It's been a long time between drinks and chargrilled quail. Auckland is celebrating the return of the restaurant and hospitality businesses are open for sit-down dining for the first time in more than 100 days. What to choose? Where to go? Restaurant critic Kim Knight asked the city's chefs to pick their favourite dish from their post-lockdown menus. Get ready to salivate in alphabetical order.
Alma (Britomart): Lamb, yoghurt and zhoug, $40
"Summer is coming to our menu," says general manager Natasha Parkinson. "And during lockdown, head chef Jo Pearson got to work!" The new dish is a nod to Moroccan tagine and the lamb - from fourth-generation Southland farmers - gets three hours in the hearth.
Alta (Karangahape Rd): Nasturtium taco with nasturtium capers, flowers, fresh radish and radish top sauce, $80pp as part of a four-course set menu
"I planted a garden at Alta and when we went into lockdown I spent every day there," says Georgia van Prehn, chef and owner. She grew nasturtium (taking the flowers for a vinegar which was used to pickle the plant's capers) and radish - "black radish, watermelon radish, anything you can't buy in the store . . . it tastes like a refreshing bite I think we all need right now."
Andiamo (Jervois Rd): Milk-fed lamb, almond agliata, parsley and lemon, $42
Many restaurants lost an entire season's menu planning when the winter lockdown dragged through spring and into summer. "This dish was originally created for our spring menu," says executive chef Gareth Stewart. "Unfortunately our guests never got the chance to try it. Milk-fed lamb is unbelievably tender. We slow roast the leg and shoulder to create a contrast of flavours and textures. There's a touch of 'fine dining' to this dish and at the team tasting we decided we could not miss this one off the summer menu."
Bar Magda: Lamb ribs piyanggang, green sambal, soft herbs, $28
Chef Carlo Buenaventura's new restaurant had only been open a few weeks before lockdown hit and this dish was an early favourite, "inspired by southern Philippine cuisine, cooked over coals and then fused with Aotearoa's seasonal bounty - the best representation of this space; elegant and moreish."
Blue Breeze Inn (Ponsonby): Betel leaf with West Coast whitebait, crab, green papaya and ginger, topped with chilli sprinkles and calamansi, $9
"I love whitebait," says head chef Che Barrington. "But unlike in Asia where you can get it all year round, here the season is short and sweet - perfect timing for Christmas."
Burger Burger (Newmarket, Ponsonby, Commercial Bay and Takapuna): Mexicana summer burger stacked with chipotle fried chicken, guacamole, corn chips, cheddar, cos lettuce, jalapeno, corn and black bean salsa, green aioli, tom jam and Swiss cheese, $19
"This is the third summer we've brought this much-loved boiger back," says owner Mimi Gilmour. "It's fresh, spicy and gives you all the festive feels we all need so much right now!"
Cassia (Fort Lane): Bay leaf, berries and vanilla, $22
"With us now reopening in Summer we wanted to make the most of fresh summer berries," says chef Sid Sahrawat. "Bay leaf icecream and tuile, caramelised white chocolate and vanilla cream add sweetness."
Cazador (Dominion Rd): The Cazador Feast, including lockdown-cured charcuterie, heritage tomato consomme, chargrilled quail and oloroso, radicchio, radish, orange and Persian Mess, $95pp
Co-owner Rebecca Schmidt says it's "a return to indulgence - the champagne and sherry are on ice, the beers are cold, the garden is in bloom and we are ready!".
Cibo (Saint Georges Bay Rd): Butter poached New Zealand crayfish, compressed watermelon, cashew and coconut cream, chilli oil and crispy shallots, Market price
Kate Fay has been head chef since 1999 and, every summer, she creates a new local crayfish dish. "This one," says owner Jeremy Turner, "is just gorgeous - biased of course!"
