On the New Zealand Wine and Culinary Route - First Stop: Auckland, Part 2

  • Curtis Marsh

  • 13 Aug 2016 | Travel

Staying in Auckland city, if you want to be central and within walking distance to some of the best eating spots in town, the best place to stay is SKYCITY Grand Hotel. With its Five Star accommodations, this hotel is located on Federal Street, which is otherwise known as "The Heart of Auckland" and has top restaurants literally on your doorstep. This is a collective of New Zealand's most renowned chefs Peter Gordon, Al Brown, Nic Watt and Sean Connolly, each showcasing their interpretations of the country's best produce.

If you've just come off a long-haul flight and are in need of a late lunch or early dinner, I would start at Chef Al Brown's Depot, New Zealand's quintessential eatery and oyster bar totally embracing the Kiwi ethos and Al's approach to food and life; it has a breezy, beach-bach setting and all-day casual dining, open from 7a.m. until late. Freshly shucked oysters are center-stage here, washed down with a glass of the tangy, zippy lime-zesty Millton Estate Te Arai Chenin Blanc. The menu is driven by the seasons and fresh produce, with much of the cooking over charcoal and hard woods. Communal shared plates is the speed, some of the dishes famed staples, such as the legendary Hapuka sliders, Kingfish sashimi, Pig’s head croquettes & wild rabbit rillettes and Tuatua fritters. Craft beer is celebrated as much as wine here, as Al puts it, "The perfect place to drop in and refuel...Park yourself up."

Next door to Depot is MASU by Nic Watt, arguably the best expression of Japanese robata-style cooking in the country. This is where New Zealand's sensational fish and seafood excel at the hands of Chef Watt, using classic yet contemporary interpretations of Japanese exacting techniques and an uncompromising respect for fresh produce. While not quite the ambiance of Tetsuya Wakuda's favorite robatayaki, Yamato in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, MASU's does have the theatre of the open-flame grill pits and the tantalizing smoky aromas wafting through the restaurant. So make sure you sit at the grill-bar, if you want to see and inhale all the action. Don't hold back here—hang the expense—as this is the place to indulge yourself in sashimi of fatty tuna, scampi, ora king salmon, kingfish, john dory, freshwater eel...and off-the-grill Antarctic cod, king crab and long-line caught snapper. Or indulge yourself with Japanese black wagyu beef.

If you are in the mood for a steak, then The Grill by Sean Connolly is the place for you, adjacent to MASU just on the other side of the entrance to SKYCITY Grand Hotel. Modelled on a traditional New York steak house, there's a subtle note of contemporary Kiwi flair that gives it a thread of honesty and simplicity; above all, it’s local produce-driven. You can take yourself on a tour of New Zeland's best meat on the menu here—pasture-fed Savannah Angus from North Island's West Coast, grain-fed Wakanui Angus from Ashburton South Island’s East Coast, pasture-fed Wagyu from Hawke’s Bay North Island East Coast, Silere Merino Lamb from Alpine High-Country South Island, and Wild Venison from the Marlborough High-Country South Island. There is also a truffle menu with fresh truffle sourced from around New Zealand. Yes, they have real truffles in NZ—largely the Périgord black truffle, Tuber melanosporum. The wine list here is also quite sizable with plenty of depth in the local selections.

If you have a head for heights and like to dine with a fabulous view, The Sugar Club on the 53rd floor of the Sky Tower is for you. This is the creation, or fourth incarnation as it were, by New Zealand's most celebrated Chef, Peter Gordon. Her is known as “the godfather of fusion cuisine,” and first started The Sugar Club in Wellington in 1986, then moved to London opening in Notting Hill's All Saints Road in 1995, followed by Warwick Street in West Soho in 1998. If you're a Londoner, you will know his two hugely popular eateries The Providores and Tapa Room and Kopapa; and if you have arrived here on Air New Zealand Business Class, you will have sampled his cooking. Needless to say, the “fusion” of Asian and European flavors and ingredients underpins the food here, indeed a combination of the best seasonal New Zealand produce with exotic global ingredients executed with innovative, palate-invigorating flair. The menu is complied of entrée-sized dishes, encouraging you to order and taste a wider range of flavors, sensations and ingredients; the restaurant also caters well to vegetarians. The wine list is excellent, concise, yet with plenty of depth and originality with a leaning towards organic and biodynamic producers. Oh, by the way, you can also SkyWalk or SkyJump from the top of Sky Tower, however, I would recommend this before lunch or dinner!

