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Interesting eats in Ponsonby, Taupo, Rotorua, Napier area?

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Looking for a few hints of interesting food places on the North Island for our upcoming trip:
Fun and unusual food in the Ponsonby area of Auckland.
Good food with local produce and wines in Napier and Hawkes Bay.
Somewhere with personality among the tourist haunts of Rotorua and Taupo.
We don't want anywhere too formal, but we do like good, adventurous food cooked with care. Smiles are good too.

Thanks, and I'll report back on interesting finds, as I have before.

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  1. I'm guessing you're not a local (we say "in", not "on" the North Island, not that we expect non-NZers to know that) so I'm not sure what you would consider unusual. The NZ cafe scene, for example, doesn't serve food in the same way as anywhere else I've been to, so you may find all of that unusual. (Best cafe in Ponsonby Rd: Bambina.) If you can give a bit more of a steer, hopefully I can help further (Ponsonby is absolutely jammed with restaurants). Sorry, can't help much with the specifics of other areas, but you will find local produce and wines without trouble everywhere you go in NZ. It's what we like to eat/drink.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Msconduct

      Thanks for your reply, Msconduct (nice name!). I'm an ex-chef and my two companions also like food that tastes of its ingredients, has assertive flavours, not overcooked, and makes you smile as it goes down. Friendly service from happy employees is a plus, pretentiousness is not. We are omnivores. Does this give you more of a steer-- hope it is not too vague. And do tell me more about Bambina.

      1. re: curioussheridan

        You'll get friendly service most places in NZ, but don't expect too much in terms of competence in that department, alas. We don't tip here and waiting isn't seen as a profession, so friendly but frequently clueless is the norm. The other bad news - you may be shocked by restaurant prices here compared to the US. If you like food that tastes of food, on the other hand, you're coming to the right place as we have some of the best ingredients in the world. (Please, please try our fish and seafood! I've been to Le Bernadin and came away disappointed because the fish was tasteless compared to what I'm used to at home.) Assertive flavours are also very popular: there's a strong south-east Asian influence here, for example, so you'll find things like Thai ingredients everywhere.

        As for Bambina, the cafe scene in NZ is a national obsession and good coffee is an enormous deal. (Our cafes are mostly breakfast and lunch only.) Bambina on Ponsonby Rd consistently wins awards and they do interesting, beautifully prepared food (and excellent coffee, of course). I'm not sure if Chowhound allows links, but they have their menu at bambinaponsonby dot co dot nz if you would like to get an idea of the menu - it will also give you an idea of the kind of cuisine you would expect to see at cafes. You'll also see all the wines are local - most people don't drink anything else. That would definitely be my recommendation for breakfast/lunch.

        As for dinner, I'm not entirely sure what you're looking for, but some recommendations for Ponsonby:

        SidArt (fine dining, degustation only, expensive,a but quirky)
        Ponsonby Rd Bistro (good bistro fare and an interesting wine list)
        Cocoro (fine dining Japanese with a modern twist)

        If you're willing to venture a little further into the city, however (not very far away) Auckland's best restaurants (both fine dining) are The French Cafe (confusingly, this doesn't have a French menu and it isn't a cafe) and The Grove. At a different level is Sean Connolly's The Grill - an extremely ingredient-driven upmarket steak place. Al of these would require reservations (some are booked weeks ahead). And at yet a different level is the enormously popular Depot (they do things like freshly shucked oysters, snapper sliders, bone marrow... If there's anywhere that epitomises where NZ cuisine is at right now, it would be Depot, but be warned, they don't take reservations and there can be a long wait for a table as it's always jammed. All of these places have their menus online if you would like to see more.

        I'm just scratching the surface here - if you have any questions I'll do my best to expand on things.

        1. re: Msconduct

          muchas gracias-- I haven't had time to look through all of your reccs yet but of the four I looked at: Ponsonby Road Bistro had some food combinations different from what we can get, and looked great. I know we'd enjot Bambina, though my Londoner sister will be somewhat familiar with the style. SidArt interesting but already heavily booked. Cocoro seems overpriced as many Japanese restaurants are. Had already liked the sound of The Depot-- any times to avoid a long wait? I'll look up more tomorrow.

          Just seen your recent post-- great! Will look at that too. We will have a car in Napier so can explore Hawkes Bay.

          1. re: curioussheridan

            I believe Depot is packed every day - it seems a wait is unavoidable unless you went at an extremely weird time. There's a bar next door which makes it bearable. I think your sister might be surprised - we tend to like things with stronger flavours here than they do in London. Enjoy your trip!

    2. Oh, yes, with regard to the other areas, I have my Cuisine (local food magazine, well worth picking up if you see it here) Good Food Guide award winners here for Hawke's Bay:

      Black Barn Bistro (it's at a winery in a beautful setting, simple produce-led menu)
      Elephant Hill (another beautiful winery)
      Mangapapa Petit Hotel (degustation only)
      Mister D (big punchy flavours according to Cuisine)

      I'm afraid no Napier restaurants made the Cuisine cut, so you're on your own there:). If you will have smartphone connectivity while here (something else that's expensive, unfortunately), you can check a place's reputation on menumania dot co dot nz or dineout dot co dot nz.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Msconduct

        Hawkes Bay: Mister D looks just what we want: gutsy food, and it actually is in Napier. Many thanks, MsConduct! Will report back

        1. re: curioussheridan

          You're welcome! I'll look forward to your report. One last thought - to avoid disappointment, don't set your expectations extremely high. Are our ingredients stunning? Unquestionably. Is the standard of cooking equally stunning? Um... Alas, NZ restaurants just aren't up to world-class standards - we're a small country with a corresponding lack of culinary and restaurant-running talent, internationally speaking. Even the best places can be hit and miss, and I quail to to think what an ex-chef will make of it all. Hopefully if you drink enough of the excellent wine the good things will shine through:).

      2. Ponsonby Road Bistro was wonderful: full flavoured lamb shoulder emphasised by Greek accents of olives, lemon peel, thyme and yogurt. The best lamb I have had on this visit. Also tender fresh monkfish, good blue cheese with a Marlborough late harvest reisling. When our neighbours at the next table heard my moans of joy they asked where else we were travelling and recommended Mr. D's in Napier as MsConduct had done which was also a good choice. Also, MsC, you're right about the lack of knowledge and skill by many Kiwi servers.
        The other place we really enjoyed on Ponsonby was Tin Soldier: good mussels, crunchy fries with a truffled aioli, chicken liver mousse with a chutney under good parmesan and sevéral other tapas we enjoyed. I'll write more on our food travels through Rotorua, Wellington, Picton and Akoroa later.

        1 Reply
        1. re: curioussheridan

          Terrific! I'm thrilled (and relieved!) they came through for you.