Copia (Ōrākei Rd): Duck breast, compressed endive, bbq tamarillo, butternut squash puree, sour cherry and orange syrup, $39
Chef Ken O'Connell says "when guests are calling to book, they're reminiscing about what they have previously had, and this was one of our most popular".
Cotto (Karangahape Rd): Ravioli cacio e pepe with asparagus and broad beans, $22
"This represents the straightforward simple flavourful food of Cotto with an emphasis on fresh vegetables, pasta - and butter! Plus, I love getting Auckland to eat more vegetarian food," says chef John Poutney.
Depot Oyster Bar & Eatery (Federal St): Tuatua fritters with egg and gherkin mayo, $18
"Tuatua fritters will be making a play on Day One," says chef Al Brown. "I'm a massive fan of the humble fritter. Pāua, mussel, corn, zucchini, smoked fish . . . nearly anything can be turned into the form of a fritter. Even the word itself pleases or makes people happy."
East (Nelson St): Cheung fun rice noodle rolls, crispy net, mushroom, radish, XO sauce, $19
Developed for Auckland Restaurant Month, this dish was a customer hit, says head chef Harmeet Singh Nanda. And then lockdown struck. "People really missed out as the event was cut short, so we've decided to bring it back."
Forest (Symonds St): Salted coconut canele icecream with rum caramel, melon and coffee, $65 as part of a three-course set menu
This plant-based restaurant operated as an icecream shop for the last few weeks of lockdown and chef-owner Plabita Florence says this was a customer favourite. "And ours too! Lush vanilla coconut custard on a base of aggressively caramelised sugar, topped with a gloopy dark rum and sea salt caramel, to emulate the telltale flavours of the perfect canele. It's on our first menu back because it feels like just the right balance of simple while still being whimsical and decadent. We've all been stuck in lockdown for so long it feels important that we all get to enjoy this time as much as we can."
Ghost Street (Britomart): Cold shredded potato, fresh garlic, black vinegar, soy, and Sichuan chilli oil, $8.50
"This is a classic Sichuan side salad," says co-owner Tony McGeorge. "It's a humble dish that's famous because it tastes so good."
Gochu (Commercial Bay): Milk bun with pork and kimchi and beurre blanc, $14
"This is a dish we've served since day one and love," says co-owner Oliver Simon. "It's the perfect expression of Gochu - refined but pretty naughty at the same time. We can't wait to have customers back in eating it their way - dip the sauce, pour the sauce, drink the sauce!"
Go Go Daddy (Ponsonby Central): Ma Hor - caramelised pork, prawn and chicken with mandarin, coriander, lime leaf and peanut, $16 (four pieces)
Head chef Che Barrington says this is a traditional Thai canape, literally meaning "galloping horses" - in which the horses are the citrus fruit and the meat their riders. "The heat comes from white pepper, which was used for a touch of fire before chilli was introduced to the country."
Green Door Pizza (Commercial Bay): Pepperoni Pizza, $6 a slice or $32 for the whole pie
A brand new post-lockdown restaurant, co-owner Oliver Simon says, "We can't think of a better expression of pizza than pepperoni. Oily cups of pepperoni with a hint of spice. Chewy, stretchy cheese blend, all topped with parmesan on a crisp sourdough base."
Homeland (Westhaven Dr): Sesame miso roast eggplant, tahini yoghurt, green papaya, apple, chilli, Vietnamese mint, lemongrass and coconut, $24Chef Peter Gordon has been slow-roasting eggplant for more than three decades. This iteration, which includes miso made in Nelson and yoghurt made in Raglan "brings together all we hope to achieve at Homeland - powerful, tradeable, sustainable kai from Aotearoa and the Pacific. Local product wherever possible."
Hugo's Bistro (Shortland St): Squid ink flatbread, crayfish, green chilli and seaweed butter, $32
DIY flatbread kits were "born out of necessity" during lockdown, says restaurant manager Sophie Beaton. They sold out every week and now the most popular version is back for opening week - with a luxe crayfish spin courtesy of Tora Collective. "We're all craving those special ingredients we may not have been able to use at home," says Beaton. The crays are caught to order and the dish is smothered with a mayo made from the shells.
