Sam Neill wants to invite you to dinner across the ditch, and he's not the only one. New Zealand's chefs and winemakers are throwing out the black and white, silver fern-emblazoned welcome mat for Australians, whenever and wherever the trans-Tasman bubble allows.
"They've been without visitors for far too long, they're all ripping to go," says the actor, star of such films as Jurassic Park, The Piano and My Brilliant Career, winemaker, and one of the most popular and high-profile Kiwis among Australians.
Hungry diners will find plenty of top-notch dining experiences not only in major cities like Auckland and Wellington but right across the North and South, says Neill, who owns Two Paddock, a winery in the pinot noir-rich Central Otago region, about 75 minutes' south-east of Queenstown.
"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."
We asked Neill to share some of his favourite Kiwi food and wine destinations with us. From casual pubs and laidback wineries to fine diners, you will find his complete hit list below, (with a little help from his friends).
Oh, and while Two Paddocks winery doesn't have a cellar door from which to greet visitors, do pencil in a trip across the ditch for early 2022. "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."
FAVOURITE NEW RESTAURANT DISCOVERY
AHI, AUCKLAND, NORTH ISLAND
Ahi, Ben Bayly's new restaurant. Photo: Manja Wachsmuth
"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."
If you want a crash course in Indigenous ingredients in New Zealand, 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.
The award for the most eye-catching dish has to go to Bayly's butterfish wrapped in bull kelp, looking like a carefully carved piece of pounamu or greenstone.
FAVOURITE CLASSIC WINERY RESTAURANT
AMISFIELD BISTRO, QUEENSTOWN, SOUTH ISLAND
Amisfield's Kiwi Lamington.
"This is a lovely place for lunch. The food is very impressive. Vaughan Mabee is a serious chef."
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 the respected Cuisine magazine's chef of the year.
The menu changes with the seasons but if it's on the menu, don't go past the paua (abalone) pie. While you are here, pick up a couple of bottles of Amisfield's pinot noir.
FAVOURITE FINE DINING RESTAURANT
RATA, QUEENSTOWN, SOUTH ISLAND
Rata's Kiwi dip Southland cheese roll.
"I don't like fine dining that much, but there are certain restaurants I have great enthusiasm for. Rata never disappoints."
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.
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.
FAVOURITE LUXURY LODGE CUISINE
MINARET STATION, WANAKA, SOUTH ISLAND
Minaret Station. Photo: Matt Crawford
"New Zealand has some amazing luxury lodges with amazing food. Minaret Station is accessible only by helicopter [via heliports in Queenstown or Wanaka]; this is glamping with the emphasis on 'glam'. To have a meal up there among the peaks is really special."
Given that the only way to reach this Southern Alps lodge, set at an altitude of 915 metres, 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.
Let one of the lodge helicopters drop you at a scenic spot for the ultimate South Island alpine picnic.
FAVOURITE SEASONAL KIWI MUST-TRY DELICACY
BLUFF OYSTERS, SOUTH ISLANDS
"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."
These deep water oysters grow naturally in the Foveaux Strait, which separates the South Island and, sitting below it, Stewart Island, New Zealand's third biggest land mass. Bluff oysters are known for their succulence and their distinctive flavour with crayfish, paua (abalone), scallops, salmon, blue cod and whitebait also abundant in these far-flung parts.
The oysters' eponymous port town, Bluff, which is about half-an-hour south of Invercargill, the South Island's southernmost city, hosts an oyster festival each year. The Bluff Oyster and Food Festival 2022 festival is set to take place on May 21.
FAVOURITE PUB GRUB IN A SEASIDE SETTING
DUKE OF MARLBOROUGH HOTEL, RUSSELL, BAY OF ISLANDS
The Duke of Marlborough Hotel, Russell, Bay of lsands.
"This upscale North Island 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]."
This elegant and historic waterfront pub started life as a grog shop in the 1820s, when the immensely charming village of Russell was the largest whaling port in the southern hemisphere. It was later issued the first liquor licence in New Zealand.
The local Waikare Inlet oysters are a highlight but the slow roasted lamb shoulder is another favourite. The Duke of Marlborough wine list is outstanding.
FAVOURITE MUST-VISIT SOUTH ISLAND WINERY
FELTON ROAD, CENTRAL OTAGO
Felton Road biodynamic winery, Central Otago. Photo: Andrea Johnson
"For my favourite South Island winery, I'm going to say Felton Road, our neighbours here at Two Paddocks. They're friends of ours and make terrific wines."
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.
Try the Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3 or the Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 5.
FAVOURITE 'ON MY MUST-VISIT LIST' NORTH ISLAND WINERY
URBAN WINERY, NAPIER
"I get to Hawke's 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."
