On a Saturday night at Rosella, our waiter implores us to order a couple of servings of potato flatbread.
We do and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. Crunchy, textured and layered with cumin salt and, it turns out, Kewpie mayonnaise, it’s inspired by the fragrant spices of Moroccan cuisine. Rosella’s co-owner and executive chef Johnon MacDonald explains it also has a Mediterranean vibe, rolled in semolina the way pizza often is in parts of Italy.
The potato flatbread is one of the dishes that sums up MacDonald’s cooking style. Like his restaurant Koji two doors down, he likes big, bold, punchy flavours that often combine inspiration and techniques from various cuisines on one plate. At Rosella, those influences come from the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean.
MacDonald – who has worked at Sydney’s Rockpool and Melbourne’s Gingerboy – likes to push boundaries, which is exciting for Wellingtonians who are hungry for interesting food.
He and partner Kat Strand opened modern Asian restaurant Koji almost two years ago on Majoribanks Street during the pandemic, and they’ve flung open the doors at Rosella wine bar mere metres away just as the country skirts the brink of recession. “Friends thought we were crazy,” he laughs. But so far so good – all 70 seats at Rosella are full on a Saturday night.
He’s been testing the menu for the last eight months. He takes New Zealand produce – mussels from the Marlborough Sounds, Bostock chicken, lamb from Arrowtown’s Royalburn Station, vegetables from the Waikanae Community Market – and serves it with condiments such as harissa and whipped tahini, and spices like cumin, saffron and caraway.
This includes braised red cabbage with dates, red apple and harissa butter. Empanadas – traditionally from Latin America via southern Europe – are filled with ’nduja and taleggio, which are usually associated with Italy. Steamed butterfish from sustainable fishery Strait Speared is based on a dish he cooked at Rockpool, served here with Moroccan-style eggplant and fermented tomato.
Hints of Koji peep through; the Kampot peppercorns on the Christchurch-sourced Wagyu rumps are imported from Cambodia, and pickled mussels come with wasabi aioli.
All the food is served on beautifully speckled plates that were handmade by local Island Bay potter Nicola Shuttleworth.
MacDonald likes to think of Rosella as being like a supper club, filling a niche in Wellington’s food scene. “My opinion is that by the time you finish whatever you're eating, you should be salivating and still be craving a little bit more but not feeling like you're overwhelmed.”
That’s why he loves serving food to share, because the kitchen can adjust the portion sizes to make it work harmoniously. “Some of the smaller bites [have] big, bold, and punchy [flavours], and if you had too much of that, then you'd sort of get over it.”
Drinks-wise, the wines span makers from Aotearoa, Australia and the Mediterranean, while the cocktail menu embraces “fresh, floral and herbaceous” flavours. The house Martini is made with blood orange gin, bianco vermouth and herb oil, and there’s hibiscus in the house G&T, made with Roots gin from Marlborough.
Negroni lovers will have fun with Rosella’s selection: aside from the classic, there’s a French Negroni (with cognac instead of gin), a Kingston Negroni (rum), and a Boulevardier – which replaces the gin with bourbon.
Rosella’s decor was designed by Strand to be sophisticated, relaxed and modern, with light shades of white, terracotta and tan punctuated with eye-catching texture and anchored with rich, deep brown walnut furniture and shelving. Wine bottles and framed pictures of dreamy Italian coastal scenes line the walls, and the lighting is soft and warm.
The two storeys are linked by wooden stairs and, upstairs, the room is lined by a velvet banquette where you can nibble snacks and drink wine until 1am while candles glow. Downstairs, tan faux leather bar stools face the front window, and cosy booths with mustard velvet cushions are set to welcome you no matter your mood.
Rosella Wine Bar
18 Majoribanks Street, Mount Victoria, Wellington
(04) 333 0573
Tue to Thu 5pm-10pm