Restaurant Review: Terroir at Craggy Range

New chef Casey McDonald plans to make the vineyard's restaurant an international destination by showcasing the best of the region's ingredients

Casey McDonald is the new head chef at Terroir by Craggy Range. Picture / Babiche Martens

Cuisine: Bistro
Address: 253 Waimarama Rd, Parkvale, Hawke’s Bay
Phone: (06) 873 0143
Bookings: Accepted
Drinks: Fully licensed

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From the menu: Whitebait fritters and horseradish $7, haloumi and beetroot $19, lamb tartare $22, flounder and clams $36, beef fillet and onion $40

I had visited Craggy Range’s winery restaurant Terroir in August, as the old era was coming to an end. The food was good, although you could sense a bit of low energy in the kitchen. The floor staff were friendly, if quiet.

The next day I found out a new chef had already been hired, was due to arrive any day. Suddenly it made sense that our delicious dinner had nonetheless felt a little glum.

But now here is the new guy, and this reliably fantastic Hawke’s Bay restaurant feels exciting again. The waiters are chipper and happily ad lib on various aspects of each dish.

“It’s so great to work with a chef who is kind to everyone,” one of them said, and whether or not this was a subtweet to the last guy you could tell he meant it, mostly as a compliment to Casey McDonald, the New Zealand kitchen whizz who has concluded an extremely successful career overseas to return to Hawke’s Bay.

His aim is to create a restaurant good enough that, eventually, Terroir at Craggy Range becomes an international destination itself.

Access to fresh produce is one of the most compelling reasons for a chef to move to New Zealand, to Hawke’s Bay in particular. Within hours of touching down, McDonald was puttering about the district’s back roads, meeting potential suppliers and stumbling on edible wild greens.

READ: Behind the Scenes at Wither Hills' Winery

He’s found a first-class fish supplier, who uses custom equipment to dramatically reduce so called “by-catch”, where you hook a species you don’t want while trying to land the good stuff.

We ate a beautiful fillet of flounder, pan fried with skin on and sitting on a pearl-barley risotto enriched with local cockles. It comes with a tiny heap of rocket leaves from the Craggy garden, which both freshens up the dish and (like the stunning winelist) effectively connects the restaurant back to the vineyard.

They’ve always grown their own herbs but this homegrown side of things will ramp up considerably now that McDonald is at the helm.

Same with preserves, which I expect to become a big part of the menu. You need a few months under your belt before you can start delivering previous harvests in cured and fermented form. But a medley of spring radishes and carrots quick-pickled to start the meal was a great indicator of future intentions.

It’s within those first few mouthfuls that you sense what McDonald’s food is about. A restaurant standard — bread and butter — is reinvented in a way I’ve never come across, the butter enriched with local camembert cheese, drizzled with Arataki honey and sprinkled with sea salt.

But even the salt has a story, the chef having dragged his kitchen staff to the coast to harvest it themselves from the Bay’s famous Pacific coastline. Did I say “dragged”? In my experience young chefs love this sort of stuff.

Terroir’s new chef oversaw the menu at Cutler & Co in Melbourne and, although the food over there can be quite cutting edge, there is nothing so showy on the menu here, at least not yet.

Perhaps he’s being cautious not to scare the locals, or working closely with the owners who’ve always favoured the French country bistro, or perhaps he’s just happy bringing the best out of already perfect ingredients.

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Either way, it fits the surroundings well for now — perhaps next year when the restaurant is renovated into more of an indoor-outdoor wine bar-style restaurant, they’ll review whether there’s room to incorporate more modern flourishes in the food as well.

One way may be to offer a short tasting menu, which we arm-twisted them into providing, and which would be a better way to experience the exciting menu than the two or three courses it’s set up for.

I enjoyed a lamb loin tartare — almost as pink and fresh as tuna — but I also loved that flounder and would commit all sorts of crimes to get another plate of the haloumi, seared until brown and served with bright beetroot smoked over grape vines.

Along with some oysters and bread that would make a lovely mini degustation, and you could still be in and out in a couple of hours.

Still, it’s unlikely locals or out-of-towners will find anything to complain about here, and things will get only better.

Craggy Range manager Aaron Drummond once told me he’d like to create a restaurant destination like Brae in Western Australia, where the local airstrip is backed up with executive jets owned by millionaires who’ve flown in for dinner.

Most of us will have to put up with Napier airport via an A320 for now but, to paraphrase the Michelin Guide, Terroir is worth a special journey.

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