of stout?
"Pies are something that people eat not so much as a meal but as a snack," said Annabel Langbein, one of New Zealand's most popular cookbook authors. I asked Langbein about pies last week in the middle of her national tour teaching cooking classes and promoting her most recent book, Cooking to Impress Without Stress.
In New Zealand, pies are as iconic as the hot dog to Americans, as ubiquitous as pizza. According to Langbein, they're found everywhere -- at bakeries, in heated cases at corner markets, in grocery stores, in pubs. "Many New Zealanders eat a pie two or three times a week," she said. "I eat a pie once a week, and I'm not classified as a big pie eater."
True to tradition, you can find a heated case full of pies on the bar at the New Zealander. You can find a few Kiwis, too -- like chef Clive Hitchens, a classically trained cook who moved to the States from Auckland a decade ago. He and his American-born wife, Donna, ran a high-end catering operation called CW Company until the dot-com bust did a number on their business. Searching for a new venture, the couple returned to Clive's roots and started selling frozen New Zealand-style meat pies at farmers' markets around the Bay Area. "Expats came out of the woodwork," he says.
As business grew, the Hitchenses searched for a location, and stumbled on the vacant restaurant in the Croll Building. Now they're serving their pies with pints, as well as pub food good enough for non-Kiwis to appreciate.
The building, state historical landmark number 954, dates back to 1883, when Alameda's Croll family ran the most prominent boxing gardens in California. Their hotel and restaurant housed the nation's top boxers while they trained. Over the decades, a number of businesses have succeeded and failed in the downstairs restaurant. All have been blessed and afflicted with the need to preserve its spectacular decor. They've also been overshadowed by the huge stained-glass "Croll's" sign over the door, which dwarfs every attempt at establishing an identity separate from the building.
The New Zealander succeeds because the owners recognize that while restaurants come and go, a pub is forever. In fact, Hitchens says, the building isn't very different from the small-town pubs he grew up with. Then and now, it remains one of the best locations in the East Bay to while away a bright afternoon, awash in sunlight, with a couple of pints and a rambling conversation. The carved-wood bar hasn't weathered a century's worth of drunks and senators too badly. Neither has the stained-glass skylight and windows. The New Zealanders have claimed their territory with a couple of spectacular carvings, a flag or two, and a children's play area.
Family-friendly lighting aside, the New Zealander works well as a comfortable everyday pub. The Hitchenses serve a few New Zealand wines, beers from around the Commonwealth -- though they haven't been able to secure Clive's favorite microbrews yet -- and a simple, honest menu of pies, sandwiches, and steaks. You can get a pie for $6, a salad or bowl of soup for an extra $1.95, or splurge on a ribeye for $13.
Slightly bigger and deeper than a Swanson's pot pie, all of Clive's pies are constructed from two kinds of pastry: a short-crust base and puff-pastry lid. Which translates into a solid, though crisp, crust and a flaky top. Your fork doesn't break through the crust into a puddle of gravy or white sauce, as it would with an American pie. New Zealand pies are stuffed from floor to ceiling with filling: coarsely cut steak and a jack-like cheese, a sadly bland blend of chicken and mushrooms, a much bolder lamb curry. My favorite pie, however, was the mince: seasoned ground beef, not too wet and not too dry.
The only real dud on the menu was the sausage roll, a thick log of loose, lightly seasoned pork sausage wrapped in puff pastry. Can you imagine a more perfect food? Neither can I. Unfortunately, the prebaked roll hadn't been rewarmed long enough for the heat to penetrate to the core of the meat and banish the moisture from the crust.
The waiters drop off a plastic bottle of ketchup with your pies. Watch out, because it's not quite ketchup -- it's Wattie's Tomato Sauce. Made by Heinz in some alternate universe, the almost-ketchup has less of the acidic edge of vinegar of the American sauce, so it tastes more sugary, with a heavy dose of cloves. Chillingly foreign.
Hitchens claims that he enjoys cooking without the pressure of haute cuisine, but his formal training keeps showing through in the smallest of touches, like the delicate hazelnut-white wine and fig-balsamic vinaigrettes that come with mixed-green side salads. The soup, which changes daily, isn't chicken and stars, either. More like carrot-ginger and roasted tomato-eggplant.
A bit of finesse also shows up on the Coromandel-style potatoes, tossed in herbs and garlic and roasted until the edges are crisp, or straightforward bistro dishes like a simply roasted fillet of yellowtail tuna, which grew richer and richer as a pat of herbed butter melted overtop. Most of the restaurant's red meat -- lamb burgers, rump steak "sanie" (sandwich), comes from New Zealand. It's not an exotic luxury: Whether you knew it or not, the country is now one of the cheapest sources for lean, grass-fed beef, lamb, and venison in the United States.
One last menu item deserves a little explanation: the "Aucklander 3AM White Lady Special." Most Aucklanders know the White Lady, a catering trailer that pulls up outside bars late at night and serves burgers to hungry drunks. Hungry drunks apparently like burgers with pickled beets (a Kiwi staple), a fried egg, a pineapple ring, ham, cheddar, tomatoes, grilled onions, and garlic. No word on whether sober Aucklanders like them, too.
Hitchens is itching to serve pavlova, New Zealand's cream-fruit-meringue national dessert, but it'll have to wait until the kitchen gets up to full speed. Until then, he serves a caramel-drenched French apple tart and a bread-and-butter pudding made with an airy brioche studded with raisins, a bit of orange zest woven through for the occasional flash of citrus. Clive's pecan squares -- chopped pecans held together with toffee -- were so hard to cut that each of my friends took a turn with the spoon while the others shielded their eyes against flying shards. But once we chipped off a chunk, it tasted like a crunchy, nutty, not-too-sweet piece of pecan pie.
It'll be up to real New Zealanders to judge whether Clive's pies are authentic, or whether they're lacking in the most critical spice, nostalgia. The two Brits I brought to the restaurant both complained that the pie didn't come with mashed potatoes. "Were they right?" I asked Langbein. She laughed, then retorted: "Normally you get pie in a paper bag."
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