10 Extraordinary NZ Restaurants To Book For Now, According To The Viva Team

Auckland might have some of the best restaurants in the world, which Long live has been celebrating this week with the launch of Auckland’s Top 50 Restaurants for 2022, judged by dining out editor Jesse Mulligan and @Eatlitfood’s Albert Cho, but there are many more that deserve your attention,

From a family-owned vineyard on Waiheke Island to an unassuming house-turned-restaurant in Wellington’s Aro Valley, here are 10 lovely restaurants to put on your must-visit list. Happy booking!

Kisa, Wellington.  Photo / Supplied
Kisa, Wellington. Photo / Supplied

From the team behind Ombra and Mr Go’s comes Kisa, a gorgeous Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant in a prime position on the corner of Cuba and Vivian Sts in Wellington. Serving a variety of mezze, the eatery’s piece de resistance is the Josper Mangal (charcoal barbecue), the only one of its kind in Aotearoa, which gives a smoky, flame-kissed quality to its meat-threaded skewers and vegetables. Sample larger plates of shawarma-spiced lamb shoulder and imam bayildi (stuffed eggplant), or graze on mezze like cavolo nero tabbouleh with sour cherry or Gavurdağı tomato salad with pomegranate and walnut. The interior is warm and chic, ideal for whiling away an hour with a Turkish-style cocktail, whether at a street-side table or up at the bar.

Sherwood Hotel in Queenstown.  Photo / Supplied
Sherwood Hotel in Queenstown. Photo / Supplied

Queenstown: Stop. Slow down. You are at Sherwood, where the barometer is set at chill; lights just aglow, velvet curtains pulled, open fires lit. Executive chef Chris Scott is working the pass, standing on the restaurant side of the open kitchen, calmly embellishing every dish with garnishes freshly picked from the expansive organic kitchen garden. Seasonal vegetables, herbs and fruit shape the menu in a gentle, Sherwood manner. Scott is a vege master, applying such things as a caper, raisin vinaigrette and ricotta salata to greens, making them more irresistible than the meatier options which also come cooked to perfection with a garden flourish. A local, sustainable ethos (crackers made with spent coffee grinds), flows from food to drinks with natural wines from the barrel to enjoy by the glass or carafe.

Rita in Wellington.  Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
Rita in Wellington. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Don’t read ahead, don’t click on the hashtags — no restaurant offers the first-time visitor more charm and surprise than Rita. From the menu to the cutlery, IYKYK, and anything else would be a spoiler. Second visit? Third-fourth-and-counting? Just as good. The three-course set menu changes frequently but the pastry bases of every tart will be short and sublime, the flake of every fish fillet will be succulent and the vegetables will always taste like they’ve just been picked. Sometimes, those vegetables might be in the pudding — kūmara creme caramel, for example. Sometimes, the supplements will include venison carpaccio or asparagus tempura. Sometimes Rita is a tiny house that has become a restaurant, and going out for dinner has never felt more personal.

89 Aro Street, Aro Valley, Wellington, ph 04 385 4555. Rita.co.nz

Halli in Christchurch.  Photo / Supplied
Halli in Christchurch. Photo / Supplied

HALI BAR & BISTRO, Christchurch

When the early evening sun hits the decorative panels on Hali’s exterior, it casts bubbly shadows on the restaurant wall. You’re in an elegant fish bowl and you should definitely order the fish pie. The multi-dish presentation takes a humble home staple and adds almost raw tua tua and potato that contains so much butter and cream it is practically a custard. Across the table, there is John Dory in a delicately curry-spiced butter (with almonds for interest) and, earlier, hapuka ceviche with lime pickle. The menu runs to pork, steak, etc, but when even the pouring measure on the wine glasses is a tiny fish, why would you?

Level 1 & 2 The Crossing, 166 Cashel Street, Christchurch, ph 03 261 6129. Hali.nz

Central Fire Station Bistro's chef Sam Clark.  Photo / Supplied
Central Fire Station Bistro’s chef Sam Clark. Photo / Supplied

CENTRAL FIRE STATION BISTRO, Hawke’s Bay

Housed in Napier’s old art deco fire station and run by chef Sam Clark (ex Clooney) and his partner, pastry chef Florencia Menehem, the Central Fire Station Bistro is unmissable for both its gorgeous dining room and the always in season and on point menu. The huge front windows — almost five meters high — flood the restaurant with natural light during the day, and the deep bluey greens of the banquet seating and dark natural wood floor bring a little moodiness after sunset. The menu is constantly changing in sync with the seasons, but the tangy, chewy in-house sourdough is always the place to start, before perhaps some venison tartare, catch of the day with scampi butter or gnocchi with local gorgonzola, and something delightfully local to wash it down.

