I hadn’t expected a short flight to Tauranga to have me feeling like I’d stepped into a mini European vacation. A quick drive from the airport and I was sitting in Bar Centrale, located inside the historic Clarence Hotel; negroni in hand, I was immersed in a menu that might have been from a restaurant in a piazza in any bustling Italian city. I wondered if the gentlemen sitting at the table next to me sipping limoncello and conversing in Italian had been staged – it was just too good to be true – but then the creamed baccala, bottarga and olive oil, smoky-delicious barbecued octopus with stracciatella, spicy ’nduja, confit tomato and basil, and pizza bianca with mozzarella, blue cheese, pear, walnuts and bitter leaves left me in no doubt that there is great passion behind these plates, like most things Italian… Be sure to hit the bar and ask Marco Rodocanachi for his pick from the spectacular negroni menu. barcentrale.co.nz 

A long Italian lunch will leave you needing to rest and digest. My home for my first night in the beautiful Bay of Plenty is nestled within the lush farmlands of Pahoia. The French Country House is chateau-style luxury accommodation that, although only twenty minutes from Tauranga, has the feeling of being completely off-the-grid.  Again that feeling of Europe comes into play despite the authentic New Zealand landscape. Host Kay Pierson is a pure hospitality pro at this breathtakingly beautiful property. She’s one of the best and I’d say a wedding or special event would deliver something truly magnificent. In the prettiest of dining rooms at a table worthy of royalty with Kay’s preserved and fresh fruits, super-delicious smoothies and farmhouse-style cooked breakfasts, you will find yourself in heaven. Checking out was rather difficult as I would have liked to laze about in this gorgeous space for days. thefrenchcountryhouse.co.nz 

The absolute highlight of this trip was the discovery of a little piece of New Zealand landmark cuisine at 30 Bethlehem Road in Tauranga. For almost 35 years, Anne Butcher and Rick Lowe have been serving their passion on a multitude of magnificent plates at Somerset Cottage. Every dish had a little wow factor that was unexpected and undeniable: the cardamom and pickled oranges alongside that superb pâté with its cheeky gingerbread crumbs; the black garlic and tomato chardonnay vinegar salsa with those crispy oyster mushrooms; the heavenly vanilla and coconut-scented kūmara mash under that oven-roasted duck; the surprising ginger and coconut cream nestled with baked rhubarb atop a perfect crème caramel. That man Rick can cook. As for the totally unflappable Anne, with much splendid attention to detail and effortlessly casual despite a full house, she dispensed thoughtful and clever advice about the wine with each gorgeous dish. There is a reason why a restaurant like this is still standing after so many years. Somerset Cottage is not to be missed. somersetcottage.co.nz 

A quick transfer to the Trinity Wharf Hotel and I find myself in the midst of the Tauranga harbour in a room that is literally over the water’s edge. These panoramic views set the scene for the rest of my stay in the bay, with glimpses of marine life cruising the shallows, which made it hard to leave my room. The ultra-cool set descends on the hotel at the weekend and the bar and restaurants are pumping. I can recommend a cocktail or two as you wait for the family of stingrays that make a regular stop around sunset. trinitywharf.co.nz

 

You’ll find Pearl Kitchen just up the road from Papamoa Beach where you can have an organic, Fair Trade coffee and a bite or take a deep dive into the full menu. My steak sandwich was a very feminine affair, open-faced on house-made toasted sourdough, layered with crispy, shaved fennel and radish and doused in zingy, fresh pesto. A cold-drip coffee with sparkling water and condensed milk gave me an unexpected giggle with its playful, laboratory-style apparatus. Cheeky cocktails, all forms of crispy-fried deliciousness and wicked sourdough pizzas round out an offering by chef Andrew Targett and partner Annemarie Cambie that is fresh and fast and a whole lot of fun. They do amazing things with eggs. pearlkitchen.co.nz

Clarence Bistro (also inside the Clarence Hotel) is my pick for the one to watch in Tauranga. Chef Perrin Yates is sharp. He is completely obsessed with the menus he creates and you can taste that passion in every bite. The bistro offers a ‘Traditional Menu’ with some solid offerings that are far from predictable, but it is the ‘Clarence Experience’ that you must have if you are to truly understand the intent of this young chef. Smoked tomato, zucchini flower, ricotta, garden herbs and tomato water feels like pure summer in a bowl. Macadamia, kohlrabi, barbecued pāua, finger lime and XO sauce bring together a wealth of New Zealand growers and producers in a dish that is clever but not exhausting. The duck is laced with fermented cherry, raspberry, celeriac and bitter chocolate, and it works. The menu will continue to evolve and, for my money, it’s the most exciting meal in town. Perrin shows great dedication to the development of our next-generation chefs with the creation of his ‘Kitchen Mutiny’ event where he steps aside to let his team take charge and create a five-course tasting menu to showcase their talents. He’s surrounded himself with a terrific group – the whole restaurant team is fantastic. clarencetauranga.co.nz

