Published on July 10th, 2012 | by ladyparker3
Review: A Hospitable Response to the Christchurch Earthquake – Saggio di Vino (Christchurch, NZ)
Summary: Saggio di Vino is reborn post-earthquake just one door down from its original, now demolished location. The food is great, the wine list is exceptional and owners Lisa and Yommi are just as hospitable as ever.
Back & better than ever
Rising out of the ashes of the devastation that blankets the city of Christchurch are a whole raft of Phoenix establishments. They possess the primary aim of boosting the morale of the city’s traumatised residents: those hardy and loyal enough to stay or simply those who through impossibility of means cannot relocate. They also herald a persuasive message to anyone who passes through this quake ravaged urban zone…. “We are open for business”, and they’re doing a damn good job with what they have.
The spirit of conviction that they will pull through resounds: it ricochets off the rubble, echoes through the wrecked vacant office blocks and tolls across the city’s many dismantled church bell towers. In the short period of time we were in Christchurch last week, we experienced no less than three noticeable earthquakes (although one was actually centred off the coast of the North Island). The threat of another big one is menacing, the foreboding is so compelling you can almost taste the sweet diaphoresis emanating from those who have experienced the horror in the air.
Known as the Garden City, Christchurch was rich in green areas, graced with perennial blooms, delineated by the meandering Avon River. Its architectural assemblage was diverse, aesthetic and celebrated – the Square and Christchurch Cathedral a source of national pride.
I’m using past tense because after the duo of catastrophic earthquakes in September 2010 and February 2011, what was once a vibrant city was reduced to ruins; the Central Business District is still cordoned with big blockades and fences. Only a handful of multi-storied buildings will survive engineering assessments, and many have already suffered the fatal stroke of the demolition ball.
Chaos aptly describes the urban precinct. The roads are a shambles, and infrastructure is desperately wanting. There are kilometres of red tape undulating across boundaries, carving out the war zone like fringes, unlivable houses (though a lot of them do have squatting occupants), and unstable ground. Working through the consequences of such a disaster is a long, emotional and expensive process, and the hardship Christchurch is enduring continues although the horizon for media attention has seemingly passed. It takes a journey to the city and time to take it all in before the gravity of the situation registers.
Back to the positive tact that this piece started out on… The efficient use of temporary resources in Christchurch is inspiring. Colour is not in short supply as you gaze over the scattering of giant Jenga blocks at the Cashel “ReStart” container mall. Created eight months after the last hulking February 22 quake, the mall on the perimeter of the CBD cordon has respired a rainbow of shops, cafes and facilities all open for business. The use of shipping containers is present throughout the city. Pop-up bars, restaurants and stores have enabled a sense of normality to enter back into daily life.
One newly reopened institution is Saggio di Vino, having moved not far from their pre-quake location on Victoria Street, their home for 20 years. The original site is now occupied by a house bus-cum-craft beer bar with outdoor seating – rug up warm is my only advice!
Chancing upon this idolised restaurant’s re-opening that week, the opportunity to support them and dine there was leapt at on Friday evening. The fit-out in the brand new building is contemporary, retaining its intimacy with use of dark timber, concrete and glass, and therefore balance of natural light.
Committed owners Lisa and Yommi have worked extremely hard to get Saggio up and running again and after a week of business they seemed buoyant and their characterful selves. As Lisa curved through the tables, stopping to chat to familiar faces it was not hard to understand the pleasure of simply being open again, achieving enjoyment in tending to a quickly filling restaurant. It is clear people are spending again, especially upon dining out, and these are significant steps for the rebuilding of the city and a return to regularity. Saggio’s Lisa and Yommi are saliently bold, audacious and have a devout group of supporters.
Being seated, the wine list was handed to us to peruse, however we were initially disappointed. Where was the fabulous list of cellared wines? It was only because of a glass window looking into the central cellar in the restaurant that my dining comrade spotted a Francois Raveneau Chablis which was not on the list. Upon enquiring, a wine library list was promptly delivered. We were lucky our proximity to the vinous window allowed us to see the full offerings, otherwise we would not have realised such an extensive list existed. So DO ask for the wine library carte, as there are some real sensations available.
The menu is simple with an influence on Western Europe with distinctive New Zealand twists. Despite the few options available (a situation I quite enjoy), there were numerous dishes that I felt drawn to. The Chablis indeed proved too irresistible and we opted for the 2005 Forêt Premier Cru from Francois Raveneau. An interesting year in Chablis, “near perfect on paper,” this bottle was quite forward with a lovely musky character from solids contact. It definitely opened up with time, highlighting mineral notes and ripe lemon. On the palate it was pleasant but lacked the structure of Raveneau’s other Premier Cru. Regardless this was an exceptional match with the Crayfish Bisque ($14), a special for the evening. Full of rich crustacean flavour, the aroma was savoury and delicate, not overpowering as each spoonful was relished. We remarked on the silken texture and enjoyed it immensely with the Chablis. Meanwhile opposite me a moment with a rabbit was taking place – a salad of rabbit loin and lentils nuanced with pear and balsamic vinegar ($24) absorbed my dining partner with its cogent flavour profile and tender cooking. Both entrees were a success: no over-complexity, great use of quality ingredients and effortlessly accomplished.
Flavour is certainly in the vocabulary of Saggio di Vino’s kitchen. There’s no compromise on it and it’s expertly appointed. Faced again with a difficult decision for a main, we both succumbed to the exquisite sound of pan-fried Hapuka on a pumpkin risotto with saffron foam ($35). Hapuka, of the Groper family, is an excellent eating fish, prized for its meaty flesh practically bordering on game fish, which makes it perfect for grilling, barbequing or indeed pan-frying as it has the favoured proclivity to not fall or flake apart. This dish was beautifully put together – the sweet and savoury balance of the pumpkin risotto, paired with the unmistakable flavour of delicate saffron was peerless. A side of roasted swedes with caper & sherry vinegar dressing ($13.50) was honourable fare; balanced with the components of piquancy from the sherry vinegar, the sweet roasted flavour of swedes and the purity of salt from capers.
With this exhibition of tastes, we had to engage another bottle of wine: a Chateau du Tertre 2000 from Margaux, Bordeaux grasped our attention and, decanted, it was easily the wine of the evening. Expressing exactly why Right Bank Bordeaux is so coveted with its cedar, currant and dried tobacco notes, the tannins were robust but smooth. It simply begged for a plate of cheese ($20), which we readily enjoyed. The Saggio di Vino wine list is excellent value, with plenty of interesting wines to tempt enthusiasts of all levels and salaries. There’s a perceptible focus on France and New Zealand, but Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, the US, and Australia are represented.
Saggio di Vino’s re-opening comes at a time when Christchurch’s inhabitants need it most. In the face of footing a whopping Council bill for the rebuilding of this heritage city and uncertainty over suburb zoning, the restoration of icon establishments is heartening. Saggio di Vino looks, feels and tastes better than ever, and they are sure to welcome you hospitably, with open arms.