Anna King Shahab takes a journey from southern charm to northern nous to seek out a lineup of special dining experiences
The luxury of dining out is these days measured less by ostentatious ingredients flown in from far-flung corners of the world, and more by the level of care and attention that has gone into creating a rounded experience for you, the diner. Fitting out the space, selecting the ingredients and preparing them, nailing service that walks a delicate balance, and leaving you with an overall impression of wanting to relive the experience in your dreams that very night. Eating amazing food without leaving a big environmental footprint in the act, discovering new and diverse ingredients, and learning the background story to what's on your plate are key points in today's definition of luxury dining.
A heritage building in Dunedin's blossoming warehouse district is home to petite Moiety, where chef Sam Gasson blends French and Japanese techniques and calls on the best of Southern produce. Meanwhile, one of the first restaurants in the country to employ a dedicated foraging expert (the esteemed Peter Langlands), Amisfield Bistro, with chef Vaughan Mabee at the helm, was a pioneer in the now-popular focus on hyperlocal ingredients. Mabee uses them to take diners on a time and place-specific taste journey that has been elevated further with Tony Stewart (ex-Clooney in Auckland) joining the team as director of food and beverage. Stewart explains that as well as the signature tasting-menu experience, "A more casual bar food offering has been a focus of mine, to bring balance to our offering."
Wānaka's Ode describes its purpose as "conscious dining", and you can choose your journey: from a three-course to an eight-course menu, with options for plant-based or wild-shot game and kaimoana from exemplary fishing folk Gravity, and a chef's table add-on.
Ultra-fresh seafood is a rare luxury these days, and the best place in the country to indulge in it is Fleur's Place in Moeraki. Further up the line in Christchurch, seafood fans will love Kinji, where humble surroundings frame chef Kinji Hamada's work-of-art sashimi. At Gatherings, you're made to feel pampered not by tweezer-arranged garnishes, but by a bounty of sustainably sourced seafood and organic vegetables served up sharing-style. At elegant Inati, you'll select dishes from Earth, Land and Sea – or opt to trust the chef – and get stuck into a wine list that boasts a lineup rich in picks from the North Canterbury wine region.
Luxury will always exist but the definition has changed since lockdown
Banks Peninsula-based Craig Martin is executive chef at Annandale, but with Covid-19 rendering things quiet for many such luxury lodges, he's set up private chef offering Native Kitchen – check it out on Facebook along with the burgeoning group "Uniquely New Zealand Food & Beverage", which Martin founded as a platform for our amazing producers.
Chef and founder of Eat New Zealand Giulio Sturla said goodbye to his groundbreaking Lyttelton restaurant Roots last year, but rising from its ashes, in the former test kitchen, he has just launched Mapu. Sturla cooks and serves a maximum of six guests, and prices vary according to the ingredients. Luxury, he says, will always exist but the definition has changed since lockdown. "It has to be transparent", he explains, "People want to know what they're paying for … but ultimately, dining will be better than before – after two months inside, people know the price of food and they're getting pretty good at cooking. They want an elevated experience, but they also want to feel comfortable and safe."
Nestled in the country's largest winegrowing region, Arbour in Blenheim has a rapport with the myriad local winemakers and food producers which, along with the warm welcome and discretely impeccable service led by Liz Buttimore, sets it apart. "I know who keeps what secret wine where", she promises – so expect very cool wine pairings to chef and co-owner Brad Hornby's elegant, yet never tortured, food. Order his "The Many" menu for lots of thrilling creations with local delicacies like black garlic and surf clams.
Since the opening of Hiakai in 2019, owner and chef Monique Fiso has wowed Wellington diners with graceful, boundary-pushing food that comes from, and talks about, Te Ao Māori. Monique and her team immerse themselves in learning about traditional Māori ingredients (also touching on rongoā – medicinal elements), then in applying modern techniques to make those ingredients sing in fascinating ways.
No matter the time of year, taking a seat at Craggy Range under the jagged peak of Te Mata sets the scene for a memorable dining experience. With a climate that paints clearly defined seasons, Hawke's Bay produce sings on the plate under chef Casey McDonald's watch. Somehow, Franckie Godinho of Hawke's Bay restaurant St Georges manages to plant out from seed, and tend to, two large, onsite, organic and biodynamic gardens – oh, and to take his produce right through to finished dishes – he's also the chef. Godinho, who has cooked at Dubai's Burj al Arab, offers a different shade of luxury at St George, with an a la carte or a six-course tasting menu supplied by the backyard. His wife, operations manager Kathryn Godinho explains that in his upbringing, on a farm in Goa, "there was no such thing as convenience", and that concept remains at the heart of her husband's approach.
In Auckland, the surname Sahrawat is synonymous with seamless dining experiences, thanks to chef Sid and his wife and business partner Chand. Sid at the French Cafe retains its refined approach while now embracing a hyperlocal ethos, working with urban garden OMG across the road, sourcing produce and putting kitchen scraps back into the cycle. Make time for drinks there: "Our new cocktail menu by bar manager Roberto Giampaolo", entices Chand Sahrawat, "features innovative techniques and interesting ingredients such as butterfly pea tea, pandan cordial, red shiso juice and a date balsamic cordial".
At Sidart, the brief is "progressive Indian cuisine": elegant tasting dishes imbued with elements from Sahrawat's Indian background, with everything but the spices sourced in New Zealand. His wife highlights a new dish on the menu: pork shoulder and belly cooked overnight in vindaloo spices, then pressed and fried into a mouthful snack with an emulsion made from vindaloo oil. Now's a great time to book into these two Auckland aces – firstly because they have slightly lowered the prices of tasting menus to reflect the current economic climate, and secondly because our NZ truffle season is approaching and they'll feature on the menus at both restaurants.
Across town in Ponsonby, the Signature Course menu at Cocoro – featuring chef Makoto Tokuyama's thrillingly presented "tsukiri" sashimi platter – has long reigned as one of the most luxurious dining experiences in the country. And at Herne Bay's Paris Butter, chef Nick Honeyman has cleverly merged his years of fine-dining experience with a fun side: expect refined food with a vibrant atmosphere; check out their Friday long lunch and winter series of collab dinners with other leading chefs from around the country.
And if push-the-envelope eating is what you seek, secure a seat (there are only six) at the counter at Parnell's Pasture, and watch as chef Ed Verner prepares dishes in front of you – some featuring ingredients that have been fermented or aged for months, some treated simply and cooked on the fire, revealing surprise after surprise in taste and texture.
Tips on making magic with drinks pairings, by Sid at The French Cafe sommelier Hiro Kawahara.
I personally prefer matching white wine with colder meals and red wine with warmer meals. Of course, if you happen to order piping-hot fried chicken, then icy-cold beer would also be a great match.
When you drink several glasses of different wines, progress from lighter ones, to heavier, and similarly from less tannin to more tannin. Generally speaking, it is hard to taste a light-bodied wine after a heavy-bodied one.
Consider the past and the future
If you are not opting for a paired match from the menu, then thinking about what dishes and drinks you've already had, and what you're going to be eating next, is important.
Consider more than wine
As cuisine has diversified, so have beverages – both alcoholic and without alcohol.
Consider your taste buds
Please follow your preference. We enjoy ourselves most when we drink what we like to drink. There are a number of ways food and drinks can match together, and there are not many bad pairings. Please do not be afraid, and simply focus on enjoying the meal, drink, and time spent. Consult with a sommelier; ask us whether the pairing in your mind matches or not, for example – we should be able to offer more options to choose from.
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