“It’s like a hug in a cup,” explains Vesuvio’s sassy chief cocktail concoctionist extraordinaire Rachel Powderly when I ask about the hot cocktails on the menu. It’s certainly hug weather, with winter working some frosty magic outdoors, but in the Euro-sophistication of Christchurch’s legendary live jazz and tapas venue (and former Oxford Terrace alumni) things are already starting to heat up – and it’s not just courtesy of the old school charms of the Komodo Charcoal Grill. Local band Devilish Mary and the Holy Rollers are bringing their signature sultry baptism by fire with a jaunty cover of Whatever Lola Wants and, deciding hugs are more of a farewell drink, we order a Gunpowder Negroni, a glass of bubbles (Limoux Loire Grand Cuvee) and the chargrilled Moroccan lamb and dukkha platter, which gets Rachel’s wry half-smile of approval.
Hanging our coats at the entrance, we grab a table moments before our drinks arrive. Sipping the fiery potency of the Negroni, a careful bitter/sweet balance of orange zest-tinged heaven, I drink in the equally decadent surrounds. They're deliciously dark and intimate, with guttering candlelight dancing over hand-finished white walls which disappear into a dark ceiling. With my arm resting on a marble bar leaner and tiles underfoot; it’s easy to imagine we’ve stumbled onto the big city charms of an international hot spot.
Epitomising effortless cool and inimitable nonchalance, Vesuvio is home to a toe-tappingly infectious vibe and some next-level professionalism via a fun and friendly front of house. Nearby tables are enjoying generous cheese platters, tapas and bulbous burgundy glasses of exotic red wines, all set to the soundtrack of excited chatter and some seriously swinging tunes. The merriment continues out in the courtyard where, under the industrial wattage of some serious heating and speakers, revellers with thoughtfully supplied blankets covering their laps cup mulled wines, hot cocktails and glasses of red. The music snakes its way up the newspapered walls of the stairway to the broody intimacy of the library/lounge, which is equipped with board games for those seeking a more laid back respite.
Our platter arrives, along with a funky Mediterranean-style ceramic jug and glasses, piled high with a gourmand’s wet dream selection. There's house-marinated Moroccan olives – all plump salty bursts of piquant herbs and spices – glass terrines of creamy buffalo feta and deliciously sharp balsamic oil, stunning dual tapenades of olives with anchovies and sun-dried tomatoes with roasted cashew nuts, antipasti of chargrilled peppers laced with garlic and fresh basil, artichoke hearts with rosemary and lemon juice, a seductively spiced dukkha of nuts and roast spices, and the epic smoky goodness of the chargrilled Moroccan lamb.
We have fun experimenting with all the different flavour combinations on toasted ciabatta, while a continuous stream of folk file back and forth to the bar carrying carafes and bottles of wine out to the courtyard. Having been given the heads up by Rachel that the chargrilled halloumi and pancetta parcels are a must try, we order these and scan the 50 or so wines available by the glass looking for a good match. We narrow it down to four choices which we then leave to the experts, finally returning to the table with a carafe of ruby-hued Toa Karikari Peninsula 2007.
The Cabernet Frac, Malbec and Pinotage hybrid is a heavy-hitting, luscious tannic fruity number, and its toasty oak notes are the perfect accompaniment to the earthen plate of chilli infused-halloumi-engorged prunes wrapped in chargrilled caramelised strips of pancetta. Spicy, smoky and humming with a spike of chilli, they’re soul-satisfyingly moreish and simply sublime between sips of the velvety red.
Having decided it’s time for a hug, I blow on the golden slick of butter atop my Hot Buttered Rum – a dreamy mix of Matusalem rum, apple juice and cinnamon served in all its apple pie glory in a retro purple tea cup – and feel its warming embrace as a bearded guy in the courtyard instigates a sing-a-long to the seductive purr of Devilish Mary chanteuse Anita Clark’s interpretation of Fever; it becomes all too obvious we won’t be leaving anytime soon.
Carlton Courts, 4 Papanui Road
03 355 8530