Paua on toast from chef Peter Gordan's Homeland. Photo / Babiche Martens

Food News: What's Shaping Aotearoa's Culinary Scene Now

From natural wine to new-wave Korean, savoury cocktails to small-batch charcuterie

Small Batch, Big Bottle
Our appetite for wines that are unfined, unfiltered and processed by hand continues to rise with more producers joining the likes of Hans Herzog, Halcyon Days and Helio — a small winery in Hawke’s Bay that allocates a certain number of bottles per customer to ensure everybody gets a taste. Although we prefer the grape load to be small, we want the bottles big and more magnums are becoming available on menus, especially along Auckland’s Karangahape Rd, where you can taste and buy natural wine to your endless desire.

All the way down the strip are restaurants and bars that champion artisan winemakers, accompanied by knowledgeable staff who will school you on your pet-nats and prosecco. Within an easy stroll of each other there is East Street Hall, Pici, Peach Pit, Lowbrow and Clay.

If you want wine to-go, the latter also doubles as a wine shop; but there’s also Everyday Wine, an expansion of its wine shop in Cuba St in Wellington, with six rotating taps to fill a flagon with your favourite juice; and at star superette you can stock up on many of the wines, beers, ciders and spirits served at bar celeste — as a bonus it also offers same-day delivery.

In the South Island check out Alfred in Christchurch, a small wine bar with restaurant-quality snacks that are all prepared right behind the bar; and if you make the hour drive out to Black Estate you will not regret it. The food, wine and warm hospitality at this family-run winery are some of the best in the country.

Sourdough pizza from Umu. Photo / Supplied

Tomato Party
Mixologists are getting creative with the last of summer’s tomatoes, and cocktails with a savoury profile are taking the place of anything overly sweet or fruity. Fans of dirty martinis and Bloody Marys can sample the drink of their dreams at Ponsonby bar Clipper. Its tomato martini is made using tomato vine and green chilli-infused vodka, lending a herbaceous aroma to the liquor. It’s mixed with an intensely fresh tomato water and finished with a salt and pepper tincture. Served ice cold, it is the perfect late-summer aperitivo.

READ: Home Grown: A Celebration Of New Zealand's Incredible Produce

At Alma — the new Andalusian eatery from Hip Group — the cocktails are centred on savoury profiles to complement the smoky Spanish flavours on the menu. Here, the ripest tomatoes become clarified gazpacho, which is mixed with manzanilla sherry, chilli-infused vodka and garnished with a sprig of pickled samphire and compressed tomato wafer.

Across town at Boxer, where the drinks are always refined and unexpected, they use a rotary evaporator to distil neutral grain spirits with flavours and aromas you wouldn’t expect in cocktails. The menu is always changing but currently there is saffron, tomato, coriander and sherry served short over ice; and a very clean and clear distilled watermelon — all of its sweetness removed in the process — which mingles with jalapeno, chilli, tomato and black pepper.

Paua on toast from chef Peter Gordan's Homeland. Photo / Babiche Martens

National Treasure
The average tourist arrives in New Zealand with a lust for crayfish, bluff oysters and sauvignon blanc but that’s not a true representation of what our shores have to offer. As more chefs seek to celebrate the ingredients that are unique to our waters, national treasures such as kina and pāua are appearing more frequently on menus than before. Some say raw is the only way to eat kina to best enjoy its saline sweetness — and often it is.

At Cocoro, wagyu beef and kina combine for a blissful bite of nigiri sushi; at hugo’s bistro ribbons of roe are laid on buttery, charred toast — but it can also be blended into sauces to add an umami lushness. At Candela, the new Spanish spot on Auckland’s K Rd, the sourdough is served with a moreish smoked kina butter, perfect with a crisp glass of white.

At Arrowtown’s Aosta it’s tossed through fresh pappardelle with fried leeks and confit egg yolk; you can even make it rain with shaved pāua at an extra cost. The pāua pie at Amisfield in Queenstown has fast become iconic. Chef Vaughan Mabee says it is constantly requested when it comes off the menu. At Peter Gordon’s Homeland he serves it piled on toast — it’s old-school, rich and creamy, just as it’s meant to be.

Salt and vinegar mushrooms from Michael Meredith's Mr Morris restaurant. Photo / Anna Kidman

Get Smashed
When it comes to how we take our burgers these days, one thing is clear — we want the patties smashed. More contact with the grill means more caramelisation, a crispy crust and more flavour — and who doesn’t want that? The sell-out success of pop-ups such as Baby G Burger and Lucky G’s are proof that people will queue for literally hours to get their mitts on a smashed patty. Keep an eye on their social pages to see where you can join the line next.

At the Hahei campground there are some serious smashies at Serial Griller; and some late nights at Bar Celeste on K Rd you can relive one of the fondest food memories of lockdown with a Cantine smashed patty burger. Vegans can get smashed too at Wise Boys Burgers, where the patty is composed of mushrooms and tofu and can be ordered as a single, double or triple stack.