Inca (Newmarket): Kingfish nikkei sashimi, charred cucumber, Szechuan oil and garlic chips, $24
According to chef Nic Watt, "this is a perfect summer dish, full of bright vibrant flavours. It showcases the freshness and complexity of Nikkei cuisines."
Jervois Steak House (Jervois Rd): Duck and Waffles - duck liver parfait, croissant waffles, roasted grapes, vincotto, $26
"We wanted to create something luxurious and different for our guests coming out of lockdown," says Gareth Stewart, executive chef. "Everybody deserves a treat right now. We press buttery croissants in a waffle iron and they melt in your mouth with lashings of the rich and creamy duck parfait – a perfect starter."
Kingi (Britomart): Seafood pappardelle, crayfish, arrow squid, octopus and diamond shell clams, $35
"I created this dish after heading out west for a dive over lockdown," says chef and owner Tom Hishon. "I love the intensity and depth that the crayfish body gives to the bisque - in my eyes, this is the taste of a truly New Zealand summer."
La Fuente (Customs St East): Beef skirt, octopus head gravy, oca and bay leaf, $32
Head chef Javier Carmona says this dish was inspired by a move to zero kitchen waste. "During level 3 takeaways, we had some excess octopus heads from a dish we were doing and some fish heads and frames that we had hanging over fire. I wanted to create a demi-glace sauce and see how the flavour travelled . . . I was surprised at the depth and body that the octopus gave the sauce, but it still felt quite clean. Perfect with beef finished over charcoal."
Le Chef (O'Connell St): Gravalax de Saumon, $23.50
"It's melting in the mouth," declares owner Edouard Legoff. "Bluff salmon fillet, cured 48 hours in our chef's secret ingredients . . ."
Nanam Eatery (Hurstmere Rd, Takapuna): Sinuglaw of tuna, aka quick-grilled tuna ceviche, $18
"This dish talks a lot about what we have gone through," says head chef Jess Granada. "Lockdown, when we made our own vinegar from scratch. Tuna, representing strength and migration for us - and missing the bluefin tuna back home that comes fresh from the boats in the morning. And real summer, and a new beginning, with a dish that reflects Filipinos' fresh palate and our restaurant that's a two-minute walk from the beach."
Non Solo Pizza (Parnell): Kingfish crudo and baby mozzarella with smoked chilli flakes, rosemary grissini, pea shoots and lemon, $28
"This is a dish that we had prepared pre-lockdown," says chef Chris Rendell. "The unlikely combination of the Kingfish & the marinated mozzarella work incredibly well. Unfortunately it had to wait a while to make it to the menu!"
Ostro (Britomart): Ballotine of turkey breast with prosciutto, pistachio, cranberry, bread sauce, potato gratin, and baby carrot, $75 as part of a two-course lunch menu
With just three weeks to go before Christmas, chef Josh Shields decided to go traditional with his reopening menu. "Turkey is not a common find on New Zealand menus so we have taken the opportunity to make it one to remember."
Pasture (Parnell Rd): Carpaccio of squash blossoms and pumpkin, as part of the $325pp tasting menu
Chef Ed Verner says lockdown gave his team time to reset and regroup. "We work with flowers a lot at Pasture but always make sure that they serve a purpose on a dish, flavour-wise, and aren't just there to garnish. This time, we wanted to make the flowers the entire focus. Courgette flowers are very delicate and have a very lovely mild flavour so it was a fun challenge to create something that showed off their flavour and didn't feel gimicky. We've used several techniques to elevate this dish, but we didn't want the diner to be able to tell - and we wanted to give them something truly special after having to be closed for so long. This dish is one example of how far this team has come together, creatively."
