Features

Kiwi flavour

30 Jun 2006 by intern11

New Zealand chefs have become a culinary force to reckon with. They’re always finding new things to do with the natural produce available to them, James Moore reports

Most travellers, who brave the long journey to New Zealand, do so because they know that at the end of it, they will be blessed with breathtaking scenery, the freshest of air, friendly and unassuming people and good food!  

Auckland, often the first stop on the itinerary, is an excellent window to this country’s great kitchens. A quick glance at www.restaurants.com will tell you that in terms of numbers alone, the lovely “City of Sails” outscores its North Island neighbour and the nation’s capital, Wellington by 791 (restaurants) to 380.

The “meat and two veg” label that dogged Kiwi cooking for years has long been dispelled. Taking advantage of easy access to some of the world’s best natural produce, New Zealand chefs have been showing astounding creativity and flair in redefining a cuisine that now reflects the influences and contributions of the various migrant groups that have enriched the society.

After having satisfied their wanderlust and gained experience in Europe and Asia, young culinary professionals are streaming back to New Zealand and setting up shop and catering to a well travelled and appreciative clientele.

Auckland is a sprawling city. Its position on an isthmus means that getting anywhere can be a trial but luckily, there are more and more districts offering great meals served up at anytime of day. Posonby is a great location to start off one’s eating adventure. Scores of coffee shops line the main road and do a mean breakfast or brunch. Not far away is the Central Business District where little pockets of independent, free-standing restaurants complement those in plush new hotels.

Order some fresh fish, open a bottle of Oyster Bay – it’s almost impossible to go wrong. If you need a little help, though, here’s a list of the five best central Auckland restaurants, all manned by the country’s top culinary stars.

PARTINGTONS AT THE LANGHAM

Although the Kiwis are known for their relaxed approach to dining, every city needs an outlet that is elegant and extravagant. After a multi-million dollar refurbishment to the Langham Hotel, this prominent restaurant has now made its mark on the city, giving local residents a place to sample modern French cuisine with New Zealand touches, and of course, ingredients. The interior is a striking and classy gold and black. Classic oil paintings hang on the walls next to seating booths with huge curtains draping down to give diners a heightened sense of intimacy. Resembling a Victorian dining room, there are even fancy Christofle cutlery and Schott Zwiesel glassware to make sure you know you’re somewhere special. The soul and jazz music keeps any pretension in check, however.

The restaurant takes its name from the landmark Partingtons Mill, which stood on the same site from 1851 to 1950. But the dishes created by signature chef Marc Soper – last year’s New Zealand Chef of the Year – are unlike most would have tried in Auckland before.

The Pan-Roasted Crayfish Tail, Buttered Savoy Cabbage, Mushroom à la Grecque, Warmed Foie Gras, Champagne and Tarragon Foam, Petit Salad Greens (US$28) was simply outstanding with a Central Otago Pinot. The South Island Thar Loin with Herb Mousseline (US$25) is a Chef Marc Soper’s signature.

Where: The Langham Hotel, Auckland, 83 Symonds Street, tel 64 9 920 6985. Open Tues-Sun from 1800.

Price: A three-course meal with a glass of wine (depending on which of the 460 wines you choose from) for two will set you back a modest US$125 – not bad at all for one of Auckland’s most desirable tables.

WHITE RESTAURANT

Dining in a hotel isn’t everyone’s idea of a relaxed evening out. Then, if you discover that the restaurant has an interior that would be described on a DIY shop’s paint chart as “Hospital Ward White”, it could be even be a little off-putting. Nevertheless, once you take your seat and settle in, you’ll find that White is smart without being stuffy and fancy without being overstated. The service is also efficient and light-hearted.

The view is the first thing that subdues any remaining apprehension. Seagulls and ferries setting off from the neighbouring pier float past and on a clear day, Rangitoto Island is clearly visible. The menu, as you’d expect at “Restaurant of the Year 2004,” is also incredibly approachable. Any number of entrée-main combinations would have brought reward. The Crayfish Salad with Avocado Mousse, Kaffir Lime and Ponzu Dressing (US$12.50) with the crusted lamb rack with beetroot, red cabbage, mint gnocchi and sweetbread salad (US$25) was just one example. A blood-orange Cointreau palate cleanser in between courses only heightened the experience.

