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Eating New Zealand’s North Island

Bistro Lago NZ lamb (1280x960)New Zealand is a food lover’s paradise. This little island country doesn’t subscribe to factory farming. The food raised and produced here is most often from small farms and it’s likely  organic and the meats are usually grass-fed. The result is fresh, authentic deliciousness.

Yes, the food in New Zealand costs more than in countries like the U.S. where much of the food is produced on factory farms. For instance, a cup of premium coffee in the U.S. is $2; in New Zealand, it’s $4 or more. A burger in the U.S. ranges from $5-10; in New Zealand, it’s more like $15. Both the small farms and the fact that New Zealand is located at the bottom of the world contribute to higher prices.

However, after you taste food in New Zealand, it’s likely you’ll quickly adjust to paying a bit more because the food is delicious.

RFT Editor Anne Weaver and I spent 10 days on New Zealand’s North Island experiencing its cuisine and found the food fresh and deliciously creative.


Dishes at The Food Store are as beautiful as they are delicious.

Dishes at the foodstore are as beautiful as they are delicious.

More than a million people call the beautiful, waterside city of Auckland home and one of the reasons is its food. Located in Market Square right on Viaduct Harbor across from American’s Cup Sailing and the Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum, the foodstore has both a terrific location and amazing food. Huge glass panels fold back so that diners can enjoy both the views and the breezes and feel like they’re outside.

The foodstore is more than just a good restaurant. They bill themselves as “New Zealand’s first unique live food entertainment experience.” Led by Food TV’s Mark Southon, they offer a large demonstration kitchen and cameras that display what’s happening on large screen TVs.

The foodstore also New Zealand’s only all-New Zealand sourced restaurant. All of the ingredients are locally produced, including the wine (with the exception of French champagne). To give us the broadest view of this restaurant possible, we tried a number of dishes (the starter size, which was perfect for lunch), paired with wine recommended by our able server .

The fried Bluff Oysters were delicate and as light as air.

The foodstore’s fried Bluff Oysters are delicate and as light-as-air.

We arrived in the country just as the Bluff oyster season opened. Bluff oysters are relatively small, delicately sweet bivalves that, according to The Food Store wait staff, are available in only three places on the planet (they’re also grown in Bordeaux and in South America). In New Zealand, Bluff oysters are available only two to three weeks each year.

We ordered a half order of the oysters battered and deep fried and a half order of  raw, on-the-half shell. The fried oysters were crisp and light-as-air and served with a mild wasabi mayo. The raw oysters were super sweet, but they came served with a shallot vinaigrette that proved a bit overwhelming for the delicate oysters. We paired the oysters with a light, crisp Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc, that didn’t interfere with the richness of the oysters, but kept our palates fully open and engaged with the sweet-briny Bluff oysters.

What's not to love about uber-fresh seafood, including King fish, crisp octopus, and chewy clams in a spicy tomato broth?

What’s not to love about uber-fresh seafood, including King fish, crisp octopus, and chewy clams in a spicy tomato broth?

Next we tried their Big eye tuna tartare, a beautiful dish that came with uber-fresh chunks of tuna, sweet coconut powder, minced tomatoes and cucumbers that provided crunch, and just the right amount of acid. The tartare was served with a refreshing wasabi sorbet. We drank some un-oaked chardonnay from Mount Edward with this dish. The wine offered a deep richness that opened the top of the mouth and matched the intensity of the tuna.

The wild rainforest smoked Raukumara venison loin was another pretty dish. It came char-grilled with celery puree , a smoky eel croquette and an herb salsa. The smokiness of the loin was light and added nicely to the complexity of the meat, which had no trace of gaminess. The celery puree was silky with an assertive flavor of the veggie. The eel croquette was crisp on the outside with a mashed potato texture on the inside. While the eel croquette too salty for my taste,  my companion found taking small bites and running it through celery puree made it quite tasty. We paired this dish with Man O War Dreadnought syrah, a complex wine with floral notes that stood up well to the venison and brought out the meat’s smokiness.

John Dory served with corn puree was moist and delicate.

John Dory served with corn puree was moist and delicate.

