Anna King Sha­hab takes a jour­ney from south­ern charm to north­ern nous to seek out a lineup of special din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences

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The lux­ury of din­ing out is these days mea­sured less by os­ten­ta­tious in­gre­di­ents flown in from far-flung cor­ners of the world, and more by the level of care and at­ten­tion that has gone into cre­at­ing a rounded ex­pe­ri­ence for you, the diner. Fit­ting out the space, se­lect­ing the in­gre­di­ents and pre­par­ing them, nail­ing ser­vice that walks a del­i­cate bal­ance, and leav­ing you with an over­all im­pres­sion of want­ing to re­live the ex­pe­ri­ence in your dreams that very night. Eat­ing amaz­ing food with­out leav­ing a big en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print in the act, dis­cov­er­ing new and di­verse in­gre­di­ents, and learn­ing the back­ground story to what’s on your plate are key points in to­day’s def­i­ni­tion of lux­ury din­ing.

A her­itage build­ing in Dunedin’s blos­som­ing ware­house district is home to pe­tite Moi­ety, where chef Sam Gas­son blends French and Ja­panese tech­niques and calls on the best of South­ern pro­duce. Mean­while, one of the first restau­rants in the coun­try to em­ploy a ded­i­cated for­ag­ing ex­pert (the es­teemed Peter Lang­lands), Am­is­field Bistro — with chef Vaughan Mabee at the helm — was a pioneer in the now-pop­u­lar fo­cus on hy­per­local in­gre­di­ents. Mabee uses them to take din­ers on a time and place-spe­cific taste jour­ney that has been el­e­vated fur­ther with Tony Ste­wart (ex-Clooney in Auck­land) join­ing the team as di­rec­tor of food and bev­er­age. Ste­wart ex­plains that as well as the sig­na­ture tast­ing­menu ex­pe­ri­ence, “A more ca­sual bar food of­fer­ing has been a fo­cus of mine, to bring bal­ance to our of­fer­ing.”

Wa¯naka’s Ode de­scribes its pur­pose as “con­scious din­ing”. You can choose your jour­ney, from a three­course to an eight-course menu, with op­tions for plant-based or wild-shot game, kaimoana from ex­em­plary fish­ing folk Grav­ity, and a chef’s table add-on.

Ul­tra-fresh seafood is a rare lux­ury these days, and the best place in the coun­try to in­dulge in it is Fleur’s Place in Mo­er­aki. Fur­ther up the line in Christchur­ch, seafood fans will love Kinji, where hum­ble sur­round­ings frame chef Kinji Ha­mada’s work-of-art sashimi. At Gath­er­ings, you’re made to feel pam­pered not by tweez­er­ar­ranged gar­nishes, but by a bounty of sus­tain­ably sourced seafood and or­ganic veg­eta­bles served up shar­ing-style. At el­e­gant Inati, you’ll se­lect dishes from Earth, Land and Sea — or opt to trust the chef — and get stuck into a wine list that boasts a lineup rich in picks from the North Can­ter­bury wine re­gion.

Banks Penin­sula-based Craig Martin is ex­ec­u­tive chef at Annandale, but with Covid-19 ren­der­ing things quiet for many such lux­ury lodges, he’s set up pri­vate chef of­fer­ing Na­tive Kitchen — check it out on Face­book along with the group “Uniquely New Zealand Food & Bev­er­age”, which Martin founded as a plat­form for our amaz­ing pro­duc­ers.

Chef and founder of Eat New Zealand Gi­ulio Sturla said good­bye to his ground­break­ing Lyt­tel­ton restau­rant Roots last year, but ris­ing from its ashes, in the for­mer test kitchen, he has just launched Mapu. Sturla cooks and serves a max­i­mum of six guests, and prices vary ac­cord­ing to the in­gre­di­ents.

Lux­ury, he says, will al­ways ex­ist but the def­i­ni­tion has changed since lock­down. “It has to be trans­par­ent”, he ex­plains.

“Peo­ple want to know what they’re pay­ing for . . . but ul­ti­mately, din­ing will be bet­ter than be­fore — af­ter two months in­side, peo­ple know the price of food and they’re get­ting pretty good at cook­ing. They want an el­e­vated ex­pe­ri­ence, but they also want to feel com­fort­able and safe.”

Nes­tled in the coun­try’s largest wine­grow­ing re­gion, Ar­bour in Blen­heim has a rap­port with myr­iad lo­cal wine­mak­ers and food pro­duc­ers which, along with the warm wel­come and dis­creet, im­pec­ca­ble ser­vice led by Liz But­ti­more, sets it apart. “I know who keeps what se­cret wine where,” she promises — so ex­pect cool wine pair­ings to chef and co-owner Brad Hornby’s el­e­gant, never tor­tured, food.

