One of the highlights of my time as Foodservice Manager at Beef + Lamb New Zealand has been discovering amazing chefs who are quietly working hard in small town New Zealand bringing international flavours and innovative beef and lamb dishes to their customers. Hearing about their passion and how hard they have worked to make a name for themselves and invent their restaurants as a destination means being able to share the success stories of these chefs as Beef + Lamb Ambassadors, is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.
Such is the success story of Pablo Tacchini and wife Yanina who arrived just over ten years ago from Argentina to set up a new life for themselves and their family in the idyllic town of Oamaru. Their story is heart-warming and all their hard work has paid off, as it is clearly evident that their restaurant Cucina, and daytime café Tees Street are a warm and friendly hub where locals gather to casually catch up or celebrate special occasions.
Tourists who are either passing through or staying awhile to soak up the atmosphere of this beautifully restored Victorian town, seek out Cucina to taste Pablo’s dishes which are created from locally grown or foraged produce to give diners a unique North Otago dining experience. Such was Pablo’s Ambassador Series dinner, where he collaborated with Dunedin-based Platinum Ambassador Chef, Michael Coughlin at his sold-out dinner last Friday evening.
Stepping into Cucina in the early evening we were warmly greeted by the front of house team. The historic features of the original building are enhanced by the dark moody walls which are softened by a lush collection of indoor plants. The open fire was warm and welcoming and we kicked off the night with two delicious canapes of beef skirt with salt baked celeriac and a seeded cracker with lamb kidney. These morsels were mouthfuls of freshness and textures which whet the appetite and were a promise of good things to come.
The first course was a braised lamb shoulder ravioli with Otematata mushrooms and beetroot. This was a beautifully plated dish full of earthy flavours. The ravioli was perfectly cooked with a soft and tender centre oozing with that delicious lamb flavour and texture of tender pulled meat. The locally sourced mushrooms were dark and velvety and creaminess was added with a scoop of sour cream mixed with pureed black garlic to add a punch of flavour.
Next up was Oamaru grass fed flank steak with charred carrot, pine needle oil and belly crumbs. This dish had a delicious smokey vibe and the flank was a textural sensation. The charred carrot added that smokey sweetness with the belly crumb giving an added crunch of texture.
Course three was a triumph and I had watched chef Pablo trimming the sirloins earlier in the day straight out of his dry-ager. I am a huge fan of sirloin and was looking forward to trying a piece that had been aged for so long. The meat looked dark and moody as Pablo trimmed away the bark and fat from the whole sirloins. Nothing is wasted and these trimmings are saved for making whips and beef garum.
The resulting dish – 45-day dry aged beef, Kakanui potatoes, smoked peppers, onion ash, beef garum and whipped aged fat was a sophisticated take on steak and chips. The ageing process had intensified the flavour of the beef with a dark crust and tender centre. It was perfectly matched by the tiny, perfectly formed Kakanui potatoes sprinkled in a delicate onion ash. The triumph though was the tangy smoked peppers which slowly melted a dollop of whipped lard which combined with the steak created a rich beefy flavour!
The final protein course was courtesy of guest chef, Michael Coughlin. Michael is a long-time Platinum Ambassador and now a brand Ambassador for Provenance Lamb which is locally grown in Central Otago. It was National Lamb Day, so Michael’s dish was a sensational combination of two lamb cuts – confit lamb belly, seared aged lamb topside, flavours of horopito and fennel, pickled mushroom salad, smoked miso and cauliflower purée. This dish not only looked stunning but was a flavour sensation. The confit belly had a crispy coating and intense flavour while the topside was meltingly tender with a more mild and delicate flavour. The pops of sweet fennel were the perfect complement to the lamb and the tangy pickled mushrooms added a sharp contrast to the flavour profile.
It was a great finale to finish the evening with a dessert of burnt toffee mousse, smoked ricotta ice cream and Oamaru quince. The smokiness of the ricotta and the tartness of the quince were a wonderful combination and were the perfect flavours to complement the meaty feast we had just consumed. Together Pablo and his team, along with Michael had excelled in the kitchen to bring the produce and flavours of the local region together in one delicious evening of fine food and wines. My 24 hours in Oamaru concluded the next day with final look around this gorgeous town. There was a lot to explore and I will definitely be returning for a much longer break next time!