Cuisine awards highlight rising quality of fine dining outside Auckland

Stuff.co.nz article by Ewan Sargent

On Monday night it was all bow ties and cheers at the Auckland Museum as the best dining places in New Zealand celebrated life at the top of the ladder.

Cuisine launched its 2016 Good Food Guide which named 83 restaurants good enough to get in as well as awarding hats to 47 of them who were just that little bit extra special.

One hat is being a bit extra special. Two hats is hit-out-of-the-park special and the tiny handful on three hats are in such rarefied air at the top of the ladder they should be on oxygen.

While Auckland dominated as usual – understandable given the population and number of restaurants – the rise of dining outside of Auckland also continued. More hats are awarded to restaurants outside of Auckland than inside, more two-hats went outside Auckland, and for the first time the exclusive three-hat club has been joined by a non-Auckland restaurant (Roots from Lyttelton).

Diners love local food and wine. Innovative restaurants are giving them what they want with exciting results.

Chief judge Kerry Tyack says restaurants outside Auckland are realising they are in a unique position to offer something different.

"What you have to do is celebrate all the things that are good about your region, your province, your ingredients, your location, all those things come into it. If you build on those you have as good a chance as anyone anywhere to reach that hat standard."

Meanwhile restaurants that already have hats are maturing and using the confidence they have gained from that to go up another level.

The first Good Food Guide appeared in 2013 when the idea was transplanted here by parent company Fairfax from Australia. Similar guides were hugely successful and influential in Melbourne and Sydney. Naturally the hats echo the famous French Michelin guide.

The process used to find the top restaurants has been the same for four years. Cuisine pays for an anonymous judges to visit and write up detailed templated reports. The final decisions are made after cross-checking reports, analysing other sources and sometimes re-visits. A restaurant can't buy its way in. You only get in if Cuisine rates you good enough.

Every year the restaurants are judged all over again. They can gain hats, lose hats and drop in and out of the guide depending on how they perform. Restaurants miss the guide if they have had a change of chef near the critical judging period.

In 2013, the guide included 53 restaurants and awarded hats to 20. Of those 20 hatted restaurants, just seven were from outside Auckland, about 35 per cent.

Wellington had three hats, including the only two-hat restaurant outside Auckland, which was Logan Brown. Quake-hit Canterbury had none and the entire South Island had three. Hamilton's Victoria Street Bistro had one hat.

The next year the guide swelled to 63 restaurants and 30 of these were awarded hats. Outside of Auckland supplied 13 hats, so the percentage had climbed to 43 percent. Christchurch had emerged from the brick dust, gaining three new hats, and Wellington had 5 hats.

In 2015 the Good Food Guide offered up 76 top restaurants. It awarded 37 hats and now 54 per cent of those were going to restaurants outside Auckland. Wellington's rise continued, it jumped to 7 hats. Canterbury climbed to 5 hats and Lyttelton's Roots joined Logan Brown as the only two outside Auckland with two hats.

Now in 2016 the guide, which comes free with the latest issue of Cuisine, has grown to 83 restaurants nationwide. Of the 49 which won hats, 26 come from outside Auckland.

That's about the same percentage as 2015, but the big change is in the quality of the restaurants south of Bombay Hills. They now outnumber the Aucklanders when it comes to two hats. They are The Larder from Wellington, Pegasus Bay and Pescatore from Canterbury, Victoria Street Bistro from Waikato, Amisfield from Otago, and Pacifica from Hawke's Bay

Also finally a restaurant outside of Auckland, Roots at Lyttelton, has joined the exclusive 3-hat club this year. The south is rising.


Victoria St Bistro (Hamilton)

This much-loved establishment has long carried the flag for Waikato's fine dining. It won a hat and a best regional restaurant title in 2013 and this year is runner-up best regional restaurant but more significantly has been given two hats. The dining room is elegant and chef-owner Andrew Clarke and wife Julia who looks after front of house have perfected their clever and imaginative approach to the menu. Here you'll find dishes like tender grilled octopus, scallop, smoked chorizo and marinated heirloom tomatoes, dressed with a black rice vinegar reduction.

