Sam Neill’s guide to New Zealand’s best food and wine
From pub lunches to degustation dinners.
Words by Ute Junker
First published in Traveller
Sam Neill wants to invite you to dinner. He’s not the only one – all of New Zealand’s chefs and winemakers are throwing out the welcome mat for Australian visitors. “They’ve been without visitors for far too long, they’re all ripping to go,” says the actor and winery owner.
Hungry diners will find plenty of delicious dining experiences right across the country, says Neill. “New Zealand’s food scene has never been more vibrant. New Zealand food is going through something of a revolution,” he says. “A lot of the best chefs are using distinctively New Zealand products to produce Pacific food that could only be imagined here. It’s some of the most interesting food in the world at the moment.”
So how do you track down NZ’s most memorable meals? We asked Neill to share some of his favourite places with us. From casual pubs and laidback wineries to fine diners, you will find his complete hit list below.
Unfortunately one place you won’t be able to visit is Neill’s Two Paddocks winery. It doesn’t have a cellar door but Neill says that a special event is being planned. “We’ve done a pop-up cellar door before, and we’re looking at doing it again in January or February,” he says. “It will be somewhere in Central Otago, a casual lunch in a paddock somewhere. They’re always great fun.”
BEST NEW DISCOVERY
SAM SAYS I was in quarantine in Auckland for a while and was fortunate enough to be able to order in from Ahi, Ben Bayly’s new restaurant. I strongly recommend it. I also like Kika in Wanaka and, more casually, Depot Eatery by Al Brown in Auckland.
WE SAY If you want a crash course in indigenous ingredients, Ahi is the place to go. In his latest restaurant Bayly – one of New Zealand’s most-awarded chefs – applies his refined technique to ingredients such as charcoaled crayfish served with a lemon-sorrel salad, and wild fallow deer with parsnip and brussels sprouts.
DON’T MISS The award for the most eye-catching dish has to go to the butterfish wrapped in bull kelp, looking like carefully carved piece of pounamu or greenstone.
NEED TO KNOW See ahirestaurant.co.nz
BEST WINERY RESTAURANT
AMISFIELD BISTRO, QUEENSTOWN
SAM SAYS This is a lovely place for lunch. The food is very impressive; Vaughan Mabee is a serious chef.
WE SAY In summer, take a seat in the courtyard. In winter, cosy up in front of the fire. Whatever the season, Mabee’s menu of small plates, and especially his degustation meals, make for a memorable experience. Mabee, who works closely with local hunters, foragers and fishers, is acknowledged as one of the country’s best chefs; last year, he was crowned Cuisine magazine’s Chef of the Year.
DON’T MISS The menu changes with the seasons but if it’s on the menu, don’t go past the pāua (abalone) pie. While you are here, pick up a couple of bottles of Amisfield’s pinot noir while you are here.
NEED TO KNOW See amisfield.co.nz
BEST HIGH-PROFILE RESTAURANT
SAM SAYS I don’t like fine dining that much, but there are certain restaurants I have great enthusiasm for. Rata never disappoints.
WE SAY Founded by star chef Josh Emett, Rata was envisaged as a love letter to New Zealand. A sense of place still shines through in every detail, from the urban forest that surrounds the restaurant to the rough-sawn timber ceiling to the restaurant’s name, inspired by a native tree known for its crimson flowers. And of course it’s there in the ingredients on your plate, from crayfish to native plants such as kawakawa.
DON’T MISS Rata’s menus are updated regularly but two dishes that seem to have won a permanent place are the Cloudy Bay clams with seaweed butter and chives and the goats cheese profiteroles with honey.
NEED TO KNOW See ratadining.co.nz
BEST FARFLUNG MEAL THAT’S WORTH THE TRIP
MINARET STATION, WANAKA
SAM SAYS New Zealand has some amazing luxury lodges with amazing food. Minaret Station is accessible only by helicopter; this is glamping with the emphasis on “glam”. To have a meal up there among the peaks is really special.
WE SAY Given that the only way to reach this high-country lodge is via helicopter, any stay here starts big. The food lives up to the rest of the experience, with seasonal dishes ranging from blue cod ceviche with coriander, lime, coconut and chilli to Te Mana lamb with eggplant and masala paste. Even the breakfasts make an impression, thanks to dishes such as creamy mushrooms with truffle, porchetta, sourdough and rocket.