A flaky, super-fresh John Dory was the market fish they offered and it was served with spring onions, creamy corn puree with cauliflower couscous studded with almonds and raisins. The fish was moist and delicate, the corn sweet, and the couscous, the perfect palette for the fish, offered a crunchy sweetness with the nuts and raisins.

We also tried the king fish which was served in a graceful oval bowl. It came with uber-fresh and meaty kingfish, crispy pieces of octopus, and chewy clams all in a spicy tomato-based broth studded with fresh herbs and tangy green olives. We enjoyed both these fish dishes with a Orlar pinot gris, which proved the right white companion.

Another terrific choice in Auckland is Café Hanoi in the Britomart section of the city near the waterfront. Jason Van Dorsten is the Executive Chef and he oversees a small café with rustic décor that accurately replicates the feel of old Hanoi with stucco falling off the wall, big paper lanterns,  exposed brick, and subdued lighting.

Cafe Hanoi's ambiance is pure Vietnamese and the food is fresh and authentic.

Cafe Hanoi’s ambiance is pure Old Quarter Hanoi and the food is fresh and authentic.

Café Hanoi’s menu offers a number of mini-plates perfect for sharing. We start with grilled minced beef wrapped in perilla (an herb in the mint family) with a chili ginger sauce. This wasn’t my favorite dish of the evening, but it was interesting. The perilla wrap had an interesting peppery flavor and the moist beef had a chewy, meatball-like texture.

Our next dish was even better—pork spare ribs twice cooked in five spice ginger and sesame. This dish, which we couldn’t stop eating, had deep spicy flavors. The Goin Cuón, summer rolls, provided a nice, light contrast to the rib dish. The four rice paper rolls were filled with flavorful braised pork, shrimp, fresh herbs, peanuts, rice noodles, and pickled carrots and crispy lettuce and served with a delightfully vinegary garlic chili dip.

Sauteed morning glory was a highlight.

Sauteed morning glory was a highlight.

Another favorite was sautéed morning glory with garlic shoots and chili. Who’d have thought morning glory, the invasive bane of gardeners, could be so tasty? The veggies were very fresh with a garden green flavor accented with garlic and a few slivers of habanero chili for a little kick. It was all French, crunchy deliciousness.

We topped it all off with cups of jasmine and fresh ginger tea. Delish!

In Rotorua, a town of about 60,000 on the southern shores of a massive caldera lake of the same name, one of the best places to grab a bite is the Third Place Café. This little cafe with big lake views has been serving the community for the past seven years and Fiona Withers has been running it for the past two. The name comes from the idea that the first place is your home; the second place your school or work; and the third place is where you come to relax. Third Place Cafe is a great place to do just that.

The Third Place Cafe is the place for terrific fish and chips.

The Third Place Cafe is the place for terrific fish and chips.

The café is open until 4 p.m. and everything is freshly made. They offer all-day breakfast, lunch items, and a kid’s menu. My companion ordered the café’s signature Mumble Jumble, crushed kumara (sweet potato), caramelized onions, fried tomatoes, and spicy chorizo, topped with bacon, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce. Sound like a jumble of flavors? It is, but a delicious one. The chunks of sweet potato were chewy and starchy; the bacon (more like Canadian bacon) sweet and smoky; the spicy chorizo flavorful and sweet like the kind found in Spain; and the egg sported a brilliant orange yolk that shouted “farm fresh.”

Don't miss their Mumble Jumble, a surprising concoction of delectable flavors and textures.

Don’t miss Third Place Cafe’s Mumble Jumble, a surprising concoction of delectable flavors and textures.

I ordered the fish and chips, two huge pieces of local terakihi, a deep sea white fish that’s perfect for deep frying. The batter was delicate and light-as-air. The fish came with a veritable pile of stumpy fries and a generous green salad (spinach, lettuces, cabbage, sprouts, shreds of carrot) lightly dressed in a mild creamy dressing. I also enjoyed a cappuccino made with “toasted” espresso from a local roaster that definitely had underlying toasty notes.

One day, we visited Te Puia, a local Maori cultural center where they encourage aboriginal youth to learn native arts and crafts and bring the knowledge back to their communities. They also offer cultural shows and tours of their volcanic grounds that include an all-you-can eat traditional Maori feast that’s both interesting and delicious.

At Te Puia, the feast is cooked underground.

At Te Puia, the feast is cooked underground.

