Experiencing New Zealand ‘s Foodie & Cultural Scene

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New Zealand is a country many Americans hold in high regard, whether they have been or not.  I was invited to visit New Zealand to learn about its food, wine, sights, and culture over a very busy and action-packed 10-day trip, which had me zigzagging all over the North and South islands. I covered a lot of ground but let’s visit urban Auckland on the North Island first.  And its food of course.

Auckland clocks a little more than 1 million people, and it has an active life on the water, with harbors and marinas. It has a stunning, lush park that you shouldn’t miss strolling through (the Auckland Domain), trendy neighborhoods to walk, dine, and shop through (like Ponsonby Road, plus the recently rehabbed Britomart area in downtown), a multicultural population, gorg beaches nearby, a lovely climate (although wear your sunscreen—the damaged ozone layer is no joke), and is just a half hour boat ride from Waiheke Island (more on that dreamy place in another installment!). A few people said I wouldn’t care to spend much time in Auckland, but they were quite wrong.

I went a few days earlier than my scheduled press trip to check out the city, but the only drawback was that it was Easter weekend, which is technically every Aucklanders’ last end-of-summer hurrah and people leave town (remember, it’s the Southern Hemisphere, so the seasons are flipped). While a lot of places were closed, I still managed to find some notable restaurants that were open (yay).

I flew on Air New Zealand, which let me tell you was downright civilized. Let’s hear it for economy plus, and while it’s not business, it certainly had a service and comfort level that put our American airlines to shame. They even poured a damn tasty sparkling wine—after my first sip, I was like, hold on there mister flight attendant, whatcha pouring there? (It was the Deutz sparkling from Marlborough; a project that is like Champagne Louis Roederer’s presence in the Anderson Valley with its Roederer Estate line.) After some bubbles (mister flight attendant was having fun overserving me), one of the better airline dinners I have ever had, and my trusty sleeping pill, I slept like a rock—the flights to NZ leave SF in the evening, so you arrive in the morning (I landed at 5:30am).

After a quick 45-minute catnap in my hotel (the SKYCITY Grand, more on my home base later), I took a shower, slapped my cheeks to snap out of it, and was picked up by the sassy Charmaine Ngarimu of the Auckland tourism office to head to the Saturday farmers’ market in Matakana. I know, nothing like hitting the ground running.

I couldn’t have asked for a better guide—not only does Charmaine adore food as much as yours truly, her Maori roots also meant I got a deeper explanation on some of the local foods and traditions. We love music and bubbly, so we were fast friends. After about an hour’s drive in the rain, we arrived at the outdoor market. My first bite of Kiwi cuisine was a pāua fritter, a dark abalone fritter served open-faced on a piece of bread, with a sweet and sour chile sauce drizzled on top. (Charmaine told me she makes a better one, and I believe it.) You’ll see pāua shell used in a lot of Maori jewelry as well.

The market was definitely an eclectic scene: we grazed on Vietnamese pork steamed buns (bánh bao), Sicilian arancine, a flavorful Ceylonese wrap, locally made buffalo mozzarella, and sparkling grape juice. (It was like being at the SF Street Food Fest.) One big disconnect I did have: there wasn’t really any recycling! For a market that prided itself on its artisan ways, it was pretty sad to see the tragic (unsorted) garbage pileup in multiple cans. I found one section for recycling but it didn’t look like anyone was even remotely heeding the separate bins. Huh.

We also visited Charmaine’s buddy Glen Osborne, a well-known former All Blacks rugby player who now runs the a butchery shop, and I got a dose of total Maori humor and a show of muscles (I admit, I egged him on). Other nearby places reco’ed to me: Plume (we swung by for a coffee, guess who needed it) and Charlie’s Gelato in Warkworth for their coconut ice cream.

Additional markets in Auckland include Otara (20 minutes away), which is more ethnic with a large Maori and Pacific community and street food, or there’s La Cigale, the local French market.

That evening I headed to dinner with my new (fabulous) dining partner, Nathan Branch, who was introduced to me by a mutual friend. Not only is he a talented photographer, but he’s also a journalist, cook, one fashionable mofo, and skilled world traveler. Yeah, I had delightful company—he was a remarkable host. (I also have him to thank for this very thoughtful write-up about my visit.)