My limoncello spritz with lemon marmalade and lemon zest was the perfect kick-off to some seriously good cooking by chef Ian Harrison and his team at Sugo. The name, of course, refers to the Italian sauce but also nods to the lineage of this talented chef. Ian credits his work on ‘sauce’ with Marco Pierre White at the Yew Tree Inn in Newbury, England as his first foray into what it meant to be a real chef. His menu is generous, the drinks list offers a cool mix of New Zealand and Italian flavours and, my favourite, a dedicated spritz bar. House-made pasta and hand-stretched pizza are mandatory, while a plant-based menu option includes two beautifully twisted Italian classics, a wild-mushroom bolognese with vegan tagliatelle, cashew nut parmesan and onion ash, and a cauliflower carnaroli risotto with broad beans, soft herbs and curry oil. My Middle Eastern spiced lamb shoulder ragù with pappardelle, curds and pomegranate will be a very good candidate for my ‘last meal’ – serious depth of flavour in a rich, deep bowl of comfort. As for something sweet, go for the cherry chocolate layer cake with ganache, red wine-poached cherries and olive oil. What a way to go… sugosugo.co.nz

Fife Lane is brought to you via the dreams and determination of Kat and Ryan Dippie. It’s moody, sophisticated and slick: the kind of place where a martini at the bar feels like an absolute necessity and where you will most certainly want to order up a steak from the impressive meat locker that takes centre stage. New Zealand pasture-fed wagyu and Angus from some of our premium New Zealand suppliers as well as grain-fed beef from Queensland are perfected using the fires and embers of the Mibrasa oven (a type of closed barbecue). You can add a classic sauce, but do yourself a favour and try the smoked mussel butter – I would queue around the corner to get my hands on more of that butter. Seafood features across the menu in a variety of elegant interpretations and although the desserts look swish, the dessert cocktails provide the perfect after-dinner minute. fifelane.co.nz

 

Born from a desire to create familiar Japanese food with a strong New Zealand connection, the words izakaya and kai combine to become Izakai at this clever gem. Casual, social and intimate, you can sit at the bar in the open kitchen or tuck yourself away at a booth or a table. Their foraged negroni includes a kawakawa and fig-infused Tanqueray, vermouth and campari and would be at home in the most cosmopolitan of Tokyo bars. The karaage chicken and kānga is a firm-favourite, but don’t go past the spectacular creamed pāua and prawn gyoza or the cauliflower katsu with its watercress aioli, pickled beetroot, umeboshi jelly and tart green apple. The ika mata is also a great surprise with its coconut panna cotta, mango salsa, flying-fish roe and passionfruit dressing, however the serious collision of cultures comes with the lamb rump in a boil-up reduction of miso nasu dengaku,  kawakawa and watercress. This brilliant initiative by owners Ryan Christensen and Liam Millard justifies a visit to the Bayfair Shopping Centre. Chef Will and the team will give you a new perspective on New Zealand flavour. izakai.co.nz

At Alpino at The Mount you will be forgiven for feeling you are stepping into an authentic trattoria – it is casual, unpretentious and makes the  best of local favourites with an ever-changing seasonal focus. Kim and Noel  Cimadon know a LOT about good hospitality being the brains behind Alpino Cambridge and Mt Maunganui, Bar Centrale and The Bistro at the Clarence Hotel. On a summer Sunday, sitting streetside watching the hustle and bustle of Marine Parade and sipping Aperol spritz, I found myself very much back where I had started this trip. Transported beyond our closed borders to the warmth and vivaciousness of Italy while fused with a distinctive taste of Aotearoa. Massimiliano’s creamy burrata is unashamed simplicity with its perfect heirloom tomatoes, Sicilian olives and anchovies; the freshest of New Zealand snapper crudo is showcased by an outstanding cast of pickled kohlrabi, oyster mayo, green apple and bush fennel; octopus sings in a deep romesco with fennel sausage, tomato and olive oil. Braised rabbit, shiitake, chilli and lime swirled through tagliatelle and dolloped with buffalo curd will make your heart skip. alpino.co.nz

Pizzaroma

MORE TASTES OF THE BAY…

BANG FOR BUCK We strongly suggest you hit the road with Kathrin Chappell of Taste of Plenty, whose ‘Bites of the Bay’ bespoke foodie tours unearth an exciting array of local artisan producers. tasteofplenty.co.nz

BREAKFAST Visit local favourite Rosie & Breadhead for next-level morning delights. instagram.com/breadheadnz

LUNCH AND CIDER Pop into The Cider Factorie and enjoy a tasting menu of their best. theciderfactorie.co.nz

PIZZA Lighter, crispier and healthier, why wouldn’t you? Try Pizza Romhttp://facebook. com/Rosieandbreadheada and taste the difference. pizzaroma.co.nz

TAURANGA FARMERS MARKET Creating a spectacular community around food, Saturdays 7.45am-noon. tgafarmersmarket.org.nz

COFFEE Excelso Coffee on Third Avenue is cute, relaxing and offers  freshly roasted and brewed or cold- drip, just around the corner from  the farmers’ market. excelso.co.nz