After a traditional Maori greeting and dances by costumed native dancers, we were ushered into a large dining room and invited to help ourselves to the buffet-style offerings. The meats and vegetables are all cooked in a hangi, a traditional underground oven fired by native Ti tree wood. They included pumpkin, roasted potatoes, scallop potatoes, green-lipped mussels with garlic sauce, smoked fish, BBQ shrimp, and plenty of salads. Desserts included eclairs, steamed pudding, and chocolate and vanilla mousse.Needless to say, no one went home hungry.

At Fat Dog Cafe, it's all about giant sandwiches.

At Fat Dog Cafe, it’s all about giant sandwiches.

In Rotorua’s cute, walkable downtown, we checked out funky Fat Dog Café. The restaurant is filled with mismatched painted wood tables, dog prints on the ceiling, irreverent sayings (“When wine goes in, strange things come out…”), and a big chalkboard menu. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, but their claim to fame are HUGE sandwiches.

I ordered a steak sandwich that came with a giant filet of sirloin, two kinds of lettuce, caramelized onions, and melted cheese with sour cream all between two thick pieces of foccocia bread. It was accompanied by two big onion rings in a light, herbed batter that were some of the best we’ve ever eaten. They also came with thick potato wedges with a crusty exterior served with sour cream for dipping.

My friend ordered the roast chicken panini with red onion and, while it wasn’t quite as huge as my steak sandwich, it was plenty. It came with a creamy, sweet mango/peach cream cheese.

In central North Island, the town of Taupo is situated on the outlet to Lake Taupo, the country’s largest lake. THE place to eat in Taupo is Bistro Lago at the Hilton Taupo. Perched high on a hill overlooking the lake, Bistro Lago is a casual fine dining restaurant with white tablecloths, a wood floor, and big folding doors that allow in cooling lake breezes.

Bistro Lago at the Hilton Taupo offers spectacular lake views and super fresh caprese salad.

Bistro Lago at the Hilton Taupo offers spectacular lake views and super fresh caprese salad.

The entire menu—including starters, entrees, sides, salads and even bread—is ala carte. We started our meal with warm ciabatta with truffle mushroom mascarpone and caramelized balsamic that was chewy outside and soft-as-rain inside.

We followed that with caprese salads made with two fat slices of bright red Mokai garden tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, thin slices of pickled onion, and a big pool of super creamy burrata (fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream) and drizzled with a rich balsamic. It made for the perfect caprese salad.

We fell in love with these scallops.

We fell in love with these scallops.

The chef sent out an amuse bouche—a single grilled scallop with carrot puree, raisins and peanuts. If I’d have had a half dozen more of these delectable scallops, I’d have loved this dish as an entrée. The scallop was perfectly cooked—slightly crunchy on the outside; soft and tender inside. The puree added a lovely sweetness and the pine nuts just the right crunch.

The Island lamb rack came as four meaty, juicy ribs perfectly cooked to medium rare. It was served with a whole roasted tomato and a silky pea puree.

Beef at Bistro Lago is local, organic and grass fed--and it's perfectly cooked.

Beef at Bistro Lago is local, organic and grass fed–and it’s perfectly cooked.

The other entrée we ordered was the local grass-fed beef filet, juicy and meaty with a nice char on the outside. It came with a fresh sprout salad that added just the right amount of acid. We also ordered a side of wood roasted potatoes that was plenty to share.

For dessert, we opted for the tiramisu, which came served in an elegant stemmed glass with a shot of espresso on the side. The tiramisu featured layers of chocolate heaven topped with a scoop of ice cream.

This pretty tiramisu was served with a shot of creamy espresso.

This pretty tiramisu was served with a shot of creamy espresso.

Our other sweet choice was a lemon brulee tart with passionfruit sorbet and meringue. The intensely lemony curd was studded with chunks of meringue. The bright passionfruit, served on a bed of white chocolate crumble, balanced the lemony flavor and made the dessert intensely satisfying.

A unique way to get an authentic taste of North Island is to charter a fishing trip on Tuapo Lake with a company like Chris Jolly Fishing Charter. Trout are not native to New Zealand, but the introduced rainbow and brown trout have thrived in the country’s pure, deep volcanic lakes. The fish average 3.5 pounds and some can get up to 6.5 pounds! And what’s better than catching your own fresh fish and eating it immediately for lunch?

