Land of the good grove

By Cuisine16 Minutes
December 18, 2023By Cuisine
Dry-aged kingfish with coconut cream, avocado, radish, chilli & lime from Mr Pickles

New openings and wildly popular favourites make Hamilton a top foodie destination, says Alexia Santamaria.

You may have heard that Hamilton is having a culinary moment. To be fair, it’s never really been short of good places to eat, but a recent string of new openings, including spectacular new urban food precinct Made, have truly kicked things up a level and made it a must-visit food destination. If you’re heading that way this summer – and you should be – here’s what needs to be on your list.

MADE

We have to start here, because it’s just so impressive and the biggest new opening by far. The brainchild of Matt Stark, of Stark Property, and his wife Jaimee, this is a multi-faceted home of great Waikato food. On walking through the glass doors, you’ll be greeted by a wondrous assortment of permanent market stalls teeming with artisan goodness. It’s a mix of delicious things to take home to your pantry or fridge, and delicious things that won’t even make it out of the building. There’s so much to choose from: fresh produce from Pirongia Mountain Vegetables, beautiful cuts of meat and dreamy local cheeses such as Over the Moon from Expleo Butchery, chocolate from Fruney, bread from Volare and so much more. And if it’s all making you immediately peckish, there’s also some ready-to-eat food in the same area, such as the impossibly soft, fresh gözleme from Mezze, nutritious fare from Soul Boul or sweet treats from Mamas Donuts, Mr Twist or Taylord Cakes. Step down into the Mess Hall and the options to satisfy your hunger expand – tandoori delights from Spice Lane; bao buns, spring rolls, dumplings and sticky wings from On a Roll; Japanese food from Omo Omo; great fried chicken from Crack Chicken (Aucklanders will know of owner David Lee from outlets such as Poni, Aigo Noodle Bar and The Candy Shop). And there are also burgers from Burger Burger and gelato from Little ‘Lato to round it all off. Grab a local craft beer, cocktail or even wine from the tap from onsite bar Hāpi (they also fill growlers if you’re wanting something for home) and go and sit inside or on the open deck for food with a view. madehamilton.co.nz

THE GREEN

In the downstairs part of the Made complex (the Made Sheds), you’ll find a small-but-perfectly-formed eight-seater called The Green. Peeking in from the outside, you’ll immediately want to be at one of those seats as everyone seems to be having such a good time – whether they knew each other before they pulled up at the counter or not. Inspired by all things Waikato, the tasting menu changes daily. Chef Karl Martin-Boulton isn’t just talking the talk either, he’s clearly delighting in seeking out ingredients such as oysters, mushrooms and smoked eel from small producers all over the region and serving them in wildly creative ways (a cheeky take on a bacon and egg pie is a fine pastry shell with bacon jam, pickled onions, egg mousse and burnt onion powder; everyday milk becomes a flat crisp; and local citrus turns into a frozen grapefruit marshmallow and crispy grapefruit tuile). Karl has moved back to Hamilton after many years overseas and most recently took the reins at Huka Lodge. In the UK he was the chef at Old Downton Lodge Restaurant in Ludlow, England, which achieved four AA Rosettes and a place in the 2017-2020 Michelin Guide. thegreenrestaurant.co.nz

GREY ROASTING CO.

Also in the Made Sheds you’ll find Grey Roasting Co. If you meet owner Dove Chen, he’ll tell you he’s a guy who loves coffee and hanging out with people who love it, too. He probably won’t mention he’s a two-time New Zealand barista champion (and a semi-finalist at the World Champs) and genuinely insists it has less to do with any luminary talent and more about having an amazing team. While he previously ran a café called Grey Street Kitchen in Hamilton East, now it’s all about roasting blends and single origins from all over the world in his gorgeous new space, which somehow feels like your favourite local bar even though it serves coffee. Peek through at the shiny roasting equipment behind the glass, grab one of the best cuppas in town, buy coffee equipment or chew the fat with other coffee nerds. It’s a place for everyone. greyroastingco.com

SAGE

Across the road from Made is Sage. From street level, you’d never know that this large, sleek-looking eatery is waiting at the top of the stairs. Chef Lani Lemaua (ex-Gothenburg and Chim Choo Ree) creates both large and small shared plates, and if you ask him about his culinary influences he’ll tell you, “I actually just like making really yum stuff – food people like to eat.” A refreshingly honest commentary in a world of culinary clichés. And he’s true to his word: the sashimi with cucumber, makrut lime, Sichuan sauce and toasted nori is all your fresh-fish dreams come true and you could be as happy whiling an afternoon away over snacks and cocktails as you could a full sit-down dinner. sagerestaurant.co.nz

RÜDI’S

Riverbank Lane (also a Stark Property development) is already home to some great outlets selling coffee, tasty bites, books, art and Vietnamese food. Now they are lucky enough to also have the very popular Rüdi’s micro-bakery. Stefan and Fern Kelly-Zander’s sourdough and pastries already have a cult following from their pop-up in Whangamatā, and for very good reason. Sourdough offerings include original, seeded, and spelt and sprouted rye, as well as more adventurous flavours such as kalamata olive, fig and walnut, aged cheddar and smoked paprika, sundried tomato, kūmara and flaxseed, and oat and honey. There is a small lunch menu with sourdough pizzas, cheese toasties and filled sandwiches. rudis.nz