Tantalus in Waiheke.  Photo / Sam Hartnett
Tantalus in Waiheke. Photo / Sam Hartnett

For luxury dining with a difference, look no further than Tantalus Estate on Waiheke Island. This family-owned vineyard is destination dining at its finest, and its Trust the Chef experience is truly special. Executive head Gideon Landman (ex The French Cafe, Baduzzi) has designed five exquisite courses that reflect the seasons, using the finest local ingredients. On a recent visit, every dish was a delight, beginning with ‘snacks’ like pāua saucisson with pickled ginger, and duck liver parfait served in mini wafer cones. There was Black Origin wagyu tartar, and crispy pork belly with Riwaka Perigold truffles and burnt pear. The service is second to none, and the overall experience, surrounded by candles and twinkling lights by nights, or with views of the vineyards during the day, is a pleasure. Take it up a notch with the wine pairing to experience a great selection of Tantalus Estate’s Reserve and Estate wines. Trust the Chef is available for limited numbers on Saturday nights, so be sure to book in advance.

Chief Table's Jack Cashmore.  Photo/Matt Finlay
Chief Table’s Jack Cashmore. Photo/Matt Finlay

CHEF’S TABLE at BLUE DUCK STATION, Owhango

The hour-long drive off State Highway 4 in the Ruapehu District to Blue Duck Station is just the start of the adventure that is dining at The Chef’s Table. From here, an ATV (or helicopter) is the only way you can access chef Jack Cashmore’s hand-built restaurant, so an ATV bush safari has been incorporated into the experience to take you through virgin rainforest, waterways and extreme terrain to one of the station’s highest points with views across the Central North Island, including its four mountains: Taranaki, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. For $370, you’ll take a two-hour safari, followed by a 10-ish course tasting menu comprising produce farmed, grown and foraged on the farm. This is fine dining with the edges knocked off, showing what can be achieved remotely on an efficient and sustainable scale. The restaurant is intimate, with only 10 diners each evening, and an open kitchen, which allows the small team to interact and get to know you. It’s a quintessential New Zealand dining experience that is as refined as it is relaxed.

Gin-Gin.  Photo/Nancy Zhou
Gin-Gin. Photo/Nancy Zhou

While technically a bar, the food at Gin Gin stands up against some of the country’s best restaurants. The crispy pāua bites — coated in charcoal and spices, tossed in flaxseed and brown butter, and served in an iridescent shell with a sauce made from its own liver — are the closest thing you will get to a deep-fried bar snack at Christchurch’s Gin Gin, where 22-year-old Jackson Mehlhopt is challenging notions of what bar food can be. The dishes here are akin to those served in some of the country’s best restaurants, like Amisfield and Roots, where Jackson has previously worked. There’s scampi tail poached in fish stock, laid atop a golden slab of brioche and shrouded with a cloak of garden herbs; there’s kawakawa, onion weed and porcini being foraged from the surrounding hills and harbours; and produce sourced from nearby waters and farms being cooked over charcoal.

Whole Bluff grilled sole from Arrowtown's Little Aosta.  Photo / Supplied
Whole Bluff grilled sole from Arrowtown’s Little Aosta. Photo / Supplied

AOSTA & LITTLE AOSTA, Arrowtown

A drawcard to Queenstown’s dining scene is Aosta and Little Aosta, where chef Ben Bayly has designed a menu of refined Italian in charming Arrowtown. The restaurant is named after an Italian town Ben (the man behind Auckland’s Ahi and Origin) spent time visiting in his 20s, which has a similar climate and latitude to that of Central Otago. He uses Northern Italian techniques to showcase local produce, with Little Aosta heroing a menu of antipasti, pizzettes, pasta and dessert. Aosta has an expanded offering of cicchetti and secondi like Canterbury duck breast with celeriac, and aged angus scotch fillet with pinot noir glaze.

Friendsfield in Queenstown.  Photo / Supplied
Friendsfield in Queenstown. Photo / Supplied

To foodies worldwide, Amisfield is Vaughan Mabee. A wildly exciting, genius of a chef who puts his whole self into his work and has the restaurant mixing in prestigious circles internationally. Mabee wants you to understand where your food comes from (endemic and foraged in Central Otago), and the inspiration behind it. He delights in making the sweetbreads accompanying the just-cooked Fiordland crayfish taste like KFC Wicked Wings. The glazed smoked Eel on ‘Vogel’s’ stems from the staple diet of a misspent youth in the Far North, and the cone of the ‘pinecone’ dessert course takes him back to his grandmother’s brandy snaps. Mabee is a curator and creator of ingredients that perform spectacularly for diners through multi-course set menus that blow your mind and palate, and make you understand what good food — real food — should taste like.

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