We booked a half-day fishing charter on the Waikare II, a 57-foot, steel hulled former gunship that was designed to patrol Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The charter included lunch as well as all of our fishing gear and instruction in how to catch these big lake trout. The limit is three fish per person per day and it didn’t take long for us to haul in three for big ones.

You can't get fresher trout.

You can’t get fresher trout.

We began our lunch with trout sashimi, which had been swimming in the water just moments before. The captain sliced the trout very thinly and served it with a soy-wasabi sauce that was delicate and delicious.

The rest of our lunch included bacon-wrapped chicken stuffed with cranberry and cream cheese, herbed ciabatta rolls, a fresh salad of cukes, tomatoes, feta, and greens, and, for dessert, apricot-coconut bars and tiny lemon tarts. It was all delicious and surprisingly sophisticated for lunch aboard a fishing boat.

Before leaving , we offered one of the fish to the crew and enjoyed eating tour other Big trout for the next couple of days (we were traveling in an RV).

Hawkes Bay
In the southwest Hawkes Bay region of North Island, you can satisfy your sweet tooth at Silky Oak Chocolate Company. This café, chocolate shop, and chocolate museum has been making chocolate candies, including all their own centers,  since 1959. The chocolate lives up to its silky name with chocolates that melt on the tongue.

Handmade marshmallows from Silky Oak Chocolate are soft, chewy and not overly sweet.

Handmade marshmallows from Silky Oak Chocolate are soft, chewy and not overly sweet.

Silk Oak’s chocolate espresso offers a deep, rich coffee flavor. The blackberry, which has a liquid center, isn’t quite as successful with a slightly granular texture. However, the almond truffle satisfies with creamy chocolate ganache topped with crunchy blanched almonds. Their chocolate-filled cups, which are made with honey, that you can really taste in the creamy centers. They also make their own marshmallows, which are light-as-air and not overly sweet.

Hawkes Bay is a wine making region and a good one. While North Island’s wine production is relatively small on a world scale, they’re producing some award-winning wines. Elephant Hill Winery is an upscale tasting room and restaurant with big windows overlooking vineyards and the surrounding hills and serving food that’s both inventive and beautiful. We began our lunch here with a deconstructed tart made with buffalo mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, basil cream, and pine nuts with puff pastry on a bed of rocket greens.

Elephant Hill's cool, modern space make a great place for lunch.

Elephant Hill’s cool, modern space makes a great place for lunch.

We also tried a half-dozen of their Bluff oysters. These native wild bivalves were sweet and mild-tasting. Those in-the-know wait with anticipation for the short, once-a-year season Bluff oyster season and, after enjoying them first at The Food Store in Aukland, and here at Elephant Hill, we could taste why. The uber-fresh oysters were served on the half shell with mignonette and a few  crispy shallots on top. Delicious!

Our entrée included coconut poached John Dory, a local white fish, with scampi, crispy shallots and coriander mint and melon “jewels.” The fish sat in a pool of sweet coconut cream over fresh, crisp bok choy. The melon added a bit of sweetness and the herbs balanced out the rich coconut.

Food should be as beautiful as it is delicious and it is at Elephant Hill.

Food should be as beautiful as it is delicious and it is at Elephant Hill.

For dessert, my friend ordered the coconut mousse mango parfait with passionfruit pearls and a crispy tuile, a fruity delight she loved. I went with a scattering of rich chocolate truffles served on a bed of chocolate crumbs and dehydrated raspberries. While I didn’t think the raspberries added much, the truffles were silky and delicious and paired perfectly with an excellent cup of coffee.

Wellington is a human-sized city in the southwest corner of North Island. It’s a real urban center, but the walkable streets, public art, many gathering places, and human-scaled architecture make the city a great place to live. Many terrific restaurants add to the livability and Chow, a downtown Asian fusion eatery, is one of the most popular.

Chow offers a large and interesting non-alcoholic drink menu.

Chow offers a large and interesting non-alcoholic drink menu.