Time to stretch the legs outside of Federal Street and about a 30-minute walk (10-minute taxi ride) is the best fine dining restaurant in Auckland, The French Cafe. This restaurant is owned by husband and wife team Creghan Molloy-Wright (Manager) and Simon Wright (Executive Chef). Actually, many would say this is the best restaurant in New Zealand and I agree, with the caveat that Logan Brown in Wellington is its equal. If you're a “by the numbers” person, TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Fine Dining Awards 2015 rates French Cafe #1 in New Zealand, #1 in Australasia and #19 in the World—pretty convincing! My personal view is that the dining experience here is on par with a Two-Star Michelin. The restaurant operates at the highest level of polish, precision and innovation, yet is refreshingly wholesome, friendly and relaxed. Moreover, if you are paying with your Pounds Stirling, Euros or US dollar, this is going to be the best-value fine dining you will experience on planet earth, so don't hold back! While the cuisine is modern French, I would suggest it reflects the cutting-edge of New Zealand. The wine list is comprehensive and intellectual, equally representing the best of France and New Zealand—knock yourself out!

If you still have room for more dining and the stamina for seven-course degustation or “discovery” menus, there's a movement of impassioned Auckland chefs who strive for culinary sublimity. Set-menu dining “experiences” and dishes are created around a seasonal and freedom of expression food philosophy. In this vein, Chef's Sid Sahrawat at Sidart, Kazuya Yamauchi at Kazuya, Makato Tokuyama at Cocoro and Michael Meredith at Meredith's are all exceptional fine-dining experiences. 

There are, of course, those days when you just want to relax, especially if you've travelled long distances. Casual dining is strategic, as is great coffee, and indeed vital! So it's a good thing the best coffee in all of Auckland is just around the corner from the SKYCITY Grand Hotel. Get your fix at Remedy Coffee (1 Wellesley Street West). A ten-minute walk in the other direction and another must-eat, you have to have one of Al Brown's Best Ugly Bagels. These are Montreal-style bagels hand rolled and baked in wood-fired stone ovens. Here's a link to the Best cafes in Auckland. And the dim sum at Grand Harbour is as good as you will get in Hong Kong.

Rounding out your cultural experience, a visit to the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, is an absolute must. It is widely considered New Zealand’s pre-eminent public art collection of historic, modern and contemporary art. The pieces plot a visual history of New Zealand, beginning with the first contact between Māori and European explorers in the 1600s. There are outstanding works by Māori and Pacific Island artists, as well as international painting, sculpture and print collections with more than 16,000 European and British artworks. You could easily fill in a whole day here and it's well worth going just to see the beautifully restored building; the Gallery’s doors opened for the first time on February 17, 1888.

Equally, you have to visit The Civic Theater, one of the few remaining Atmospheric Theaters in the world, built in 1929 and specifically designed as a “movie palace” for talking pictures (“talkies”), which had just been introduced to New Zealand. The first purpose-built cinema of this type in the country, The Civic has become a much-loved Auckland landmark and entertainment venue. It would be most fortuitous if there were a show on when you are in town.

Getting around Auckland: This is a very useful local government website for a cycle, run, walk and all forms of transport. And, if you're a keen cyclist, look for the “pink path” and how it fits in with the central cycleways.

Obsessed foodies will of course want to visit Farmer Markets and there are many, to which you can get all of the information you need at Markets in Auckland. Oh, and I almost forgot the most important thing, where's the best place to buy wine! Glengarry Wines Victoria Park is their flagship store with a seriously comprehensive range of both local and imported wines. Make sure you delve into the cellar room, although a warning, this may do a lot of damage to your credit card! You can recover with a glass of wine at Apero wine bar with 30 wines by the glass.

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