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.
The Zen chardonnay has rich layers of flavour over a citrus core.
FAVOURITE CASUAL DINING SPOT
AMANO BAKERY, AUCKLAND, NORTH ISLAND
"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."
Occupying the ground floor of a heritage building in the fashionable CBD Britomart precinct, this high-ceilinged bakery-restaurant is packed with atmosphere 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.
We're not going to argue with Sam Neill. Go the chocolate tart.
FAVOURITE NEW EATERY ON MY 'MUST DINE AT' LIST
Homeland, Auckland. Photo: Liz Clarkson
"My old friend Peter Gordon has opened a new restaurant called Homeland. I haven't been lucky to get there yet but everything Peter Gordon does is interesting."
Homeland isn't just a restaurant. Gordon, perhaps New Zealand's most internationally-known chef 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.
Every six weeks or so, the menu changes to highlight a new group of local suppliers. Dishes may include miso-braised beef cheek with kumara gnocchi and mascarpone, or clams with silverbeet and quinoa in a coconut ginger miso broth.
FIVE MORE TOP KIWI TABLES
Not content with only Sam Neill's choices, we asked some of New Zealand's top chefs for their own don't-miss dining options.
WBC, WELLINGTON, NORTH ISLAND
CHOSEN BY SHAUN CLOUSTON, HEAD CHEF, LOGAN BROWN WELLINGTON
"This little place [WBC stands for 'Wholesale Boot Company] is a great choice for lunch. They have a fresh seafood bar where they shuck oysters and clams, and they do a great Goan raw fish curry, a bit like a ceviche. The wine list and the cocktails are also really well done." See wbcrestaurant.co.nz; loganbrown.co.nz
FLEURS PLACE MOERAKI, SOUTH ISLAND
CHOSEN BY KATE FAY, HEAD CHEF, CIBO, AUCKLAND
Head chef Cibo Auckland Kate Fay.
"I absolutely love this rustic restaurant. Moeraki is a small fishing community north of Dunedin, and the restaurant overlooks the whole bay. It has warm friendly service and generous portions of the freshest fish. Have the skate wings or the blue cod." See fleursplace.com; cibo.co.nz
CRAGGY RANGE, HAWKE'S BAY, NORTH ISLAND
CHOSEN BY JOSH EMMETT, OWNER, ONSLOW, AUCKLAND, AND THE OYSTER INN, WAIHEKE ISLAND
"Craggy Range is one of Aotearoa's best winery restaurant experiences in the heart of New Zealand's most exciting wine regions. The chef has his unfair share of incredible local produce to showcase seasonally that's matched effortlessly with Craggy Range's delicious wines." See craggyrange.com; onslow.nz; theoysterinn.co.nz
TASTE OF INDIA, WELLINGTON, NORTH ISLAND
CHOSEN BY LAURA GREENFIELD, CHEF, WELLINGTON'S FIELD AND GREEN, WELLINGTON
"I head to Taste of India at least once a week. There's a queue every day when they open at 5.30. It's takeaway only, no eat in, no Uber eats, but the food is unbelievable. Their tandoor chicken is sensational, the naan is made to order, and it's amazing value." See fieldandgreen.co.nz
MR MORRIS, AUCKLAND, NORTH ISLAND
CHOSEN BY JONATHAN ROGERS, HEAD CHEF, MATAKAURI LODGE, QUEENSTOWN, SOUTH ISLAND
"Michael Meredith, a stalwart of the Auckland hospitality scene, has returned after a couple of years' hiatus with this modern Pacifica cuisine venue. The paua, ginger and seaweed and the octopus, chipotle and mole sauce were my highlight dishes." See mrmorris.nz; robertsonlodges.com
FIVE MORE NEW ZEALAND TASTE SENSATIONS
Much bigger than our blue mussels and best enjoyed steamed.
New Zealand is the world's largest producer of farmed venison, and local chefs excel at preparing it.
You will find whitebait fritters on almost every menu between August and November.
Originally from Brazil, this Vitamin C-rich fruit is grown in many gardens.
The traditional Maori method of cooking using an underground pit.
FIVE KIWI COMFORT FOOD CLASSICS
HOKEY POKEY ICE CREAM
New Zealand's contribution to the ice cream world.
Chocolate and cornflake biscuits topped with walnuts.
Short for Lemon & Paeroa, this soft drink is advertised with the slogan, "World Famous in New Zealand".
Pink marshmallow with a chocolate coating is a favourite treat for kids.
MARMITE AND CHIP SANDWICHES
A beloved schoolyard treat and hangover food. Best made with salt and vinegar chips.