Simple Kiwi food cooked to perfection has earned "wild chef" Al Brown the title restaurateur of the year.
And Brown's restaurant, Depot Eatery & Oyster Bar in Auckland, won best new restaurant, best casual bistro, as well as the supreme award at the Metro Audi Restaurant of the Year Awards in Auckland last night.
Brown is a well-known face in the food industry, fronting up on TV series Hunger for the Wild as well as being the co-owner of respected Logan Brown Restaurant & Bar in Wellington.
He admits he was a bit intimidated relocating from Wellington to Auckland eight months ago, but stuck to his vision of creating a casual, Kiwi dining experience, and it paid off.
"We were taking a little bit of risk with what we wanted to do - I am from a fine dining background but I wanted attack the casual market," he said.
"What I guess Depot has done is reinforce that we are more casual [in NZ] than anything else, but we still like to do things well.
"The Depot offering is very Kiwi, it's shellfish, it's fresh, its cooked over charcoal and wood. As Kiwis, that's what we do.
"[At Depot we want to] celebrate and recognise who we are and what we do and for people to come and have a NZ experience without experience a white white table cloth.
"It's a huge accolade."
Judge and Metro magazine editor Simon Wilson says Depot has changed the dining scene.
"We're getting more casual and Depot leads the charge here, providing a great dining experience in a relaxed atmosphere and some of the fine dining restaurants are getting more casual in response.
"Al has taken Kiwi cuisine and shown just how well it can work in a restaurant. The New Zealand-ness of his menu contrasts sharply with many other restaurants and that's a great thing. He's shown us that the food we all love to eat on the beach or around the barbecue can be cooked so well that it's great to eat in a restaurant too.
"Lots of chefs say they do this kind of thing, but no one understands it or does it as well as Depot. The simplicity of it is often the best part."
The Depot website tells of Brown's attitude towards food: "In season, beautifully cooked, to be enjoyed with friends."
It says most of the food served at the restaurant is cooked over charcoal or hard wood, making for more succulent and flavourful dishes.
Restaurant Personality of the Year - the only category decided by public vote - was won by newcomer Ganesh Raj of Kumeu's The Tasting Shed.
And best dish went to the fish soup at Roxy with the judges describing it as "simply a joy".
"It doesn't look like fish soup, but chef Sean Marshall's superbly cooked fish and shellfish, served with a cold jellied bouillabaisse, is a taste revelation."
The awards are judged by a panel of 12 experienced food industry folk - a combination of critics and professionals. The bookings are normally made under false names, the visits are not announced and all meals are paid for.
According to Wilson, the key question in judging is "How much do we want to come back?".
"Competition is fierce right now with new venues opening up, it seems, each week. The judging process is rigorous - it doesn't matter who you know, if the restaurant doesn't stack up, it won't make the grade."
Judges were impressed by a resurgence of traditional and classic foods on menus.
"The fashion for local and homemade - freshly shucked oysters, home-smoked flavours, heirloom tomatoes - is catching and nostalgic. Depot is a leader in this trend, and so, in a fine-dining way, are some of the upmarket places like Merediths and Clooney."
Supreme winner Depot Eatery & Oyster Bar
Best casual bistro Depot Eatery & Oyster Bar
Runner-up Coco's Cantina
Audi progressive restaurateur of the year Al Brown, Depot Eatery & Oyster Bar
Runner-up Sid Sahrawat (SIDART)
Best chef Michael Meredith (Meredith's)
Best service The French Café
Runner-up Coco's Cantina
Best dish Fish soup at Roxy
Best drinks list The French Café
Runner-up O'Connell St Bistro
Best short drinks list Cocoro
Restaurant personality of the year Ganesh Raj, The Tasting Shed
Best new restaurant Depot Eatery & Oyster Bar
- NZ HERALD/HERALD ONLINE