We met at Sidart, quirkily tucked away upstairs in a mini mall in Ponsonby. You slide open a door that reveals a contemporary and comfortable dining room, with a plush tufted banquette along the walls, leather chairs, and many stylish touches. Amon Tobin was playing, couples were canoodling, the fresh evening air was coming through the open windows, all contributing to a blissful vibe (well, until someone would run the espresso machine).

It was one of my favorite meals in New Zealand: chef Sid Sahrawat has an eclectic style—and a bit progressive—featuring very seasonal produce (I was so happy to be there at the end of summer, trust), with hints of exotic spices, and wonderful Kiwi seafood and meats. It very much felt like a personal place, one that was a heart project of the chef and his team. The meal started off very strong (great amuses), with interesting textures, but the main savory courses felt heavy and less inspired—the Roquefort dessert turned things back around. I was really fired up with the insightful wine pairings—it was a great place to learn about New Zealand wines from the knowledgeable Mo (Ismo Koski), even if the pours felt a wee bit skimpy. All in all, there was a lot to dig here: bright creativity, lovely (and very colorful) plating, intriguing flavor pairings, dialed service, and mostly on-point execution. (We did the five-course dinner for $95 NZ, $50 wine pairing; or you can do 10 courses for $140, $90 wine pairing.)

Another highlight was Depot (which Kiwis charmingly call Depp-oh), oh-so-conveniently located across the street from my hotel. I swung by for an afternoon and alfresco bite of Orongo Bay oysters and wickedly good snapper sliders (with preserved lemon mayo). The evening definitely has a lively and “it spot” vibe—it felt a bit like Nopa but in New York (I kept thinking of Schiller’s), with folks crowded in at the bar, and the handsome staff in custom aprons. Celeb chef Al Brown (and chef Kyle Street’s) menu is rustic, casual, flavor-forward, and fun to share—we especially loved the mussels served on the half shell with chorizo and garlic (and the kiss of the grill). Fresh ingredients, with many local farms and purveyors, were called out on the menu. The friendly staff was all pro—sitting at the bar, we got tasted on some swell beers (after a day of wine tasting, all I wanted was some beer). I tasted two winners from Hallertau: a kolsch and pale ale, and when I asked for a beer to go with dessert, they didn’t miss a beat, serving us a “breakfast” beer from Moa.

One evening Nathan and I started our night out at Clooney dining in their lounge (restaurateur Tony Stewart is behind SF’s pop-up, the Waiheke Island Yacht Club). The look is all industrial chic and leather, with plenty of high-heeled ladies making their way into the clubby and sexy dining room. This was definitely the most progressive of the places we visited, with foams and textures galore, and very intensively plated presentations from chef Des Harris. The place is not cheap (apps, which they call entrees, ring in at $26-32 NZ). The signature dish of sugar-cured ostrich (with foie gras mousse and shaved foie gras, heh) on what felt like a five-pound granite plate was transcendent, and the king crab with yellowtail, wasabi and coconut sorbet, compressed watermelon, and ginger gel delivered some great flavor. All the dishes were very involved, but a couple had some components fall flat (like soggy popcorn).

I had a smashing lunch at Simon Gault’s Euro, which is right on the wharf—it’s an inviting daytime spot, with a crisp and modern look (it felt like a mash-up of a seaside vibe and Milano to me). Gault is a well-known chef in New Zealand (and beyond) with his many TV appearances and quality cookbooks (I was happily sent home with a couple), so it was a treat to have him at the restaurant to cook for us.

Joining us for lunch was Helen Dorresteyn of Clevedon Village Farmers Market and Clevedon Valley Buffalo Company, a name I was seeing on a variety of menus around town. (They brought 60 head of pure-bred water buffalo from Darwin in Australia, and the current product line includes buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, gouda, yogurt, and blue cheese.) Simon brought us a Hawke’s Bay fig topped with ricotta and wildflower honey from Blenheim, just gorg. The modern spin on a caprese salad with Clevedon’s mozzarella was a vision of summer. I was also very content with our bottle of Nautilus cuvée from Marlborough, which is late disgorged after three years.

One of my most memorable dishes on the trip was Gault’s poached blue cod from Stewart Island in a spicy tomato and shallot sauce, surrounded with Cloudy Bay clams, green-lipped mussels, and New Zealand pipis (a clam and cockle hybrid). Boom, what a dish (and wonderful showcase for NZ seafood). I asked Simon about which seafood to look for in New Zealand, and he said line-caught snapper from the north, and seasonal items like Nelson scallops, whitebait from the west coast (used in famed whitebait fritters), and bluff oysters (which I was lucky to catch in brief season while I was there).

