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Buzz Foodie Destination: New Zealand

A Culinary Tour

There really isn’t much lacking on the culinary front in San Francisco -- we have just about any ethnic cuisine at our fingertips. But we don’t see much in terms of cuisine from the southern hemisphere. Perhaps it’s because New Zealand can be likened in many ways to California as a melting pot cuisine. However, there is a distinctness in the types of seasonings and ingredients used that’s got a little something different -- a slightly unfamiliar edginess we like and miss from the 42nd latitude below the equator.

To find a piece of the southern hemisphere, check out South Food & Wine Bar, opened by star Australian chef Luke Mangan, fellow Aussie Liz O’Connell, and native New Zealander Anna Weinberg, which captures a beautiful harmony between our home in San Francisco and our honorary home of Auckland. Otherwise, let my trip south of the equator inspire you to check out the real thing.

The Real Thing
Lamb lollipops, chicken garlic herb sausages, and fried eggs with bright orange yolks for breakfast -- and suddenly, my13-hour flight and 5am arrival in Auckland, NZ were a distant nuisance. Like a growing number of San Franciscans, I’ve taken a few holidays to the southern hemisphere, so this first meal was a nice welcome back and mouth-watering preview of the culinary indulgences to follow. And, with every visit, I look forward to plentiful avocado (they taste creamier and more flavorful than in the States) and sweet kumara (sweet potato in Maori).

Great friends and former San Franciscans Annette and Michael Dearth, moved to the City of Sails several years ago to open a restaurant here. Through them, I’ve learned a lot about Kiwi cuisine -- originating in British cookery with Mediterranean, Asian and native Maori influences. Here, organic and sustainable are part of the culinary vocabulary, but the term “local” is redundant, given the size of the country (think California).

Though the majority of restaurants are still of the laid-back café sort where the bill is sorted at the register and tipping is not always expected, restaurant culture is steadily refining itself. With the overwhelming selection of fresh seafood and lamb, combined with its unique international influences and more chefs pushing the envelope, New Zealand is beginning to hold its own in gourmet sophistication.

Taste of Auckland Festival
The city hosted its first ever Taste of Auckland food festival in March 2009. About a dozen celebrated restaurants presented some of their signature dishes for the general public to sample. Among them was our friends’ restaurant, The Grove. Their innovative chef Sid Sahrawat (a 2007 Lewisham award winner) prepared smoked ostrich accompanied by a carousel of flavors: coffee panna cotta, whipped honey, licorice and truffles.

From another respected restaurant The French Café, we tasted the slow-cooked pork belly with caramelized onions, black pudding crumbs and cider syrup, crafted by Chef Simon Gault. Braised wagyu short ribs with a horseradish salsa verde, olive powder and sumac lavosh from restaurant Dine By Peter Gordon were another highlight. Wineries, organic beer brewers, cheese makers and specialty food producers were also on site to exhibit their prized selections.

Award-winning Whitestone Cheese and Puhoi Valley displayed imposing wheels of Windsor blue and creamy Farmhouse Camembert, and we couldn't get enough of Arano’s White Label varietal-specific 100% squeezed orange juices, like the Gisborne Tangelo juice and the Keri Keri Valencia juice.

The Grove
To experience food that represents the forefront of creativity and excellence in New Zealand cuisine, The Grove in the CBD (central business district) is a must-visit. Chef Sahrawat’s goats' curd tortellini with smoked beetroot and sautéed peas is a perfect starting point for a gradual build in complexity of the menu.

As a lover of quail, I was in heaven after tasting the deconstructed, seared breast with leg enveloped with puff pastry, complemented by lentils sautéed with shitakes and oxtail, and dressed with truffle milk and sesame pudding. Every component in the dish had its purpose and added dimension to the flavor profile. A Roquefort cheesecake, exciting just about every sense of taste, was sublime. And award-winning sommelier Michael Dearth sweetened the dessert experience with a glass of Australian Chambers Rosewood Vineyard Muscat from his 150-bottle wine list.

An intimate 28-seat establishment in the Mt. Eden suburb of Auckland suits Michael Meredith well. The owner-chef of Meredith's (and former chef of The Grove) has a gift for delicately balancing exotic and complex flavors. In 2008, Lewisham recognized chef Meredith’s skills when he was named Most Innovative Chef in 2008.

Awards aside, Meredith’s menu is creative and captivating. An ensemble of free range pork, carrot marmalade, and black blood pudding was excellent. A poussin, cooked to a perfect temperature, was in the company of scallops, baby leeks, and salted raisins dressed with cauliflower puree and playful foam.

While there are notable similarities between Meredith and Sahrawat in their mastery of playing with flavors and techniques -- with nods to the godfathers of inventive cuisine Ferran Adria and Thomas Keller -- it ends there. Each pens his own signature on each dish with flair.

Café and Takeaway Culture
One cannot live on four-course gourmet affairs alone. For the complete Auckland dining experience, the café or takeaway scene must be explored. Start with the Takapuna Beach Café and Store, located at a prime spot at the end of the beach Promenade on the North Shore of Auckland, that’s as neighborhood friendly as you can get.

Every detail has been marked by owners Jackie Grant and Scott Brown, who welcome just about every customer by name. Even the plastic red lobster handed to us which buzzed when our order was ready is much more fun and whimsical than the bulky square we get everywhere else.

Huge nuggets of beer-battered fish (eaten on the beach, of course) were fried to a golden crisp, encasing fluffy, steaming fresh snapper. Hand-cut fries found just the right amount of flavor and seasoning when dunked in housemade tartar and tomato sauces. And to complete the oceanside lunch, we returned to the Takapuna Store to choose from more than a dozen homemade artisan gelatos in flavors including coffee, blueberry, pistachio and feijoa (a classic Kiwi fruit similar to a guava) -- perfect for a warm day on the beach.

From the British-inspired version of fish and chips and black blood pudding to deconstructed quail and braised wagyu short ribs, it is clear that restaurant culture in NZ is picking up steam. Whether it’s a casual café or a special-occasion-worthy spot, or the sought-out dining experience for the food-obsessed, this island’s culinary hotspots deliver. As New Zealand becomes a more accessible destination for Bay Area travelers, you will find that the food scene keeps pace, and then some.