I apologise for the long wait in between posts - it's been one of those weeks, or months, rather, at work. Thankfully, there'll be a bit of a breather before the next onslaught, and hopefully I can catch up on a few more posts.
Day 5: Napier
Before we knew it, it was Day 5, and we were in Hawke's Bay - arguably New Zealand's wine capital. I had originally planned for us to arrive in Napier just in time for lunch at Fox on the Quay, a restaurant by the bay that promised "fine food, casual dining". Unfortunately, I had forgotten that it was a Monday, and, as a result, the restaurant was closed. While we did manage to lunch somewhere else nearby, the food was pretty mediocre, and quite a disappointment after we had been looking forward to a good meal.
Nonetheless, that was quickly forgotten after an entire day of wine-tasting at two artisanal wineries, as well as at Napier's flagship winery and vineyard, Mission Estate, which rounded off with a lovely tea spread of crackers, pate, cheese, and chutneys.
Fox on the Quay
14 West Quay
I'd researched where to go for dinner when in the Napier area, and one recommendation which came up a few times was Terroir, the restaurant of the Craggy Range winery in Havelock, about 30 minutes' drive out of Napier.
It's easy to see how the Craggy Range winery acquired its name: it's nestled up against the most gorgeous mountain range which, in addition to being picturesque, must also do wonders for the micro-climate, and probably explains why Craggy Range consistently produces top-quality wines.
The winery itself is also beautiful, housed in muted, earthen colours of tan and sandstone. Partly because it was dinner time, and partly because of the location, there was a great sense of serenity, sobriety even, as if this were the altar upon which prayers to Dinoysius were answered, as opposed to the location of Bacchanalian delights.
Terroir, the restaurant, is no less visually impressive, with a magnificent fireplace in the centre of the dining room, the chimney of which also serves as the central pillar holding up the vault of the ceiling. The wooden rafters and beams give the appearance of a huge oak tree spreading its branches, in keeping with the restaurant and winery's terrestrial, natural feel.
Unfortunately, the food did not live up to its surroundings, with the meal beginning with S's starter of mille feuille of marinated oyster mushrooms and caramelised garlic vinaigrette. Although the puff pastry was delightfully light, the oyster mushrooms had been marinated in white wine or verjus, leaving them sour and unnatural. For $21.50, this left a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth, both literally and figuratively.
My Provencal fish soup, coloured with saffron, flavoured with Pernod and served with rouille, croutons and Gruyere cheese, was better, and certainly came in a generous tureen, but I thought it could have been richer and headier; though I suppose I was asking for it, ordering a fish soup in a restaurant called "Terroir".
The woodfired fish of the day was a sole, served with fried potatoes, aioli and a preserved lemon. By this time night was beginning to fall in earnest, hence the poor quality of the remaining photos. The portion was far too large for S to finish, though she did like the potatoes.
My seared lamb loin, served with a cauliflower puree and a red pepper, olive and caper salad, was enjoyable, which was unsurprising, considering how good New Zealand lamb is. However, in contrast to the size of the fish, I thought they could have served a larger portion of lamb, even allowing for the fact that loin cuts are generally the pricier parts of the animal.
We were very full and very tired from the wine-tasting, so we decided to forgo dessert, but I was more than slightly disappointed by what Terroir had to offer. While the food wasn't bad (perhaps with the exception of the mushroom millefeuille), I suppose I had expected rather more as a result of the ambience and reputation. Perhaps, when it comes to food and beverage in Napier, I might just stick to wine.
Craggy Range Winery
253 Waimarama Road
Tel: +64 06 873 0143
Day 6: Taupo
After Napier, it was time to head back North towards Auckland, and the end of our journey. All good things come to an end, but that was no reason not to get a few good meals out of Taupo, which was our next stop.
Like the city of Rotorua nearby, Taupo is dominated by a massive freshwater lake that is larger than all of Singapore, and that was sufficient excuse for me to make a reservation at the Waterside Restaurant, a pub facing the lake and its boardwalk, where we could put up our legs and enjoy watching people go by.
Since we were having a fairly late lunch, I didn't want to ruin my appetite for dinner, and so I had a tiger prawn and calamari salad, with a coriander, chilli and citrus dressing. Again, a surprisingly Asian-influenced dish, but the prawns were nicely pan-fried, and the squid was fresh and tender. I didn't quite enjoy the crispy "nest" that sat atop my salad, but apart from that, it was a nice change of pace from all the meat I'd been having.
S's fresh pasta was infused with fresh basil oil and tossed with warm bacon, baby spinach, sun dried tomatoes and feta cheese, which all added up to quite a substantial meal, but it was refreshing nonetheless.
3 Tongariro Street
Tel: +64 07 378 6894
Fishing is a fairly heavily-regulated activity in New Zealand, which was somewhat surprising, as I didn't think over-fishing would be much of a problem given the ratio of people to landmass.
With a huge body of water conveniently located right in the centre of town, water activities feature quite prominently on the list of tourist attractions in Taupo, and for a not inconsiderable fee to cover boat rental and fishing licences, tourists can be taken out onto the lake to try their hand at fishing for trout. Lake Taupo is home to two species of trout, the rainbow trout and the less commonly seen brown trout, and, as both are closely related to salmon, they make for very good eating.