The concoctions may be presented on large white dishes, but there is nothing un-cheery about the food. The colours and textures, masterminded by executive chef Bernard Bernabe, jump off the plate. The Filipino creator has lived in New Zealand since he was nine and, according to the PR bumf, is “committed to showcasing the best of the country’s unique produce”.

A comment from a next-door table during a recent taste-test went along the lines of: “Oooh, I wonder what that is…mmm, that’s superb.” It seems as though he’s living up to his billing.

Where: Hilton Auckland, Princes Wharf, 147 Quay Street, tel 64 9 978 2020, www.hilton.com. Open daily from 0630-2300.

Price: An average cover for a table for two would cost a touch over US$100. There is also a popular wine-matched five-course dégustation menu priced at US$63 per person.

SOUL BAR & BISTRO

Although regularly hosting guest chefs from all around the world, Soul’s focus is firmly centred around the use of local ingredients. Steered by local restaurateur Judith Tabron and executive chef Mark Wylie – a New Zealand Army cadet graduate – this bistro has quickly become the heart of the Viaduct area’s alfresco dining and after-work drinking scene. It seems as though Tabron chose a prescient and apt name for her establishment.

The service was considerably proficient given the daily chaos both inside and out, and the waiters manage to keep their heads above water, just. A first look at the menu gave the impression of a glorified bar-snack selection but in fact, the dishes were elaborate, intricate and on the whole very tasty.

Seafood was certainly the focus, which was not exactly surprising given Soul’s wharf-side location. Any attempts to deviate from this will be sorely disappointed. The Lamb with Goat’s Cheese and Bacon Terrine with Fresh Mint Salad (US$36.50) was undercooked and oily. Stick with the fruits de mer.

The Salt and Pepper Calamari starter (US$12.50) was superb, but the portion was nowhere near big enough. Probably the diner’s impression rather than the kitchen’s, however. And the presentation of the grilled Greek scampi (US$18.50) was dramatic! A daily fresh fish selection should tempt even those diners who might have been looking in the lamb’s direction. There’s local hapuka, snapper fillets, Chatham Island Blue Cod, local John Dory and yellowfin tuna cooked in a variety of exciting ways. This is certainly the way forward.

Where: Viaduct Harbour, tel 64 9 356 7249. Open Mon-Fri from 1100-late and Sat-Sun from 1000.

Price: A three-course meal for two, with a glass or two of the good stuff, will cost about US$95.

Dine by Peter Gordon

If having your own slot on British television is the indicator that you’ve made it on the international culinary scene then New Zealand’s ambassador chef, Peter Gordon, has it in spades. His recognisable sprig of hair and pure passion for all things edible certainly endear him to his expectant audience.

If you haven’t tried the Sugar Club or The Providores in London but find yourself in Auckland, the lure of a Gordon creation should be enough to tempt you to his new outfit at the base of the tallest tower in the Southern Hemisphere.

Housed inside the Skycity Grand Hotel, it boasts staff who are undoubtedly professionally trained. Every motion, gesture and pour seems to have been choreographed to perfection. The restaurant is effectively a large rectangular dining hall with long brown-leather benches on both main walls and a few tables dotted in the centre.

There is certainly a lack of privacy and although bringing a loved one to a place like this would be an experience not easily forgotten, your neighbours would also be party to every romantic nuance. One definite positive about the table arrangement is that you can spy on other people’s orders.

In all honesty, the menu needs an adjoining glossary to translate the many local ingredients into plain English.

Medjool, kumara, akaroa, quinoa and pauko aren’t the most recognisable of items to most diners. But the end result – even if you have to guess what it was that you are ordering – was never going to be in doubt. Every flavour was balanced perfectly and accentuated by the accompanying Chardonnay. As close as you can get to culinary perfection.

