We have among us experts who make dining sublime, writes Anna King Shahab
When circumstance calls for a celebration – of a life event, of whānau and friends, or simply of life and of delicious food in general – there are certain dining establishments up and down the country that have your back.
The definition of fine dining has shifted away from ostentatious ingredients flown in from afar and handled by a kitchen full of chefs standing to rank. Nowadays, the level of care and attention that goes into creating a special experience is a multi-layered thing: there's the design of the space, the sourcing of ingredients, polished but unfussy service. Special can mean enjoying wonderful food without leaving a big carbon footprint in the act, discovering fascinating new ingredients, and being given a learned insight into the people and environments that have created what's on the plate.
Here are just some of our favourites, so you can eat your way around the country starting south and working your way up.
High on the hill on Rakiura Stewart Island, Church Hill Restaurant boasts views of the bay, and outer islands. The island is famous for its seafood and it's well highlighted on the menu here. The restaurant reopens in October after a winter hibernation.
Dunedin's Moiety's "feed me" style menu will surprise and delight with interesting flavour and texture combinations. Don't miss the famous duck liver pate.
With a beguiling view out over wild St Clair beach, Tītī is an elegant refuge. Thoughtful food is prepared by chef Hannes Bareiter, whose partner Mel Hartman heads up front of house and curates the interesting wine list, which she changes every few months. Dinner is a five or seven-course, trust-the-chef experience, with emphasis on sustainably produced and sourced ingredients, including delightfully fresh fruit and vegetables from Otago Peninsula organic grower Annelies Ruigrok.
Chefs Vaughan Mabee and Matthieu Lagarde work side by side to define Aotearoa cuisine from the kitchen at Amisfield Restaurant. Whether you're visiting for lunch or for dinner, the degustation menu is the way to go, showcasing the incredible produce the restaurant's fishers, hunters, and foragers source within a 250km radius. Dishes read like poetry – case in point a recent creation of "Dry-aged albacore, warmed in tītī fat, wild pollen, and tuna bone lacquer" – and look like works of art. The restaurant has its own dry-age room nurturing, among things, Spanish-style hams aged for several years.
Arrowtown's Aosta takes inspiration from the geographical similarity between Central Otago and the Aosta region in Northern Italy. The kitchen pairs cooking techniques from the northern counterpart with ingredients sourced from its southern sister. Whatever else you order, make sure you save room for dessert – the current menu's dark chocolate torta with tamarillo, deer milk gelato and botanical honey is a stunner.
The building is thoroughly rustic and the cuisine is really quite simple – the luxury at Fleur's Place in Moeraki lies in knowing you are feasting on the freshest of seafood that's allowed to shine on the plate with nothing more than, say, Fleur's fennel-spiked hollandaise and steamed vegetables.
The handsome, sandstone-hewn Victorian Precinct of Ōamaru is a fitting home for Cucina. Yanina and Pablo Tacchini reference their home country, Argentina, in the menu, complete with Italian and Spanish influences, and crafted with Waitaki produce. Pasta is freshly made in interesting guises, and many dishes bear the delicious sign of being cooked over charcoal – including the 55-day aged ribeye.
In te reo Māori, Inati, means "portion or share". Which gives a hint as to the best way to approach the cuisine at Simon Levy's Hereford St restaurant. Guests sit at a countertop bar with a prime view of the kitchen at work, turning out inventive and flavour-packed dishes. Smoked mutton tartare, pickled walnut ketchup, eggy bread, and mushroom marmalade may not be still on the menu when you visit, but you can bet whatever has succeeded it will be equally fascinating.
An hour north in the Waipara wine region, Black Estate's lunchtime restaurant stands proud on the winery's organic Home block, so the view is out across rows of vines to the foothills of the Southern Alps. The view on your plate will be equally impressive, and if you're keen for an education in the region's winemaking prowess, the staff here are experts.
In the heart of wine country, chef Bradley Hornby of Arbour demonstrates with his mega skills just how well this region grows and raises more than grapes. Every dish is an encyclopedia of the regional bounty, and served by friendly and knowledgeable staff – they're a tight-knit team here and that they love their work really shows.
There's a reverence about Hiakai – its dining room, the service within, and the dishes gently placed in the pool of warm light that graces each table – that never feels effete. Chef Monique Fiso is writing Māori cuisine into the book of today, the result of fanatic research into traditional ingredients and endless trialling of techniques to make them sing on the palate. Each of Fiso's menus tells a story; when I visited recently that was orokohanga – the creation story - with each chapter and dish expertly explained by staff. Book (weeks, even months) in advance and get excited.
For more than two decades, Logan Brown has been continually impressing diners with its honed, technique-driven cuisine and air of elegance.
Comparatively speaking, Atlas is a newcomer: a beautifully designed space, a menu that boasts a healthy dose of seafood, and a wine list of more than 400.
