If there’s one thing most people know about Auckland, it’s that New Zealand’s capital has astounding natural beauty.
Rather than thinking of it as a progressive cultural hub, people envision the glistening harbours, lush green mountains, and untouched islands just off its coastline.
Yet, Auckland has become one of the most innovative culinary destinations in the South Pacific – rivalling even Sydney and Melbourne.
Case in point: at Orphan’s Kitchen, a sparse dining room in the trendy Ponsonby district, the chef, Tom Hishon, whips up wood-roasted chook (chicken) with kiwi mole and pillowy, purple tortillas made from kumara, a local variety of sweet potato.
The chef’s manifesto references Maori heritage and New Zealand’s erratic weather; guests are encouraged to watch the sunset from an outdoor courtyard, and there are beehives on the second floor.
Occasionally, breakfast features tasting menus.
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Any Aucklander will admit that this was unthinkable not long ago.
When I was growing up here in the 1990s to early 2000s, the restaurant options were limited to conventional white tablecloth spots, where most tables got birthday candles in their chocolate sponge cake.
Now the city is flourishing with stylish cafes-turned-hangouts, glossy restaurants, boutique dessert bars, and lively marketplaces.
“Auckland attracts more than 2.6 million international visitors each year, and tourist numbers have grown almost 8 per cent annually over the last five years – with no signs of slowing,” says Steven Armitage, of Auckland Tourism.
With factors such as Zika virus and intensifying political instability around the world sending travellers on a search for untapped safe havens, New Zealand has emerged as a trending option.
The restaurant boom couldn’t have come at a better time.
Auckland’s slow culinary transformation began after the city hosted the America’s Cup back in 2000, prompting the redevelopment of the central Viaduct area into a mixed-use social hub.
In came a series of creative restaurateurs, eager to translate the region’s natural resources into simple yet sophisticated dishes.
Ingredients such as locally caught octopus and kumara went from being relatively unfamiliar to stars on the plate.
“The Viaduct was Auckland’s first real hospitality precinct,” says Nicola Waldren, general manager of the Restaurant Association of New Zealand.
Almost two decades later, there’s been a domino effect of creativity, she says, spilling from the Viaduct to such new areas as Ponsonby and Britomart, a bustling enclave in the formerly rundown lower central business district.
Anywhere you go in town, you’re likely to encounter an establishment that’s as creative – or aspiring to be as creative – as Orphan’s Kitchen.
A familiar story, with a big advantage
At the heart of Auckland’s culinary revolution is Jackie Grant, co-founder of culinary empire Hipgroup, which blends the heirloom ethos of New York’s Dan Barber (of Blue Hill at Stone Barns fame) with a portfolio of essential-feeling establishments reminiscent of New York restaurateur Danny Meyer’s oeuvre.
Her first restaurant, Café on Kohi, opened in 2004 with an all-day farm-to-table concept that was radical at the time; her latest innovation is Amano, a nose-to-tail Italian restaurant featuring unconventional cuts of locally farmed meats.
“We celebrate fresh, seasonal, local produce sourced from our own farm in Kumeu and pride ourselves in serving ingredients of the highest quality,” Grant explains – which is to say: the same thing most any top-notch establishment is doing the world over.
But where Auckland restaurateurs have an advantage is how these modern foodie tropes are realised: it’s easier to be “local” and “seasonal” when you have a compact country spanning distinct climate zones and growing regions, from subtropic to high-altitude mountains, fertile volcanic soil, epic pasture land, and unpolluted waters for fishing.
Whereas other city chefs have their locavore [locally produced food] goals limited by geography, Auckland’s are elevated by it, able to draw on a bounty of ingredients, both familiar and new, and reconfigure them into a sublime sense of place.
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At Amano, that means tortellini with fennel soffrito, stuffed with crayfish from the Wairarapa Coast.
At all-day dining spot Rosie, it’s ash-rolled venison with cocoa nib and tomato paste.
At Ostro, a glass-walled dining room right on the water, it’s lobster-and-snapper pie, or Wakanui beef with roasted eggplant.
“When we opened our first café in 2004, our industry was still finding its feet and an identity,” says Grant.
“We’re proud of what we have here and have reached a point where we know how to showcase it.”
“It’s a very experimental but exciting time here right now in New Zealand,” Hishon, Orphan’s Kitchen chef, says.
A new wave
If Auckland’s food scene was slow to build, it’s currently evolving at a rapid-fire pace.
Prominent chefs are applying their firebrand, Kiwi-proud creativity to everything from bistros to coffee bars to food markets.
Take Ponsonby Central, a multivenue concept akin to New York’s Chelsea Market, where you can get ethically grown, locally roasted espressos from Eighthirty, shop for grain-fed New Zealand-raised wagyu from a butcher with its own ageing room, or snack on the first pizzas in the country to get a seal of approval from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.
“The beauty about being in this region is that there are very few rules or any deep culinary history that needs to be adhered to,” Nic Watt, chef of Masu in the CBD, says.
“This allows us restaurateurs and chefs a blank canvas to showcase our individuality.”
In his case, that means fusing Auckland’s abundant natural resources with Japanese robata grilling.
The momentum shows no signs of slowing.
The city is gearing up to host the America’s Cup for the second time in 2021, meaning that several new hospitality developments are already underway.
Both the CBD’s International Convention Centre and Commercial Bay – a massive, mixed-use development on the harbour – are set to include outlets from some of the city’s most prominent chefs when they open in 2019.
And major luxury hotel brands Park Hyatt and Sofitel are opening properties ahead of the big event, filling the city’s void for five-star accommodation and undoubtedly bringing more big-name restaurants to the flourishing CBD area.
Where to eat and sleep in Auckland
Apartment No 305: think of it as a luxe Airbnb in picturesque Viaduct Harbour, but with the services of a five-star hotel – such as on-demand meals from ex-Noma chef Finn Gybel.
SkyCity Grand: A modern hotel in the heart of the CBD, within a stone’s throw of the restaurant-packed Federal Street dining strip.
Depot: One of New Zealand’s leading chefs, Al Brown, is behind this inner-city stalwart, which draws Aucklanders far and wide for its fresh-from-the-ocean oysters. They’re bigger and juicier than any you’ve seen.
Ostro: Prominent Kiwi chef Josh Emett has a knack for all things seafood. Be sure to get a pre-dinner drink at the rooftop cocktail bar, Seven; it has great views of Waitemata Harbour.
Masu: The city’s best Japanese robata restaurant, set along Federal Street’s lively restaurant row.
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Milse: A Hipgroup venue that offers the city’s best desserts. Don’t miss the passionfruit and thyme gelato cakes.
Ponsonby Central: It’s Auckland’s take on the urban food market, with elevated takeaway and dine-in options.
Make a bee line for Burger Burger and Bedford Soda & Liquor for diner-style meatballs and cocktails adorned with fresh flowers.
La Cigale: A beautiful, French-style market – with ritzy street food – that takes place during the weekends in the well-heeled suburb of Parnell.