An Utterly Transcendent Food + Wine Tour of New Zealand’s North Island, Part II
On our recent epicurean visit to New Zealand, we ate and drank our way across the North Island landscape to rapturous effect. Truly, the level of excellence we encountered could hardly be conveyed.
Part I of the story detailed our time in Auckland and Waiheke Island. The second half of the trip took us to Wellington and Hawkes Bay.
If, as we exclaimed within our first hours of arriving in Auckland, Seattle is the American city that most comes to mind when taking in the curved harbor and overcast skies of NZ’s largest town, then Wellington, the country’s capital, is its Portland. Also situated on the banks of an expansive body of water – in this case Wellington Harbour – it exudes a more streetwise and bohemian vibe than its cosmopolitan northern sister; and as such, the food and wine offerings took us down a more adventurous road.
Our digs for the night were the hip QT Museum Wellington, and on our first evening there we took shelter from the rain and wind – the town has actually been dubbed the windiest city on Earth – at their opulent Hippopotamus bar and restaurant. Situated on an upper floor with views of the harbor, the dazzling space, with its mirrored bar, gold chandeliers, stuffed peacock, and Louis-the-something style armchairs sort of transported us to the Ancien Regime era; we may or may not have ordered absinthe. While the dinner menu leaned traditionally French, with escargots, lamb rump, braised Wakanui beef cheeks, and gratin dauphinois dominating, we were excited to see they had vegan options, and opted for the simple and delicious salade végétalienne of quinoa, pinenuts, goji berries & baby spinach – along with an impressive bottle of NZ Pinot.
QT Museum Wellington
The following morning we set out to explore downtown, and were met with further evidence of the city’s mind-meld with the Pacific Northwest: its obsession with coffee. Our meeting with John, the manager and bean specialist of Mojo Coffee, had us inundated with more information on the various ways one can make, drink, and basically live a caffeinated existence than we would ever have thought existed. That the company has over 30 outlets in a city of 400K (two thirds the size of Portland) was testament to the populations’ serious caffeine jones.
A charming development in downtown Wellington has been the refurbishment of various alleyways into colorful and art infused ‘laneways.’ As traversing these walkways between streets is a great way to navigate the city, having them splashed with color and street art has brought the crowds; bars and restaurants have naturally flourished.
It was in one such vestibule that we found the perfect lunch spot in Egmont St Eatery, a light-filled modern café packed with well-dressed millennials and hipsters on laptops; as does Brooklyn and Portland, so does Wellington, apparently. The menu was a delight and we tried the fried fish tortilla with avocado mousse, cabbage, and horopito sauce, and braised paua with dirty rice, shiitake, and crispy shallots.
That evening, following an afternoon exploring the downtown shops, and then a drive into the hills to the very cool Zealandia bird sanctuary, we hit another hip laneway for dinner at the excellent Shepherd – which had us wondering if we were ever to have a questionable dining experience in NZ. Our feast of fried rice with kale, ginger, kimchi, sesame, peanuts, and fried egg and sous vide fish with miso glaze, carrot, ginger, turmeric, and saffron aioli left us in genuine epicurean contentment.
For our final stop on our week-long tour, we took a 55-minute flight northeast of Wellington to the serene vineyard-and-animal-sanctuary-studded region of Hawkes Bay. Distinctly Mediterranean in look and feel, and with the best weather we encountered on our trip, HB was where the enormity of NZ’s Tolkien-like terrain was most apparent.
Lunch at Elephant Hill Winery was our first order of business, and after a delightful tour of the place with CEO Andreas Weiss, we settled in to an elegant repast of oysters and grilled game fish, squid, nam jim, bok choy, fried shallots, and pineapple, accompanied by an 2016 Elephant Hill rosé; Hawkes Bay was quick to show us its sophisticated side.
The history of HB and its largest city Napier is punctuated by a devastating event; in 1931 a cataclysmic earthquake not only leveled much of the town, but raised the land as much as eight feet, adding close to ten thousand acres of newly dry land to the area. Napier was rebuilt in the style of the time, namely art deco; and while many buildings have been subsequently remodeled, the place remains one of the most intact deco towns in the world.
It was along this quaint pastel backdrop that we strolled on our first evening, eventually alighting for dinner at the thoroughly 21st Century restaurant Bistronomy. Chef James Beck guided us through the menu, which verged on the molecular, without being too ionospherey (Parks & Recreation reference). Sections named Protein, Raw, and Minerals sounded more daunting than they were – our grilled flounder with beetroot & horseradish hollandaise was pretty much as advertised, and wonderful, while the chocolate brownie with lavender, sour mousse, and condensed milk sorbet, while equally amazing, did actually verge on the surreal.
The following day had us up and out of our rooms at the charming art deco (natch) Masonic Hotel, for a tour of the town, which culminated in lunch at Mister D. To say that this writer is a Rolling Stones fan would be to dredge up that annoying trope about the Pope and Catholicism; we were thusly thrilled that the restaurant was named for their song “Dancing With Mister D” – they even throw annual Stones-themed dining events. Having thus decided this was the best restaurant on Earth, we almost forgot about the food. But we were delighted with their novel takes on the basics: rocket salad, roast fish, poached eggs and the like were all treated with reverence and a touch of whimsy – and their signature doughnuts were a huge hit.
On our last evening on the island we were treated to the most opulent epicurean experience of the trip, in the form of a progressive dinner. For the uninitiated a “progressive” is where you go to a different restaurant for each course, which may sound like a bit of work; but when the places you go are all highly-regarded wineries – and you’re ferried around in an SUV by a bloke named Gareth who keeps filling your champagne glass – you easily rise to the challenge.
We started with bubbly at the top of a mountain range and progressed through antipasto at Vidal, entrees of Te Mata mushroom and Comté pithivier with wild weed salad and Hohepa haloumi, vine roasted beetroot and burnt honey at Craggy Range’s Terroir restaurant, all accompanied by signature selections of vino, before succumbing to dessert at NZ’s oldest winery, Mission Estate. Established in 1851 by French missionaries, the estate is in the grand tradition of mansion wineries, with a plantation style great house with wraparound terrace, where we took our crème brulee and port, for a final look at the cascading mountains in the distance. It was not the first time we’d thought of postponing our flight home.