Serious anglers will not, however, find fishing on Lake Taupo much of a challenge - using sonar, the boat crew take you to spots where trout are in abundance, and they set up all the fishing rods (affixed to harnesses so that you don't even have to hold them), and all you really have to do is reel the catch in.
In all, we manage to catch two trout that were of regulation size, but we had to give one away since there was obviously no way were going to be able to eat them both.
After the catch has been netted, one of the crewmen kills the fish by striking its skull with a pair of pliers, before slipping it into a plastic box where the fish, if it isn't already dead, suffocates its way to a slow and agonising death - so really the pliers are kinder.
When your time is up, or when you've decided you've had enough, your fish are gutted, cleaned and placed in plastic bags. If you return to land before 4pm, there is a good chance that you can smoke any excess fish; otherwise, you'll just have to bring your catch to a local restaurant that is willing to cook it for you, which is not really that difficult, since my impression was that just about any restaurant in Taupo offered such a service. The one we chose was Plateau, a contemporary bar-restaurant close to the lake (so that we wouldn't have to travel far to drop off our fish), and close to our hotel (so that we could get back for a shower and return to the restaurant just in time for dinner). More importantly, it had also been rated as Taupo's top restaurant by TripAdvisor, so I had high expectations (I really, really did not want them to ruin the very fresh and expensive trout).
S's seared diver scallops were beautifully plump and golden, and artfully decorated with rocket leaves and asparagus shoots. The earthy, slightly bitter asparagus and rocket perfectly matched the buttery nuttiness of the scallops, which were firm and tasty.
I chose a quail dish, which involved a leg of quail that appeared to have undergone a poche-grille treatment, as it retained a bit of blush despite being brown on the outside and cooked through, and served in what I believe was a mushroom consomme containing both sliced shiitake mushrooms and mushroom tortellinis. Once again, it felt distinctively Asian, but it was an enjoyable, light appetiser nonetheless.
Of course, the trout was the main event, and the restaurant certainly did justice to it: the trout had been stuffed with rosemary and lemon slices, and baked on a bed of zucchinis and celery. As if that weren't enough, it was also served with generous portions of mashed potato, which was some of the creamiest I've ever had. Although I'm not normally a big fan of fish, the trout was so fresh that it was impossible not to enjoy this. The flesh of the trout was salmon-pink, and so delicately smooth that there was barely a need to chew, and the melange of vegetables not only provided a brilliant colour contrast, but also tasted fantastic.
Alas, although our efforts were valiant, it was simply impossible for us to finish the entire fish.
However, as there is always space for dessert, we decided to share a white chocolate and vanilla panna cotta, which was a little too firm as a result of the white chocolate, and I thought the strawberry sauce was too syrupy, but otherwise a sweet ending to a staggeringly filling meal.
I was very definitely pleased with the food Plateau had to offer, and thought that it in fact was probably one of the best restaurants of the entire trip (together with the French Cafe), although I was only able to regain consciousness the next day.
64 Tuwharetoa Street
Tel: +64 07 377 2425
Day 7: Auckland
Sadly, we'd come to the end of our journey, and, after braving an incredible three-hour traffic jam, it was time for one last meal in Auckland (technically there was breakfast the following day before our flight, but that doesn't really count), and I had already secured a reservation at Cibo, a trendy restaurant which was clearly the place to be seen on a Friday evening, because the restaurant was absolutely packed.
I was somewhat concerned when I noticed that many of the waiters were dressed in what floral shirts, sporting horned-rimmed glasses and pointed shoes. I have nothing against fashion sense per se, but I hoped that Cibo wasn't simply all style and no substance.
With a dish like "New Age gazpacho with stuffed baby vine tomatoes pickled spanner crab roasted garlic pannacotta and tomato essence", one can see why there was cause for worry. The dish was as pretentious as it sounded, with a number of discrete ingredients each vying for attention in a discordant cacophony of colours and tastes. It was not, of course, a bad dish; the baby tomato stuffed with spanner crab and the tomato essence, were actually quite nice, although I was rather less fond of the garlic panna cotta. The main problem, however, was that the separate components of the dish simply did not deliver a composite whole.
S fared better with her starter, though, which was a black sesame crusted tuna with crispy shredded duck and cashew nut salad palm with sugar dressing, although she did note that she could not taste the duck in the salad.
My main course was a char-grilled Angus pure eye fillet with red wine braised ox cheeks and a beetroot relish gremolata, which sounded pretty delectable, and indeed, the red wine braised ox cheeks were meltingly delicious, with a intense flavour of beef and red wine. Unfortunately, the restaurant had overcooked my fillet, and I was not at all impressed that one of the floral-shirted waiters attempted to convince me that this was because I had chosen to eat my beef cheeks first. He did, however, have the decency to concede that even if the beef continued cooking while it sat on my plate, it ought not to have been that overcooked, and I was given a new, properly-cooked steak within a short time, with no less than two apologies.
Sauteed prawns with caprino and chervil tortellini, served with toasted pinenuts and golden raisin butter with shaved pecorino were S's choice of main course (technically a starter, but she requested for a main course portion), and, notwithstanding the elaborate list of ingredients, looked like a very enjoyable and technically competent dish.
For dessert, we settled upon a compressed Valrhona cocoa with chocolate sorbet, milk chocolate mayo, sesame toffee and nut crisp. An elegant dessert, this was easy to enjoy, and we polished it off in fairly short order.
91 St George's Bay Road
Tel: +64 09 303 9660