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A surge of happiness powers through me as we whizz over the Bombay Hills and take the sweeping left-hand exit that heads southeast. The city becomes a distant thought and in its place the endless blue sky wraps around us and a sense of ease fills us up. We're off on an adventure and that, in itself, is invigorating.
Our destination is Waihi Beach - the old hotel and beach bar there, to be more specific, but when we arrive I think someone has played a trick in telling me it has been re-vamped. The public bar is open but mostly empty and, although wonderfully old-school with the pool table, Waikato Draught on tap and offers to swap-a-crate, was not what I'd been led to believe was the "best thing to have happened to the eating scene in Waihi Beach".
Then I spy a freshly painted, barn-like door to my right. Sliding this back, I gasp and stare in Anna Paquin-esque fashion. For here is a dining room so utterly beautiful it's more like a resort than a restaurant.
Huge meringue-white lampshades gently sway in the breeze; furniture is sleek and stylish yet the decor is kept simple and casual; and a large deck reaches out towards raised herb and vegetable gardens, which line up under freshly planted olive trees.
And there's the Store with its colourful arrangement of freshly churned gelato and spectacular counter food.
The place is bustling with a team of fresh-faced, aproned servers and tables of diners: some in beach attire: jandals and shorts and pretty sundresses; others have dressed up for the occasion. We're a mix of Waihi Beach locals and visitors, all smug with our find.
The menu has us breathless with antici-pation. There's a rock lobster roll, bruschetta with toppings that are exciting and unpredic-table, like chopped liver with sorrel, and trevally with pine nut butter. There's fish and chips, chicken cotoletta and slow-cooked lamb with labneh and anchovy on offer ... we can't believe our eyes.
We need a plan and it goes like this: how about we have lunch now, go explore, then come back for dinner, too? It takes us a nano-second to agree.
So here's what we ate over the day and night, in between swims and exploring the area: a salad of raw, graceful ribbons of green zucchini and rounds of the same vegetable, caramelised to golden, on a mix of nutty spelt, toasted pine nuts and a dressing sharpened with feta.
Two orders of rock lobster rolls, so sweet and juicy with generous chunks of lobster meat crammed into the soft comfort of a brioche roll, along with paper-thin slices of radish and yellow beet and (truth be told) cucumber chunks far too large to be practical but hey, doused in a creamy light mayo and served with a side of deliciously salty house-made potato crisps; it was one of our favourites.
The bruschetta is just right at Waihi Beach Hotel Eatery, too; the bread is cut thin enough so that you don't need to lever your jaw so far open that you risk dislocating it and then you ruin your linen dress anyway when the topping topples off.
No, here we were able to polish off the serving of a gorgeous preparation of just-warm cooked and pickled trevally with its strands of translucent soft onions and flecks of cumin seeds, on toasted sourdough smeared with pine nut butter, with ease.
A thick round of porchetta comes with gnudi (like gnocchi, but with ricotta instead of potato) and seasonal beans and peas, and was tasty if a little dry. The market fish was snapper, cooked perfectly, the skin golden and the flesh moist.
Walnut cake is paired with a wedge of gooey, washed rind cheese made by the chef, glistening rewarewa honeycomb and bee pollen, and it is glorious. Our other choice is wickedly magnificent - crema fritta, or "fried cream". This favourite from Verona, Italy - thick custard set, breaded, then fried - has found a home on this New Zealand menu. Paired with summer apricots and caramel-covered macadamia nuts, it is sublime.
Of course, none of this should come as a surprise when you discover the menu is by talented chef Jo Pearson, and this is the latest venture from Hip Group's Jackie Grant and Scott Brown who have teamed up with their good friend and Waihi Beach local Phillipa Jones, who bought the hotel in 2008 to create this astonishingly good eatery.
The drive back to Auckland was spent scheming how to make this stunning new eatery my local. It's possible.
They have accommodation alongside the restaurant. I'll be a local, two days at a time.
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