In Auckland’s Commercial Bay food court, Good Dog Bad Dog puts the smash on a sandwich with its chopped cheese — a bodega classic born in the boroughs of NYC. Here the patty and the cheese is chopped as it cooks on the grill and loaded into a soft hoagie roll with tomato, lettuce and pickles, onion and special sauce.

The fried black pudding at Gochu. Photo / Supplied

Let's Get It Started
2020 was a big year for sourdough, but now that we have resumed life as normal, what of the starters we left bubbling in the back of our cupboards? Sourdough’s reign is not set to end anytime soon. Expect to see it showing up everywhere from pizza bases, like those at Fort Greene and Umu, to hotcakes, crumpets and icecream as chefs come up with creative ways to use their starter or leftover bread.

At Sid at The French Cafe, Sid Sahrawat serves a dessert inspired by the ingredients used to make their sourdough bread: porter beer, apple juice and molasses. A sourdough icecream is made by infusing toasted bread in to the cream, accompanied by apple, beer and molasses caramel and finished with honeycomb, freeze-dried honey, fresh apple and raspberry crumble.

READ: Auckland's Top 50 Restaurants For 2021

The taco napoles (tender cactus) and sopes from Mexican eatery Cielito Lindo. Photo / Supplied

Drink To Good Health
There’s no denying this has been the summer of seltzer. Cold, fizzy, fun drinks in a can are the perfect beach, barbecue and road trip companions. But as long days draw to a close and the focus turns to building our health back up, expect to see a rise in drinks that promote wellness and enhance immunity. Soochi is a sparkling berry drink that contains collagen, prebiotics, vitamin C and hyaluronic acid, ingredients said to set skin, hair and nails aglow and strengthen your insides.

Kombucha Bros has also launched a yuzu, blueberry and collagen drink, alongside its alcoholic kombucha range. With words like green tea and slow pressed whole root ginger juice on the can, it’s easy to overlook the fact that it’s blended with gin. And there’s plenty more alcoholic booch to be had. Blume by Batchwell mix kombucha with fresh pressed juice, spirits and sparkling water; and Mama’s Brew Shop Happy Hour Hard Kombucha comes flavoured with lemongrass and ginger, or lavender and hibiscus.

The Wise Boys team. Photo / Supplied

The Whole Fish
Until recently, the fish on our plates have been white fillets such as snapper and tarakihi. But increasingly, diners and chefs want to celebrate lesser known species, eat the whole fish, and use the prized bits and pieces left after filleting.

At Pasture in Auckland chef Ed Verner works with whole fish, serving sashimi from the belly or loin and ageing some cuts to enhance the flavour and texture. He finds the most inspiration in the offcuts. Nothing goes to waste — the trimmings and guts are used to make garum (fish sauce) and the frames are hung by the fire to make a broth that is currently used to make leche de tigre.

More chefs and restaurants are committing to using independent fishermen who fish sustainably and take better care of the ocean, such as Gravity Fishing and Better Fishing. In Christchurch, at seafood-centric Gatherings, chef Alex Davies says he only buys directly from the boats and takes whatever they have to offer. He enjoys serving the fish whole, regardless of the species, and loves to teach people how to eat fish properly, and prove it tastes better on the bone.

Also in Christchurch, chef Simon Levy (Inati) is doing great things with fish at new restaurant Hali. The seafood-led menu features cuts of groper, each prepared differently — some is spiced like pastrami and is accompanied by pickled apple and seaweed; the collar is roasted and sauced with salsa verde; and the tail, aged then roasted, is served as a slab for two.

Wellness-meets-booze drinks from Mama's Brew Shop, Kombucha Bros and Blume by Batchwell. Photos / Supplied

New-Wave Korean
Kimchi made its way into our fridges and hearts a few years ago but we have a new wave of innovative Korean chefs to thank for making dishes such as japchae, bulgogi and bo ssam part of our daily cravings. At Gochu in Auckland, Jason Kim offers playful interpretations of Korean classics but the flavours remain authentic, such as the riff on the popular drinking snack buldak: gochujang-charred chicken, which is covered in melted comte cheese when it arrives at the table; and the shaved ice dessert bingsoo, which is served here with coconut milk, mango and chewy rice cakes.

At Ockhee Paul Lee and his wife Lisa serve recipes that were learned from Lisa’s mum, a homely style of deep broths that simmer all day, seasonal kimchi and dubbap rice bowls accompanied by soju cocktails and natural wines. In Parnell, chef Min Baek recently returned to a more traditional style at his moody restaurant, Han. Come here for a Korean charcoal barbecue cooked at your table where a set will include beef, japchae, seaweed soup, pickles, Korean side dishes, kimchi and lettuce and perilla leaves for wrapping your rice and beef.

On Waiheke Island, Yutak Son recently became head chef at The Shed and, while the menu is by no means Korean, his influence is noticeable in places — in the Korean beef taco; the pink-hued pickles and the house-cured meats, dusted with a hint of gochugaru. It’s subtle, but something we hope he will give us more of as time goes on.