Or­der his “The Many” menu for thrilling cre­ations with lo­cal del­i­ca­cies like black gar­lic and surf clams.

Since the open­ing of Hi­akai in 2019, owner and chef Monique Fiso has wowed Wellington din­ers with grace­ful, bound­ary-push­ing food that comes from, and talks about, Te Ao Ma¯ori. Monique and her team im­merse them­selves in learn­ing about tra­di­tional in­gre­di­ents (also touch­ing on ron­goa¯ — medic­i­nal el­e­ments), then in ap­ply­ing mod­ern tech­niques to make those in­gre­di­ents sing.

No mat­ter the time of year, tak­ing a seat at Craggy Range un­der the jagged peak of Te Mata sets the scene for a mem­o­rable din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. With a cli­mate that paints clearly de­fined sea­sons, Hawke’s Bay pro­duce sings on the plate un­der chef Casey McDonald’s watch.

Some­how, Franckie God­inho of Hawke’s Bay restau­rant St Ge­orges man­ages to plant out from seed, and tend to, two large, on­site, or­ganic and bio­dy­namic gar­dens — oh, and to take his pro­duce right through to fin­ished dishes — he’s also the chef. God­inho, who has cooked at Dubai’s Burj al Arab, of­fers a dif­fer­ent shade of lux­ury at St Ge­orges, with an a la carte or a six-course tast­ing menu sup­plied by the back yard. His wife, op­er­a­tions man­ager Kathryn God­inho, ex­plains that in his up­bring­ing, on a farm in Goa, “there was no such thing as con­ve­nience”, and that re­mains at the heart of her hus­band’s ap­proach.

In Auck­land, the sur­name Sahrawat is syn­ony­mous with seam­less din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, thanks to chef Sid and his wife and busi­ness part­ner, Chand. Sid at the French Cafe re­tains its re­fined ap­proach while now em­brac­ing a hy­per­local ethos, work­ing with ur­ban gar­den OMG across the road, sourc­ing pro­duce and putting kitchen scraps back into the cy­cle. Make time for drinks there: “Our new cocktail menu by bar man­ager Roberto Gi­ampaolo”, en­tices Chand, “fea­tures in­no­va­tive tech­niques and in­ter­est­ing in­gre­di­ents such as but­ter­fly pea tea, pan­dan cor­dial, red shiso juice and a date bal­samic cor­dial”.

At Si­dart, the brief is “pro­gres­sive In­dian cui­sine”: el­e­gant tast­ing dishes im­bued with el­e­ments from Sahrawat’s In­dian back­ground, with ev­ery­thing but the spices sourced in New Zealand. His wife high­lights a new dish on the menu: pork shoul­der and belly cooked overnight in vin­daloo spices, then pressed and fried into a mouth­ful snack with an emul­sion made from vin­daloo oil. Now’s a great time to book into these two Auck­land aces — firstly be­cause they have slightly low­ered the prices of tast­ing menus to re­flect the cur­rent eco­nomic cli­mate, and se­condly be­cause our NZ truf­fle sea­son is ap­proach­ing and they’ll fea­ture on the menus at both restau­rants.

Across town in Pon­sonby, the Sig­na­ture Course menu at Co­coro — fea­tur­ing chef Makoto Tokuyama’s thrillingl­y pre­sented “tsukiri” sashimi plat­ter — has long reigned as one of the most lux­u­ri­ous din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in the coun­try. And at Herne Bay’s Paris But­ter, chef Nick Honey­man has clev­erly merged his years of fine-din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with a fun side: ex­pect re­fined food with a vi­brant at­mos­phere; check out their Fri­day long lunch and win­ter se­ries of col­lab din­ners with other lead­ing chefs.

And if push-the-en­ve­lope eat­ing is what you seek, se­cure a seat (there are only six) at the counter at Par­nell’s Pas­ture, and watch as chef Ed Verner pre­pares dishes in front of you — some fea­tur­ing in­gre­di­ents that have been fer­mented or aged for months, some treated sim­ply and cooked on the fire, re­veal­ing sur­prise af­ter sur­prise in taste and tex­ture.

Pho­tos / Sup­plied

Chef Monique Fiso at Hi­akai restau­rant, Wellington (top); Dunedin restau­rant Moi­ety (above).

Pho­tos / War­ren Buck­land; Babiche Martens; Sup­plied

Top: Craggy Range restau­rant (left); Co­coro; above, a dish from Moi­ety.

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