Pacifica (Napier)

Hawke's Bay's food scene just keeps getting stronger and leading the charge is bold Pacifica, which this year won its second hat and retained its best regional restaurant award from 2015. It's taken a few years for Pacifica's wildly creative approach to mature, but now this one-of-a-kind Hawke's Bay place is a must to try. Chef-owner Jeremy Rameka serves up degustation only menus from a blue bungalow on the waterfront. Don't be deceived by the humble looks, the highly creative food can be quite brilliant. One of the two daily degustations is devoted to seafood with dishes like pan-seared sesame-crusted trevally with squid mince and greenlip mussel sago.

The Larder (Wellington)

Bold, innovative, The Larder's been a one-hat restaurant and a Wellington standout since the 2013 guide. This year chef Jacob Brown and partner Sarah Bullock have been moved to two hats and Bullock wins the restaurant personality award for her front-of-house skills. Brown brings a little of the shock jock feel to his cooking with a love for challenging ingredients like offal and insects. He embraces nose-to-tail cooking and passionately supports his local suppliers. At The Larder you find things like tripe, South Island elk, crumbed lambs brains, jellyfish and braised trotter alongside the usual immaculately cooked beef fillet and fish.

Roots (Lyttelton)

Roots relentless climb to the top continues with the award of three hats this year. It follows the jump from one to two hats and awards of runner-up best new restaurant and restaurant of the year. The restaurant is the local-first, ethical, sustainable passion of chef-owner Giulio Sturla and partner Christy Martin. At Roots you eat degustations, a series of courses that are a mystery until served. But they will be brilliant vignettes of usually humble ingredients transformed into spectacular dishes. One example: a taco with the shell made from long fermented Māori potato slices holding parsnip, black garlic, sauerkraut, cured nasturtium pods and miso butter. It's an unforgettable explosion of flavour and texture.

Amisfield Bistro (Central Otago)

Amisfield Bistro has always been a picturesque winery restaurant near Lake Hayes, just five minutes from Arrowtown. It won a hat in 2013 and 2014, took a break last year with the arrival of new chef Vaughan Mabee, and is now back in the guide with two hats and the runner-up best winery restaurant award. Mabee, who can list Noma on his CV, has taken the food up a level creating an amazing platform to showcase the wines. You'll discover dishes as layered and sophisticated as tender shaved paua with sweetly intense paua foam, light-as-air pork crackling, thin slivers of Jerusalem artichoke and moist, tender brioche.


One hat

Bistro Gentil
Black Estate
Botswana Butchery, Queenstown
Charley Noble
Elephant Hill
Field & Green
Fishbone Bar & Grill
Gusto at the Grand
Jano Bistro
Logan Brown
Mister D
Ortega Fish Shack
Phil's Kitchen
Ponsonby Road Bistro
Soul Bar & Bistro
Te Awa Winery Restaurant
The Engine Room
The Sugar Club

Two hats

Orphans Kitchen
Pegasus Bay
The Grill by Sean Connolly
The Larder
Victoria Street Bistro

Three hats

The French Café
The Grove

2016 special awards:

Restaurant of the Year: The French Café
Chef of the Year: Sid Sahrawat, runner-up Michael Meredith
Best Metropolitan Restaurant: The French Cafe, runner-up Pescatore
Best New Metropolitan Restaurant: Phil's Kitchen, runner-up Field & Green
Best Regional Restaurant: Pacifica, runner-up Victoria Street Bistro
Best New Regional Restaurant: Bistromony
Best Specialist Restaurant: Cocoro
Restaurant Personality of the Year: Sarah Bullock, The Larder
Innovation Award: Tom Hishon, Orphan's Kitchen
Best Winery Restaurant: Pegasus Bay, runner-up Amisfield
Best Wine Experience: Apero
Best Drinks List: Charley Noble

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