Review: Mokoia Restaurant, Rotorua

By Peter Calder

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Herald on Sunday Rating: 3/5
Address: Wai Ora Lakeside Resort, Holdens Bay
Ph: (07) 343 5100
Website: mokoiarestaurant.co.nz

To look at the Wai Ora Spa Resort is reminiscent of the 1950s. Photo / Jessica Kate Williamson
To look at the Wai Ora Spa Resort is reminiscent of the 1950s. Photo / Jessica Kate Williamson

In the game called Googlewhack the aim is to do a two-word Google search that will produce a solitary result. "Fetishized armadillo" and "panfish interrogation" were once successful - although the phrases are now famous and return 64,700 and 10,600 results respectively.

"Calder irresistible" gets 13.6 million hits, which is about what you'd expect. Just saying. But if there were any logic to this process, the words "good restaurants in Rotorua" would return no results at all.

I exaggerate, of course, but only slightly. The Professor and I make annual visits to the Sulphur City to take the waters and, despite diligent searching, we have never had a truly memorable meal.

Capers Epicurean, which seems to have cloned Zarbo in Newmarket, is excellent, but in "Eat Street" at the lake end of Tutanekai, I felt tired just looking at the menus. (We have not tried the Chinese place that calls itself the New Zealand Supreme Gourmet House).

Mokoia is the name of the island in the middle of the lake, to which Hinemoa swam to her illicit assignation with Tutanekai. Mokoia Restaurant isn't on the island, although it has a very good view of it. It's just off the Te Ngae Rd at Holdens Bay, and part of the lakefront Wai Ora Spa Resort, which was, to judge by the old black-and-white photographs about the place, the height of luxury in the 1950s.

The Prof and I, who had taken an "Easter package", wandered from room to spa and back in white bathrobes, trying to avoid mirrors in case we saw how ridiculous we looked. I flicked through the Sky channels to remind myself why I have never become a subscriber.

I'd booked into the restaurant for our second night, but we couldn't summon up the energy to go into town for dinner on night one. We settled on a main course each and were most impressed. I had a beautifully roasted poussin, redolent of five spice and served atop fragrant rice in a miso broth; the Professor, who may always be relied upon to be carnivorously disinclined, said a vegetarian filo parcel hit the spot just fine.

So we were in a very good frame of mind when we sat down the next evening in our official capacities. Perhaps we were less hungry than we had been on the previous evening or just fussier, but the traces of minor magic had gone.

We tried a loaf of rewana bread - the waiter solemnly assured us it was cooked in a hangi, which would be some achievement if it were possible. It was a bit textureless and the promised garlic butter was missing. But our entree platter, a selection of three for the indecisive, arrived and it seemed pointless to complain.

Most, if not all, of the three entrees, the two main courses and the two desserts that followed were topped with a bread stick. These things, which the Italians call grissini and put in the centre of the table, are all right if you're a bit peckish when you're having a beer, but as a grace note in a fine-dining restaurant they don't really cut it.

The thing is that the food didn't really need adornment. It was good - if several notches short of great - all on its own. It seems to me that the quantity of seafood on the menu was a mistake at a resort so far from the coast: that entree platter included a lovely broth infused with fennel and saffron and containing a raviolo of paua (which had presumably been frozen); a plate of scampi and mussels; and another of tiger prawns and scallops of Atlantic origin. A place in the middle of hunting and fishing territory should be more imaginative.

Mains of lamb rack and fish in a shiitake broth were perfectly fine, although the convex-edged plate the lamb came on deposited my knife and fork in my lap with tiresome regularity. The desserts - plainly not house-made - were a pav and meringue sticks with some odious jam and not rescued by the bread sticks. My advice is to pass on pudding.

And do let me know if you find an exceptional restaurant in Rotovegas.

Need to know

Value: $$$

$ = $20-$40; $$ = 40-60; $$$ = $60+.
(Price guide reflects three courses for one person without drinks)

Also try

Le Manoir at Hamurana Lodge, near Ngongotaha, has good user reviews.

- Herald on Sunday

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