Phil's Kitchen (New North Rd): New Zealand crayfish, bisque, cream leek, capers, kelp and caviar, $33 entree
"This dish reminds me of a Coromandel rock pool," says chef Phil Clark. "I absolutely love the richness of the bisque with the popping textures of the caviar, with the sweet flavours of the crayfish."
Pici (St Kevin's Arcade): Rigatoni with pistachio basil pesto, $20
The Pici preference to geographically pair wine and food comes to the fore in this dish, says co-owner Gemma Harab. Pistachios that are particularly abundant in the town of Bronte, in the region of Catania - and two of the natural wines on the reopening menu are made with grapes from the same region, grown on the slopes of Mount Etna.
Sidart (Ponsonby Rd): Spring lamb with peas, morels, sorrel and cultured cream, on the tasting menu, from $145pp
"This reminds me of my time in Europe," says chef and new owner Lesley Chandra. "The spring peas, our cultured cream made by a French cheesemaker named Annabelle, who is based on the North Shore, and there's a hint of mushroom korma in the sauce. This was something I wanted to eat during lockdown, so I've refined it and now it's on the menu."
Sid at the French Cafe (Symonds St): Scampi poached in brown butter, pancetta XO, white asparagus and green strawberry, $125 as part of the three-course a la carte menu
"We change our menus seasonally and both white asparagus and green strawberries are available for a very short time," says chef Sid Sahrawat. "We've matched these ingredients with fresh scampi from Blenheim, and the XO dressing made from pancetta, prawns and scallops adds texture, spice and umami."
Smokin' Cole BBQ (Surrey Cres): Smoked cauli, cherry toms, avo and pistachios dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, $15 On the day lockdown was announced, chef Croydon Cole had just smoked a tonne of cauli for his restaurant's popular truffle cauli and cheese. "I vac-packed it and took some home with other perishables. There was a glut of cheap avocados and I've always got nuts in the pantry . . . It was a warm, sunny day and my team and I were brainstorming over lunch how to keep afloat under level 4 restrictions. I threw together what was handy, which turned out to be this delicious smoky, crunchy fresh cauli salad that's now making its first menu appearance - an unlikely dish for a BBQ joint!"
Soul Bar & Bistro (Viaduct): Roast hāpuka, cauliflower, almond, golden raisin and curry mayo, $41
During lockdown, executive chef Gavin Doyle started playing around with one of his home-cooked favourites - and now his curried mussels and cod have had a restaurant makeover, with hāpuka and cauliflower in the starring roles.
Stanley Avenue (East Coast Rd, Milford): Brined half chicken, kūmara and pale ale gravy ($37)
Canadian chef Roberta Young perfects the classic American beer can chicken. Brining the organic Bostock bird for 24 hours and cooking it on the plancha under a brick weight, "it takes the texture and flavour of the humble chicken to the next level".
The Engine Room (Queen St, Northcote Point): Snapper crudo, cucumber, sorrel, apple and creme fraiche, $25 entree
"We always offer a crudo dish," says co-owner Natalia Schamroth. "However, this one has been inspired by the stunning sorrel grown in our very own garden." She says the textures and flavours are "the epitome of summer".
The Sugar Club (Sky Tower): Duck breast cured in Piha sea kelp, $80pp as part of a two-course menu
Chef Abhijit Dey foraged from Piha for the seaweed that he used to cure Cambridge-raised duck breast and then added a rich puree of beetroot and Marlborough black garlic. He says "this dish combines ocean and land to produce a dish with beautiful flavour and passion for the gifts nature provides us in Aotearoa".
Vivace (Fort St): Golden kūmara gnocchi with herb-roasted chicken and creamy sundried tomato, $36
"This came on the menu when we opened in 1992 and has never left," says owner Mandy Lusk. "It was actually a mistake from a recipe that wasn't followed but was a hit from the start. We have some customers who have been dining here for decades who eat only this dish and still email to check if it's on the menu before they book."