He also serves some top-notch beef (he’s known for his sourcing), and we had both some buffalo and tender venison with black garlic, squash, and little molecular spheres of Worcestershire (it was a killer match with the 2009 Fromm “La Strada” pinot noir from Marlborough).

After a day on Waiheke Island, Nathan and I fueled up after a lot of wine at Ortolana in Britomart, a rehabbed and up-and-coming area. While I admired the style of the place and the alfresco vibe—and was excited to try the restaurant’s vegetables from their farm—the dishes we had didn’t really pop. (Felt like its simple style would be a better bet for lunch.) The wine list had a bunch of interesting 125ml selections, like the 2011 “Little Rascal” arneis from Coopers Creek in Gisborne, so that was a bonus.

It was unfortunate I wasn’t able to dine at Michael Dearth’s much-awarded The Grove (he used to work at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco) since it was closed for the holiday weekend, but he gave me a tour of the space, and some insider/local food tips too.

There’s an area of Auckland called Dominion Road in Mount Eden (it was a bit of a haul in a cab), which is where I checked out Dearth’s favorite late-night/industry spot, New Flavour (541 Dominion Road)—don’t confuse it with Flavour Town across the street. Total bare-bones and BYOB spot, with brutal fluorescent lighting. The pork and celery dumplings were stellar (I preferred the tender steamed ones over the fried), along with the spicy cucumber salad with a hint of sesame. Would have been fun with a group but I was flying solo—my taxi driver was stoked with all the leftovers I styled him with. Hello, dumplings. (There’s also Spicy House at 557 Dominion if you want to tablehop.) Dearth’s other recos included Canton Cafe in Kingsland for groups, and Sake Bar 601 for sushi and their tuna carpaccio. He also taught me that tipping in New Zealand is about 10 percent, and 15 percent if it’s really superb.

I had an easygoing brunch at Zus & Zo—cool style, and my dish, the Uitsmijter (Dutch-style fried eggs with ham and cheese on toast) was rocking; ditto my new friend’s Kiwi classic dish of mushrooms with blue cheese, a poached egg, and sourdough.

On one of my long walks around town, I ambled for a bit on K-Road (Karangahape) and stopped by Kati Grill for a Frankie (this was a reco I remembered from one of my Indian cabdrivers). It was a fast-casual place with zero soul, but that Frankie (a type of Indian wrap in paratha) was loaded with ginger and garlic and spice—took me right back to Mumbai.

A friend of a friend sent me to Fred’s Cafe, charming spot for an espresso (from Supreme) and she told me to get their lamington (it’s a very New Zealand thing: a sponge cake covered with coconut and cut in half, with whipped cream and raspberry jam in between the halves—yeah, delicious). Loved the patio, my coffee, and the lamington on the cute vintage plate.

Restaurants on my list for next time:
The Engine Room
The French Cafe
The Blue Breeze Inn (new contemporary Chinese joint from the MooChowChow crew)

The gents at Depot recommended Coco’s Cantina, Cafe Hanoi, Ponsonby Road Bistro, and Best Ugly Bagels (Al Brown’s Montreal bagel place).

Dizengoff on Ponsonby for brunch (flat white and mushrooms on toast I have heard is the ticket).

I never hunted down a meat pie, but was told The Food Room on Ponsonby or The Fridge in Kingsland make good ones.

Mea Culpa and Golden Dawn (Ponsonby) and Britomart Country Club

Where I stayed:

SKYCITY Grand Hotel
This hotel was ideally located in the CBD—I was able to scoot to a bunch of different areas quite easily (although the immediate surroundings were full of taxis and tourists). My modern room had a nice view (which I enjoyed from my comfortable chaise), the bed was my best friend (there was even a pillow menu), and the hotel handily had some quality restaurants downstairs (Depot was literally just across the street)—they’re also adding two new restaurants at the moment. The hotel had some nice facilities, including a spa and lap pool.

Another reco (although I didn’t stay there) is for the chic boutique Hotel DeBrett (which is dangerously close to one of the best eyeglass/sunglass stores I have ever had the fortune of visiting, Michael Holmes).

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