Where: Level 3 of Skycity Grand Hotel, 90 Federal Street, tel 64 9 363 7030. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

Price: Starters begin from US$10 and main courses from US$19. A full meal for two with a glass of wine will cost in the region of US$100 or thereabouts.

The Grove

Positioned in a quiet and welcoming mews is The Grove, a popular family-run restaurant not far from the CBD. Tucked away from Auckland’s main streets, the venue attracts a mix of tourists, locals and business crowd.

With an interior reminiscent of something out of the gentrified Meatpackers District in New York, the restaurant’s brick walls and high ceilings actively encourage an atmosphere of abandonment. The music was barely audible over the laughter and chat.

The food was just as hearty. Rich sauces and heavy flavours – created by Chef Michael Meredith – were scattered across the varied menu selection. Tartlet of Chèvre with Pickled Vine Leaf, Reduced Onion and Beetroot (US$11) was a great way to start things going.

To follow, the hefty Grilled Free Range Pork Fillet with Confit Belly, Apple Puree and Roasted Fennel, Jus of Quince (US$20) brought back thoughts of a roast meal in a warm European bistro on a cold day. The fine selection of cheeses and extravagant desserts also gave credence to this notion.  

Where: Saint Patrick’s Square, Wyndham Street, tel 64 9 368 4129. Open Mon-Fri, midday-late and Sat from 1800-late. Closed on Sunday.

Price: A tasting menu (US$57) with wine pairing at an additional US$38 per person is a great alternative if you feel as though you’re missing out. Otherwise, a three-courser with a glass of plonk for two is priced about US$105. The menus do vary depending on what season you visit, but you can be sure that to come with a healthy appetite is a perennial necessity.

Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant, Waiheke Island

Just a 35-minute ferry crossing across the Hauraki Gulf, Waiheke Island is a world away from downtown Auckland. With a sub-tropical microclimate, Waiheke is home to nine separate wineries, fruit farms, olive groves and just 7,500 people.

This serenity attracts recluse artists and creative types who hide out on the island, but for tourists and day-trippers it’s the promise of a taste of the local produce. One of the major vineyards on the island is Mudbrick, which has a restaurant surrounded by lavender. It boasts an excellent menu as well as a great view of the island and also the city far in the distance.

The Mudbrick management is keen to stress that the food should match its environment. The chefs work closely with the seasons and have developed their own organic potager gardens from which the ingredients are picked fresh every morning. On the plate itself, oils and sauces are plentiful but the result is not a heavy meal, but one that has absorbed the depth of flavour. This is “slow food” at its best.

The fish of the day – Hapuka with Asparagus and a Chilli-Mint Sauce – was a case in point. Naturally, the local wines complement the local ingredients the best. Hand-picked, hand-plunged and hand-pressed grapes from the surrounding areas make some eminently drinkable Merlots, Cabernets and Syrahs.

Surprisingly, a large proportion of the wine list hails from the Old World. Perhaps the sommelier counts on a case of confusion setting in? Sitting on the restaurant’s terrace – with the smell of herbs on the breeze – and you could quite easily be thousands of kilometres away in Tuscany or the Loire Valley.

Where: Church Bay Road, Oneroa, Waiheke Island, tel: 64 9 372 9050, www.mudbrick.co.nz

Price: A three-course meal for two with a glass of wine starts from US$94.

Wetting the whistle

Bellini

Five minutes’ walk from the city’s main shopping precinct, the ferry terminal, the Viaduct Basin, Auckland’s main tourist and entertainment stretch, Bellini Bar is located just below Hilton’s White restaurant. Aside from making great bellinis, its views over Auckland harbour are simply spectacular.

MINUS 5

Also in the Viaduct Basin is New Zealand’s coolest bar, literally. As the name suggests the temperature inside is sufficiently low for the management to encourage the use of gloves and a thick overcoat. The vodka served in an ice glass, on a bar made of solid ice, will soon warm you up!

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