Te Awa river ride

NOT NEW, BUT NOT TO BE MISSED

FOOD

THYME SQUARE

Thyme Square isn’t just housed in a villa, the service makes it actually feel like you are in someone’s home. Logan Murray has created a space with the intention for people to slow down and enjoy each other’s company over good food. His talent for combining flavours (one bite of his nori tartare served with anchovy curd, black garlic and caperberry is all you need to understand that) was recently recognised with the Outstanding Chef award in the Waikato Hospitality Awards, while Tayla Mitchell – it’s only a two-person operation – was recognised as the Emerging Front-of-House talent. This has been a much-needed boost after two significant break-ins that have caused temporary closures over the last two, already Covid-challenged, years. thymesquare.co.nz

HAYES COMMON

Hayes Common is that daytime neighbourhood eatery we all wish we had just down the road. Creative food with great flavour combinations, craft beer, a well-chosen wine list and excellent coffee. Food is seasonally and locally focussed – some of it even from their kitchen garden – and it’s one of those places you just keep going back to for its bold global flavours and welcoming vibe. Honest food, cooked with skill and delivered with professional but approachable service, was also something recognised recently at the Waikato Hospitality Awards, when the Supreme Individual award went to owner Lisa Quarrie. hayescommon.co.nz

MR PICKLES

A perennial favourite also in Riverbank Lane, Mr Pickles never seems to lose its fun factor or standing as a place to go for an all-round good time. This is where you head for a great vibe and casual flavour-packed food from an often-changing menu. Cocktails are clever and fun, and the food can be anything from their forever-popular braised beef-cheek croquettes with habanero mustard to dishes such as tempura broccolini with pickled kohlrabi, house-made sauce and fried shallots. Sitting at the outside tables right by the river with a few Mr Pickles plates and drinks is pretty hard to beat. mrpickles.co.nz

PALATE

Palate is no stranger to Cuisine readers, as it has been winning hats for several years. Elegant cuisine showcasing the best of local ingredients with a well-appointed drink list has always been what Mat McLean and his team are known for. Palate is on the move in February 2024, to a new SkyCity location boasting a fantastic layout with an outdoor bar and dining area, and an asado to bring funky flavours from the grill. It will also be introducing bar snacks and lunch dishes in addition to the à la carte menu. palaterestaurant.co.nz

CREAM EATERY

If you like fried chicken, you probably know of Winner Winner, an incredibly successful chain that started in Hamilton. Luke and Chrissy Houghton were part of the clever team that started it, but these days they run local daytime favourite Cream Eatery. Walk in and you’ll be overwhelmed by the cabinet heaving with grab-and-go food (Chrissy’s sweet treats will give you total decision paralysis) but don’t let that sway you from checking out the menu. Luke’s food is bold and fun, including the ever-popular signature fried eggs which are cooked in red chilli and paprika oil and served with red peppers and whipped feta on turmeric loaf. creameatery.nz

GOTHENBURG

On a sunny day there are few better places to be than Gothenburg. Nestled on the banks of the Waikato River, it has long had one of the best locations of any restaurant in Hamilton. A dramatic high-ceilinged, elegant space with a lot of glass, it really makes the most of its riverside location. Grab a group of friends, park yourself at a table (inside or out), order a ton of small plates to share – with arancini, polenta chips, salad, dhal gnocchi, duck liver paté, lamb ribs or crudo, they’ve got everything for every mood – and watch life on the awa go by. gothenburg.co.nz

NOTE: While we have featured major restaurants here, Hamilton has plenty of other fabulous eateries with food from all over the world. Locals flock to The Chilli House for spicy dumplings (chillihouse.co.nz), queue up at Garden Place Noodle Bar for hand-pulled goodness, and you’ll find one of the best stuffed parathas in New Zealand at Bheeji Dhaba on Victoria St.

DRINK

ERNEST

When you walk into Ernest, Hamilton’s gorgeous late-night lounge, you’ll see a sleek space, moodily lit, with inviting-looking banquettes and rounded chairs. But what makes it even better is its history. Owner Craig Loveday knows exactly how old locals are, by what they remember the space as – Lady Hamilton (a rock venue), Shakes (a night club) or Altitude and Gravity Bar. Having operated multiple hotels and restaurants in the UK and Australia, he has designed the kind of place he wanted to drink in. Great bites, fab cocktails, gorgeous space, some of the most welcoming service in town. Another Hospitality Awards success, Ernest took home Supreme Establishment, Outstanding Bar, Outstanding Front-of-House Team and Outstanding Bartender. ernestnz.com

WONDER HORSE

Wonder Horse is definitely not new but remains a great place for a drink – once you’ve found it, that is (it’s not brightly lit or showy and the almost unmarked outside definitely belies the good night waiting inside in the two-storey loft). Unpretentious, it’s been a local favourite for years for its great service, understated vibe and cocktail creativity – we suggest going in and telling the bartenders the flavours you like and letting them create Waikato magic. And there’s a small menu of great bar food, too. wonderhorse.co.nz