Paraparaumu has become one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing urban areas. As a result, a cluster of new cafés and restaurants has opened down at Paraparaumu Beach, of which 50-50 is the clear leader.
This sleepy seaside settlement may seem an unlikely location for an avant- garde restaurant, but owner-chef Helen Turnbull has been drawn here by the proximity to Horowhenua’s market gardens, and to the wilderness. She works closely with forager Mike King, who in his other role as an arborist has ready access to local lifestyle blocks.
Thus, 50-50 is possibly the only restaurant in New Zealand where the sumac alongside your monkfish (pan-fried with babaganoush and cigar borek) has been processed from freshly foraged berries, and where your dessert comes with a crimson dusting of powdered pohutukawa. That said, the dishes are still classically approachable, albeit with a contemporary twist.
Foraged borage flowers and blackberries adorn the beetroot that accompanies a hearty chunk of lamb rump, with lamb gravy for comforting familiarity. Pork loin is unusually, but deliciously, served with green-lipped mussels, a subtle Sichuan sauce and a relish of foraged magnolia blossoms, which still exude their sweet perfume.
Turnbull spent five years in Tokyo, working for Gordon Ramsay at the Conrad Tokyo and for Michelin-starred chef Michel Troisgros at the Hyatt Regency Tokyo. She says that here she learnt that respect for the customer begins with positive teamwork and equality between the front and back of house – the principle that has led to her restaurant’s offbeat name.
Equally formative was Turnbull’s time at Kuon, a traditional restaurant in Tokyo’s trendy Ebisu district.
Her exquisite Japanese-influenced presentations are hard won. For example, the vivid acid-green of an ice-cold courgette soup (with coconut, by blitzing the blanched courgette skins and then roasting the cores separately.
Japanese cuisine also informs her love of charcoal barbecuing and her elaboration upon the okonomiyaki, using sweetcorn, fried quail’s egg, nasturtium and gruyère. The further down you dig, the more flavour layers are revealed: nori emulsion, tonkatsu sauce and nasturtium vinaigrette.
Sophisticated techniques lie behind even a seemingly simple avocado and radish roulade, rolled with mountain papaya and spiked with pink peppercorns and pine nuts. For while the diner might not be able to exactly discern the subtle flavour transformation of the mountain papaya, the cubes are compressed with lime juice and fig-leaf oil made from the tree in Turnbull’s own garden.
50-50 began nearly three years ago as a partnership between Turnbull and former maitre’d Eddie Kennedy, first forged when they worked together at Hummingbird in Wellington. Kennedy has since moved on to become a yoga teacher, but the standard of service at 50-50 remains outstanding. Ever on hand to explain the menu, our waiter Alex, also elucidates the wine matches when you order the six-course set menu. With just a dozen New Zealand-only wines and the same number of dishes, you can thereby eat and drink your way through the entire repertoire.
I didn’t much care for the dense tempranillo as a match for the monkfish (too overpowering), but Terrace Edge Waipara Pinot Noir was perfect with the lamb: just as Alex promised, it echoed the earthiness of the accompanying beetroot and brought out the juiciness of the blackberries.
Spade Oak Late Harvest Viognier seemed only natural for the Hunter’s plum crumble with plum sabayon, ginger ice cream and kawakawa cookies.
Beautiful crockery, much of it Japanese, draws you into these dishes, all the more because there’s little in this austere Japanese/Scandi-themed interior to distract your attention. Arguably, however, there is no need for paintings, since the art is on the plate before you. DAVID BURTON