I  love when restaurants offer creative, non-alcoholic drinks and cocktails and Chow’s were terrific. We ordered the Pomegranate Fizz, a refreshing concoction of pomegranate syrup, mint and sparkling water. We also enjoyed  Crouching Tiger, seasonal berries, pineapple juice and ginger ale that offered a nice balance of fruity flavors.

Chow’s menu is divided into: noodle soups, grill, fresh, steam, curry, grill and fry. From the steam selections, we chose coconut prawn dumplings with galangal, bamboo and lemongrass wrapped in rice paper with a chili sauce. This fresh tasting dish’s notes of lemongrass were pronounced and the galangal lent a peppery flavor that complimented the perfectly-cooked prawns.

For a fresh choice, we opted for the pork belly and prawn salad. This satisfyingly rich salad came with daikon radish, carrot, celery, cucumber, and peanuts with just the right amount of dressing. Our grill item was the rib of beef. Our favorite dish, the beef had been marinated in coconut cream, kaffir lime, ginger and lemongrass and was tender and deeply flavorful.

Pork Belly Prawn salad offered intense flavor notes and satisfying freshness.

Pork Belly Prawn salad offered intense flavor notes and satisfying freshness.

From the fry menu, we ordered sweet, hot pumpkin and cashew fritters with saffron, coriander, and sweet chili sauce. The dish had a  crisp nuttiness and the chili sauce gave it a tang.

A good way to get an overview of the food scene in Wellington is to take a culinary tour with Zest Food Tours, which is how we spent a half-day in Wellington. Our guide led us to Mojo Coffee Roasters on the waterfront where we sampled New Zealand’s most popular coffee drink, the flat white, espresso with a bit of steamed milk.

Mojo Coffee Roasters cappuccino is smooth and creamy.

Mojo Coffee Roasters cappuccino is smooth and creamy.

At Gelissimo, a gelato maker also on the waterfront, we found inventive gelato flavors made with organic milk and other local– and often unusual–ingredients. Owner Graham Joe left a career in high-tech to make his creamy, small-batch gelato. Judging from the wall of awards, it was a good choice. He makes creative flavors like ginger beer and blood orange as well as more traditional flavors like coconut and dark chocolate.

Zangy Zeus left a high-tech career to make inventive gelato flavors.

Graman Hoe left a high-tech career to make inventive gelato flavors.

We also checked out the bean-to-bar chocolate maker Wellington Chocolate Factory where they make single origin chocolate bars from Corollo beans from Peru. All of their chocolate is 70% and they also make a vegan bar.

Another food tour stop was Moore Wilson’s Fresh, an artisan grocery store that carries all kinds of artisan food products from New Zealand, including cheeses, produce, and local meats.

An interesting local place to enjoy a meal Wellington is Floriditas Cafe and Restaurant, a local downtown favorite. I ordered the Black Angus steak that came perfectly cooked with a satisfying char. It came with red onion rings that were delicate and crispy (some of the best I’ve ever had). My friend ordered the pan fried snapper, a big, moist piece of fish served with a flavorful heirloom tomato, black onion and caper “popper” salad.

Florditas specializes in fresh desserts and pastries.

Florditas specializes in fresh desserts and pastries.

For dessert, we shared a brown sugar pavlova, a New Zealand favorite. This creamy treat was served with vanilla peaches, blueberries, and a tangy salted caramel sauce.

Our final meal in Wellington was, appropriately enough, a traditional Maori meal served at the grand Te Papa Tongarewa (New Zealand Museum). At the end of our tour led by a Maori guide, we enjoyed green lipped mussels with seaweed in a broth with French bread to sop up the sweet-salty broth. We also savored sweet potato bread and fern frond pesto that we washed down with refreshing Otago Gold Tea, a combination of green tea, kawakwa (a native herb), lemon and ginger.

At Te Papa Museum in Wellington, they focus on Maori culture, including traditional foods.

At Te Papa Museum in Wellington, they focus on Maori culture, including traditional foods.

Eating on North Island New Zealand is varied, interesting and wonderfully delicious. We hope you get there soon. If you do, bring your appetite! — Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, Photos Anne Weaver, RFT Editor


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Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at

2 thoughts on “Eating New Zealand’s North Island

  1. Cousin Judie Bell

    Your stories always make my mouth water and my feet itch to travel. Great job you two.
    Happy New to you both
    Cousin Judie

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