At Hillside Kitchen, the luxury lies in knowing that behind every element on each plate is utmost consideration – for our taste buds foremost, but also for the local story a plate of food is part of, and for the wider health of the planet. Consider a dish I enjoyed recently: cavatelli shaped by hand from durum wheat grown in Wairarapa, tossed with petite radishes prepared two ways and grown in Boote's permaculture garden, and a funky cultured butter made with local organic cream. Like much of the menu, there are three key elements in this dish and the simplicity and nakedness of it is inherently luxurious.
Te Mata Peak's jagged rupturing of the skyline is the sublime background to a memorable dining experience at Craggy Range. The region's bounty sings on the plate under chef Casey McDonald's watch.
In an exquisite Art Deco building, the upmarket bistro that is Central Fire Station impresses with a constantly evolving menu and locavore wine list.
Napier's Pacifica is home to one of the cleverest and most humble chefs in the land, Jeremy Rameka – if seafood is your thing, you'll love what Rameka can do with it.
At The Main at Peppers on the Point, the daily four-course table d'hote dinner in this exquisite 1930s mansion is preceded by drinks and canapes by the fire or on the terrace. Arrive early for a wander around the estate complete with lake views galore.
New Plymouth's Meat & Liquor does what it says on the label – carefully selected proteins are prepared with utmost care and drinks are finely curated. Try the whiskey-aged scotch fillet.
The city's Fork N Knife, run by husband-and-wife, makes dining a delight – the tasting and a la carte menus are abuzz with playful dishes.
Tucked away in the heart of Hamilton city overlooking the mighty awa, Palate exudes charm and nails the intimate dining brief. Proprietor Matt McLean is especially adept at getting the very best out of carefully sourced proteins – Palate is a perfect pick for lovers of duck, venison, lamb or beef, prepared exactingly.
Nestled in beautiful Karangahake Gorge, The Falls puts on a Paddock to Plate menu on Saturday evenings, matched with New Zealand wines – or you might prefer the more casual lunchtime Sunday Feast complete with a tour of the organic vegetable garden.
Bay of Plenty
Mount Maunganui has a new cool, culinary, cosmopolitan wine bar to brag about. Solera focuses on small-producer Aotearoa wines, and chef Neil Sapitula's fare to go with is seriously good.
At Clarence Bistro in Tauranga's historic Clarence Hotel, the Kitchen Experience is what you should do: that's Earth, Sea, Pasture, Creamery, and Heaven courses, as well as snacks.
Serving Tauranga since 1986, Somerset Cottage is a bastion of good taste and conviviality. The menu changes weekly and there's a dedicated vegan menu that's anything but second-thought.
From the moment you make your booking, the team at Sid at the French Cafe get to work ensuring your visit will be memorable. With sustainability at its heart, the kitchen gleans from onsite beehives and herb gardens, and works with OSB gardens just over the road. As well as the set menus, the kitchen can create bespoke menus if requested. Currently, Sid Sahrawat and team have a truffle special on – $20 per person gets you a truffle to your table to add to any dish from the menu.
Laidback yet super sophisticated, the approach at Ahi is very New Zealand. The menu is Ben Bayly's culinary representation of home, and celebrates the diversity and skill of our producers.
At Mr Morris, Michael Meredith surpasses expectations, delivering a dining experience that proves 'fusion' isn't dead: Pasifika touches meet French, Italian, Latin American in clever, clever ways. His Friday lunch set menu is one of the best value special dining offerings around.
With six seats and three sittings each night, Ed Verner's Pasture is dining at its most intimate, and explorative. Verner's famed pig crumpet is on the menu now for the next few months – a winter special you do not want to miss; the crumpet cooked over the fire to crunchy bliss-point, topped with pig liver and house-cured pancetta. Truffle season gets a nod, too, in a three-week aged tuna with truffles – just two ingredients, but four parts of the fish are utilised.
Creative partner Hillary Eaton entices us too to the restaurant's bar brother, Boxer, with some tasty titbits: "We're doing a whole crayfish, live from the tank, finished in smoked butter, nasturtium and lemon verbena. Our much-loved pork fat pretzels with caviar as well as salmon roe is a perfect high-meets-low upgrade, and we always have the caviar doughnut on – a doughnut stuffed with egg yolk, cured in wagyu fat and heaped with kombu-smoked caviar." One more golden drawcard, the wine pairing at the restaurant is currently starting with a glass of Krug Grand Cuvee.
Russell punches high with fine food on offer at two historic spots, The Duke of Marlborough and The Gables. At The Duke, the bar might be heaving of an evening but dining on the veranda is a candlelit retreat, sometimes accompanied by live music.
Established in 1847, The Gables has left behind stints as a brothel and boys' home and over the past decade has built a reputation for showcasing Far North fare.
Owner-operators Ming Poon and Diane Langman pool their decades of talent at Māha, nestled in the subtropical gardens of Whārepuke, Kerikeri. The menu offers delicious insight into Poon's journey from China, via Spain, to New Zealand.