DON’T MISS Let one of the lodge’s helicopter’s drop you at a scenic spot for the ultimate Alpine picnic.
NEED TO KNOW See minaretstation.com
THE SEASONAL DISH YOU MUST TRY
SAM SAYS In my view, they are the greatest oysters in the world. They are only in season for a couple of months of the year, but at that time any good restaurant will have them on the menu.
WE SAY These deep water oysters grow naturally in the Foveaux Strait and are known for their succulence and their distinctive flavour.
DON’T MISS The oysters’ namesake town, Bluff, hosts an oyster festival each year. The 2022 festival will take place on.
NEED TO KNOW See bluffoysterfest.co.nz
BEST BITE NEAR A MAJOR TOURIST SITE
DUKE OF MARLBOROUGH HOTEL, RUSSELL, BAY OF ISLANDS
SAM SAYS This upscale pub makes a great stop if you are visiting the nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds [where New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed in 1840]. The Central Otago Rail Trail also passes by close to here.
WE SAY This elegant waterfront pub started life as a grog shop in the 1820s, when Russell was the largest whaling port in the Southern Hemisphere. It was later issued the first liquor licence in New Zealand.
DON’T MISS The local Waikare Inlet oysters are a highlight but the slow roasted lamb shoulder is another favourite.
NEED TO KNOW The wine list is also outstanding. See theduke.co.nz
SOUTH ISLAND WINERY WORTH VISITING
FELTON ROAD, CENTRAL OTAGO
SAM SAYS I’m going to say our neighbours, Felton Road. They’re friends of ours and make terrific wines.
WE SAY Felton Road Wines has some of the oldest vines in the Central Otago region, and makes its wines using grapes that are farmed biodynamically on its three vineyards. Winemaker Blair Walter uses minimal intervention methods, avoiding fining and filtration and using only wild yeast. The cellar door is open by appointment only.
DON’T MISS Try the Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3 or the Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 5.
NEED TO KNOW See feltonroad.com
NORTH ISLAND WINERY WORTH VISITING
URBAN WINERY, NAPIER
SAM SAYS I get to Hawkes Bay at least once a year and always enjoy finding a new winery. The one that’s on my list to visit is Urban Winery in Napier – I haven’t been there yet but I’m interested to take a look.
WE SAY Housed in the National Tobacco Company, one of Napier’s beautiful art deco buildings, Tony Bish’s Urban Winery is known for doing things differently. Bish, formerly the winemaker for Sacred Hill Wines, focuses solely on chardonnays, and guests to his sleek cellar door can admire his egg shaped fermenters made of concrete and French oak, as well as tasting his wines.
DON’T MISS The Zen chardonnay has rich layers of flavour over a citrus core.
NEED TO KNOW See theurbanwinery.co.nz
BEST BET FOR A SUGAR RUSH
AMANO BAKERY, AUCKLAND
SAM SAYS You can really put on a few pounds here – I could quite happily eat my way through their range of cakes. Just try saying no to their chocolate tart – you’ll never manage it.
WE SAY Occupying the ground floor of a heritage building in the Britomart precinct, this high-ceilinged bakery-restaurant is packed with atmosphere. Oh, and amazing sweet treats. Whether you opt for something slightly unusual like the Basque cheese cake or the vanilla and rhubarb cake, or keep it traditional with a magnificent lemon meringue pie, there’s plenty to tempt you here.
DON’T MISS We’re not going to argue with Sam Neill. Go the chocolate tart.
NEED TO KNOW See amano.nz
WHERE I WANT TO EAT NEXT
SAM SAYS My old fiend Peter Gordon has opened a new restaurant called Homeland. I haven’t been lucky to get there yet, but everything Peter Gordon does in interesting.
WE SAY Homeland isn’t just a restaurant. Gordon describes it as a “food embassy”, and as well as an all-day eatery, it includes a cooking school, a film studio and a community space.
DON’T MISS Every six weeks or so, the menu changes to highlight a new group of local suppliers. Dishes may include miso-braised beef cheek with kūmara gnocchi and mascarpone, or clams with silverbeet and quinoa in a coconut ginger miso broth.
NEED TO KNOW See homelandnz.com