New Zealand's 10 best restaurants
With ingredients like this, how could the restaurants not be good? In New Zealand, as well as rugby fever and plenty of things to do that get the adrenaline pumping, you’ll find some of the world’s freshest seafood, brilliant lamb, grass-fed beef and great vegetables.
It’s a remarkable turnaround. As late as the 1970s, tourists were often heard to say that New Zealand was beautiful, but it appeared to be closed. Restaurants were rare; licensed ones even harder to find. During the weekends, very little was open.
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Food extended to overcooking all that beautiful lamb, and serving it with potatoes and vegetables with the life boiled out of them.
Since the 1980s, though, the country has changed markedly, and now the focus is on ingredients. “Despite New Zealand being small,” says food blogger, reviewer and comedian Jesse Mulligan (aucklandfoodblog.blogspot.com), “there's still a distinctive regionality to the food, which means the menus change subtly as you head down the country.
Fresh and seasonal
"Plump Clevedon oysters about Auckland, fragrant saffron-infusions in the Hawkes Bay, fresh blue cod in the deep south,” Mulligan continues.
Add to that duck and venison in the deep south; lamb, snapper and scallops in the north. It’s also highly seasonal -- and not just because that’s trendy right now.
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It’s because certain things grow at certain times of the year in New Zealand, and since the country is so remote, imported ingredients are expensive. Asparagus arrives in October and is gone by January; Oamaru jersey benneys are ready for Christmas and last until the end of the summer.
The scallop season starts in October and closes on March 31, while the Bluff oyster -- a wild oyster harvested from the freezing cold water around the bottom of the South Island that enjoys a cult status among serious New Zealand eaters -- opens in March and lasts until one million of them are sold, usually by the end of August.
This year, in honor of the Rugby World Cup, they held a few back.
Lamb is juvenile in spring, perfect for fast cooking or grilling, and bigger in winter, just when chefs want to cook it slowly.
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And at the same time, a very good wine industry has grown up: as well as the sauvignon blanc -- which goes very nicely with those Bluff oysters, just by the way -- the country produces European-ish rieslings and incisive chardonnays as well as savory reds -- syrah from Hawke’s Bay, pinot noir from Central Otago and the Wairarapa.
It all goes very, very nicely with all that produce.
The result? The best kitchens sport chefs with the good sense to not do much with the food. “I love the way New Zealand food has become less self-conscious,” says food writer Natalie Smith (eatherenow.co.nz) who rates buying two dozen oysters off the boat for NZ$20 (US$15) in the Far North as one of her best food experiences.
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“We're not trying to be French, or Italian, or English. We're embracing our wonderful produce and simple, relaxed food is the result.”
Increasingly, the best places to eat in New Zealand are casual and unpretentious -- in Auckland, for example, a big-budget fine-diner hasn't opened in four years.
Instead, the hottest tickets might not take bookings and they won’t cost the earth. Service is friendly rather than formal, but the wine lists are terrific. They treat their ingredients right and they know where they come from. It’s a winning combination.
The New Zealand restaurants you shouldn't miss
1. Coco’s Cantina
Loud, buzzing, inner-city bistro popular with hipsters in a gritty uptown area.
The steak and handcut chips has cult status. No bookings: be sure to arrive before 6.30 p.m. or you’ll wait a few hours.
376 Karangahape Road, Newton, Auckland; +64 9 300 7582; cocoscantina.co.nz
Chef Ben Bayly took over at Californian Michael Dearth’s inner-city Auckland institution three years ago and has made it his own.
Labor-intensive dishes appear light on the plate; old-fashioned cooking gets smart, but never pretentious -- as with the wild boar and confit hen’s egg, which takes up to 36 hours to cook.
St. Patrick’s Square, Wyndham Street, City, Auckland; +64 9 368 4129; thegroverestaurant.co.nz
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Hunter-gatherer celebrity chef Al Brown opened this place, all white tiles and industrial lighting, in August, and it’s already a firm favorite.
Freshly shucked oysters and clams from the raw bar meet slow-roasted pork hock meet pinot noir on tap, served in tumblers.
86 Federal St., Auckland; +64 9 363 7048; eatatdepot.co.nz
4. Black Barn Bistro
In a region filled with winery restaurants, Black Barn is the one you should head to: it’s deceptively simple, a plain room with wooden tables and off-white walls.
The food is brilliant and hearty but never pubby -- a slow-braised lamb shoulder, say, with smoked potato mash and wilted winter greens.
Black Barn Road, Havelock North; +64 6 877 7985; blackbarn.com
5. Martin Bosley’s Yacht Club
Bosley is legendary for his farmers’ market, hyper seasonality and two very beautiful books.
Delicate, impressive food -- Bosley treates oysters and seafood with beautiful respect -- but no matter how finicky, the ingredients are king. A great view too.
Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club, 103 Oriental Parade, Oriental Bay, Wellington; +64 4 920 8302. martin-bosley.com
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6. Logan Brown
Al Brown is still a partner in the Wellington fine diner he started with Steve Logan in a former bank on bohemian Cuba Street.
It’s smart but not pretentious: on the menu you might find paua, Waikanae crab and tuatua (surf clams).
192 Cuba St., Wellington; +64 4 801 5114; loganbrown.co.nz
An unpretentious bistro in a croft-like building just out of Queenstown.
Local ingredients, deftly and simply prepared -- the menu changes depending on what’s available, but whitebait and Cardrona Merino lamb are a highlight.
10 Lake Hayes Road, Queenstown; +64 3 442 0556; amisfield.co.nz
8. Boutereys at 251
The best restaurant in Nelson takes seasonal produce a step further: the chefs head out to work in the gardens four times a week.
It must give them an appreciation for the food, which is excellent -- we can’t go past the seared venison with artichoke crisps and braised red cabbage.
251 Queen St., Richmond, Nelson; +64 3 544 1114; boutereys.co.nz
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9. Riverstone Kitchen
Riverstone is everything a rural restaurant should be -- a high-ceilinged white room with a fireplace; the service is friendly but polished.
The food here is startlingly simple but very, very good: roast Mount Cook salmon, say, on local potatoes, served with winter spinach.
1431 State Highway 1, Oamaru; +64 3 431 3505; riverstonekitchen.co.nz
10. Fleurs Place
Even famed English food writer Rick Stein is a fan of this place, owned by Fleur Sullivan -- it looks like a fishing shack.
Seafood fresh off the boats is a specialty here: be sure to have the shellfish hotpot, using clams from Otago Harbour, local potatoes and wild spinach.
At the Old Jetty, Moeraki; +64 3 439 4480; fleursplace.com
Other places you should try:
The French Café (thefrenchcafe.co.nz) Newton, Auckland, for sophisticated dining in a beautiful room on a gritty uptown street.
Fishbone, Queenstown (fishbone.co.nz), a top-notch bistro specialising in South Island seafood with a daily changing menu.
Casita Miro, Waiheke Island (mirovineyard.co.nz). A small, rustic tapas restaurant on a vineyard: the house-made chorizo is a highlight.
Pegasus Bay (pegasusbay.com), another winery restaurant with a serious dedication to local produce.