Paua on toast from chef Peter Gordan's Homeland. Photo / Babiche Martens

The Magic Of Mushrooms
As we continue to seek out plant-based options that don’t lack meaty substance, mushrooms are having a major moment. At Michael Meredith’s Mr Morris, one of the tastiest snacks on the menu is the salt and vinegar oyster mushroom, coated in a light tempura batter. The mushroom has a piscine texture, so the bite evokes seaside memories of fish and chips at the beach.

At Omni you’ll likely go for the highly ’grammable meat dishes such as the katsu sando, and chicken meatballs with that gleaming egg yolk; but the treatment of vegetables here is worth a visit alone, particularly the mushrooms. A cheerful cluster of oyster mushrooms is cooked over white hot embers, the coal enhancing their earthiness, then brushed with cultured thyme butter — an exercise in striking simplicity. At Ada in The Convent Hotel, meaty slabs of porcini are served simply atop stracciatella, then showered with mint.

If you want to munch on ’shrooms at home try Mushroom House crispy oyster mushroom chips for an addictive little snack, or grow your own with a Good Vibes Fungi kit, which will sprout half a kilo of oyster mushrooms on your benchtop.

The whole fish at Kingi. Photo / Supplied

Real-Deal Mexican
For too long Mexican food in New Zealand has been a lacklustre imitation of the real deal. But a slew of new operations are treating us to tacos the way they should be: considered fillings, proper salsa and corn tortillas — no chipotle mayo in sight.

In Auckland, Mr Taco is owned by Mexico City native Manuel Moreno Gonzalez, whose success since opening on Federal St has led him to open a sister establishment around the corner, Miss Torta, where the eponymous Mexican sandwich is served alongside other staples such as tortilla soup and chile relleno. At La Mexicana in Grey Lynn tortillas are made with fresh masa dough, fillings are slow-cooked, and the fridge is full of horchata and tamarind agua fresca.

READ: Waiheke's Culinary Convoy: Meet The Food Truck Operators Shaking Up The Island's Dining Scene

Out west in Henderson, Cielito Lindo is renowned for its nopales (tender cactus) taco, which you won’t find anywhere else; and on Waiheke Island Tacos Y Masa pops up at markets and The Pinter throughout the week (check @tacosymasanz for details). Joel and Nathayla Larson make their own fresh corn masa dough for tacos and everything is kissed by the fire at some stage. The salsas start with a base of charred tomato and pineapple before adding a combination of chillies to produce 10 different salsas, which Joel — a taco-obsessed chef for 15 years — makes each week.

Wellington locals say Viva Mexico is loved for its authentic flavours, festive vibes and extensive mezcal offering. The all-Mexican kitchen team is dedicated to importing less ingredients, working with local farms to grow habaneros and tomatillos.

A savoury tomato cocktail from Alma. Photo / Supplied

Sowing Seeds
In disused corners of New Zealand’s cities tired old concrete is being upheaved to make way for soil and seeds, transforming spaces into thriving urban gardens that produce hyper-local food for the surrounding communities and some of the country’s top restaurants.

At OMG — Organic Market Garden — in Auckland, the team has converted a desolate corner of Symonds St into an abundant and productive garden that supplies restaurants such as Sid at The French Cafe, Gemmayze Street and Lillius; as well as members of the Community Supported Agriculture programme, who get veges on a subscription basis.

In Wellington, there’s Kai Cycle, which collects compost around the city by bike, and has a regenerative urban farm where it grows food that is shared with volunteers and donated to community food projects.

And Cultivate Christchurch in the central city is within walking distance of the city’s best restaurants, so chefs can pop in daily to collect herbs and greens. Founded by a youth worker and an ecologist, it also serves as a training centre for high school students to gain knowledge, independence and creativity.

Cazador's charcuterie pack. Photo / Supplied

What Meat Eats
The quality of New Zealand’s red meat and small-batch charcuterie keeps getting better, propelled in part by consumers’ increasing demand for transparency about how the animals are raised. In North Canterbury, the heritage-breed pigs at Poaka are free to roam in open pasture and feast on the acorns and sweet chestnuts grown on the farm. The resulting products have a melty mouthfeel and nutty sweetness, marbled with flavourful fat.

At Aotea Barn, an organic farm in Kaipara Harbour, the sheep and cattle co-exist with other animals and snack on fruits and nuts. Aotea’s cured meat products include Angus beef salami with macadamia and persimmon, grown on this patch of land.

A Lady Butcher, Hannah Miller, makes local charcuterie using grass-fed and free-range meats, cured with horopito, wild juniper and rosemary. To sample her work, head to Churly’s on Auckland’s Dominion Rd for a tasting board of meats sourced from Northland to Southland.

On the same road is Cazador, renowned for its wild game meat. Visit its newly opened deli, specialising in dry cured meats fermented long and slow, such as venison and pistachio salami and heritage pork lonzo.

– Originally published in Viva Magazine  Volume Three

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