On a recent trip to Wellington, New Zealand, we took the time away from our conference to try some local dining. Given the opportunity to review some aspects of my Wellington stay, for a Wellington on a Plate publicity booklet, I was only too keen to leave the conference food to the delegates and explore the city a little bit, joined by an enthusiastic colleague. They wanted a visitor’s viewpoint; how could we refuse.

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The name of the restaurant had caught my eye first, Zibbibo, an upstairs restaurant in the Courtenay Place area, close to local theatres and the colorful waterfront, with its stalls and activities and lit walkways. We were to follow our meal with Theatre Sports at Circa Theatre, a short walk away, so the location was perfect. Zibbibo offers a full restaurant, tapas and bar, where customers can enjoy the smart, but convivial atmosphere and relaxed dining. It is surprisingly spacious for a restaurant that seats 85 people. The theme is Mediterranean, but with a New Zealand contemporary twist. Familiar, but new – that sounded tempting. We went for the $55 Prix Fixe, the pre-theatre meal for early diners. This turned out to be excellent value.

Zibbibo is well established and has been operating successfully for sixteen years, with a recent upgrade and refreshed menu. The large kitchen is open plan, with a huge rotisserie and a wood-fired oven for pizza, which all adds to the ambience and the feeling of participation in something more than just the food in front of you. The chefs look relaxed but highly professional and the restaurant staff are welcoming and helpful. We had one glitch, initially, which could have caused us to leave and go elsewhere. We were seated at a table in one of the busiest spots in the restaurant, with staff bustling back and forth past us, a door swinging and a constant draft. We asked to be moved to a quieter part of the restaurant and were rewarded with a table near the bar, where we could look out over the restaurant without constant activity around us. With seats available, I wonder why they would put guests in such a position in the first place. At that stage, there would have been about 35 people in the restaurant, which was probably quite good for the pre-theatre intake of diners.

Once seated comfortably, we relaxed and looked at the menu. It really was Mediterranean with a New Zealand influence and we decided to have different choices so we could experience .as many flavors as possible. My colleague chose the 12-hour Braised Beef Cheek, which came with wild mushrooms, caramelized pearl onion and bourguignon sauce, with a side of wood-baked baby gourmet potatoes, fennel salad and Kapiti blue cheese. This looked and smelled delicious. My colleague reluctantly shared a morsel with me, as agreed. The generous serving of beef was so tender that it cut like butter, and was tantalizingly flavorsome. The mix of flavors of the accompanying mushrooms, onions, vegetables and cheese was perfect. What a lovely dish. The presentation was sophisticated and glamorous, the flavors heartwarming. This was beyond expectations for a pre-theatre meal.

My own choice was the Wild Roasted Duck Leg, which came with goat’s cheese fondant, caramelized pear, watermelon radish, plus sage and quince jus. I broke the rule for making different choices, with the side, as I really wanted the side of wood-baked baby gourmet potatoes, fennel salad and Kapiti blue cheese as well. I am so glad I made that choice. I was ready for a taste explosion and the delight on my plate nearly brought tears to my eyes. Fennel van be quite strong, but this was subtle yet tangy. The Kapiti blue cheese was creamy and sharp, the perfect accompaniment. This was a lovely main course and looked stunning on the plate.

We did not want to drink too much before the theatre, but the meal justified a supporting wine. Our $55 meal included a glass of house wine and we were treated to a delicious Pinot Noir from the Soljans Estate. This was ideal with duck and my colleague reported that his wine slipped down nicely with the tender beef and one did not overwhelm the other.

To finish we shared the Zibbibo dessert tapas platter., as we could not decide from the dessert menu. This was a wise choice for a pre-theatre meal, as we could explore dainty bites of all the flavors, without weighing ourselves down with w big dessert. The desserts at the neighboring table looked surprisingly generous and we feared we might snooze through the play. Later, we found that nobody could snooze through the play, but that is another story. Our platter came with a selection of hand-made chocolates, tiny pine nut biscotti with toppings of gelato and panna cotta, two mini crème brulée, minute brandy wafers and fruit meringues. I am proud to say, that we didn’t waste a crumb. The locally made dark chocolate was a surprise, rich and with a crisp texture, with a delicate mango filling. The tiny mini crème brulées were a work of art and capped the meal nicely with a small Espresso each to finish. I hope to return to Wellington next year and when I do I will also return to Zibbibo. In the meantime, I would recommend this restaurant, especially as part of the dining/theatre experience that we enjoyed. For NZ$110 ($US79), we experienced fine dining and fine wine, in sparkling surroundings with welcoming but unobtrusive service. Long may it last. We will be back.