The opportunity to look at the Waikato through a food-focussed lens has unearthed a tremendous amount of work being put in by local producers, hospitality professionals, retailers and consumers to gain recognition for their region as a New Zealand hot spot when it comes to all things food and drink. Here’s how to explore…

HAMILTON

Set yourself up at the Novotel on Alma Street and you will have easy access to the heart of Hamilton city. Another great reason to stay here is that it is right across the road from Palate, where an outstanding chef has been producing seasonally and locally inspired menus since 2005. An evening at Palate with Mat McLean and his team will see you  eating and drinking from an ever- changing menu that offers spectacular  tastes of the region. Palate currently holds two hats in the Cuisine Good Food Guide so book ahead and enjoy the magnificent seven-course dégustation at the table opposite the kitchen pass. It’s the best seat in the house! 20 Alma St. palaterestaurant.co.nz

Another Hamilton must-do is Mr Pickles Bar & Eatery where a cast of hospitality superheroes are on hand (the Pickles team cleaned up at the recent Waikato Food Inc Awards) to give you some of the most deliciously casual Hamilton fun you can have. It’s a menu that just works. Brilliantly. Expect bold but extremely considered flavours with no rules and a generous amount of yum. I could not stop eating the saucy boys… squid, XO sauce, spring onion, chilli and peanuts. So good I begged co-owner, maitre d’ and high pickle priest Mat Pedley to share the recipe, but of course we should really be thanking the other half of the pickle hierarchy for that, co-owner and head chef Maurice Montero. I also  LOVE the design-your-own mix-and-match charcuterie with a banging  meat and cheese selection, some very sexy veg, smoked sardines and black mussels, and truffled pork terrine. It’s everything you will need as you settle at a table on their fabulous terrace and contemplate a drinks menu that might get you seriously pickled. Sweets make the most of teaming the genius of local ice cream makers Duck Island with sundaes, tarts and knickerbocker glories. And why wouldn’t they? Clever Mr Pickles… 298 Victoria St. mrpickles.co.nz

So speaking of Duck Island, this might just be one of the best ice creams ever! I know of a certain gourmet grocery chain that reported scenes verging on mass hysteria when their roasted miso and white chocolate ice cream sold out. Handcrafted in Hamilton East, what started as a small amount of insanely delicious ice cream has grown into a rotating choice of 50 flavours available in its scoop shops located in Hamilton, Auckland and Wellington. Co-founders Morgan Glass, Kimberly Higgison and Cameron Farmilo were Hamilton-based restaurateurs who ditched their restaurant in favour of their quickly expanding ice-cream empire. They have become renowned for their creative flavour profiles and although you can now pick up a tub at supermarkets nationwide, a trip to their flagship parlour on the corner of Cook and Grey Streets is a special treat. duckislandicecream.co.nz

While in the neighbourhood of Hamilton East you must pay a visit to the protected heritage precinct of Hayes Paddock and meet the team at the clever little food hub of Hayes Common. Built on the notion that every good community needs creative, robust food, craft beer, carefully selected wine and great coffee this casual eatery hits the spot. Owner-operators Lisa and Brent Quarrie are both trained chefs who have now welcomed head chef James Clark to their team. Shona Lambert is the general right-hand lady and the result is a creative offering with nods to both east and west that is carefully considered by people that really care. Menus change seasonally but if you can get your hands on the potato gnocchi, confit tomato, asparagus, goat’s curd and toasted pinenuts, it’s a winner… 33 Jellicoe Dr, Hamilton East. hayescommon.co.nz

Encased in floor-to-ceiling glass with soaring ceilings and dappled sunlight, Gothenburg shows off the banks of the stunning Waikato river. Owner-operators Carl Bloxam and Susanna Rislund Fullana have continued their love affair through Sweden, Spain, Thailand, England and Canada with a global tapas menu that is designed to share. Head chef Cody Nicholson leads the kitchen,  and the floor team deliver a fast-and- furious menu with incredible flair.  The prawn and scallop tortellini in a crayfish bisque with crispy bacon feels indulgent and the Skagen rora, the classic Swedish mix of prawn, dill, lemon and mayo, is a best seller. 17 Grantham St. gothenburg.co.nz

Craft is a beer bar located at the original Gothenburg site at 15 Hood Street with 15 taps of ever-changing craft brews. Snack food and sharing plates are on offer from their Sage pop-up kitchen and that’s where chef Lani Lemaua comes in. Lani was the former chef at Gothenburg and is now creating his own dining concept inside Craft and plating up some pretty slick creations that are wowing locals in the know. Keep an eye on the changing menu at @sagerestaurant.hamilton on Insta. Feels like Lani is one to watch…

Award-winning chef Andrew Clarke runs the kitchen at Camarosa with a menu that offers delicious opportunities to taste the true flavours of the Waikato region. Andrew earned two hats in the Cuisine Good Food Guide while working at Victoria Street Bistro in Hastings and is now gaining a loyal local food-loving following at this contemporary café by day, restaurant by night. Think fragrant grilled lemon-brined chicken breast with an Indian spiced cauliflower rice and a salad of local asparagus, baby spinach, mint, coriander, cashew nuts, and green onion, dolloped with Greek yoghurt. The strawberry pav is best eaten at an outside table while gazing out at the strawberry fields of the Ruakura Berry Farm. Oh… and don’t forget a cheeky glass of bubbles. 11 Davison Rd, Newstead. camarosa.co.nz

MORE GREAT TASTES OF HAMILTON

Scotts Epicurean A constant favourite where locals gather to enjoy good conversation in an elegant Edwardian-styled café. 181 Victoria St. scottsepicurean.co.nz

Volare Home of the very best in handcrafted sourdoughs and award-winning sausage rolls, run by Ed Hemming and Ryan Simmons. The bread of choice for many local restaurants and cafés. 5 Gallagher Drive, Melville (Main Bakery). volarebread.com

Good George Dining Hall Grab a seat under the brew tanks, watch the brewers craft their beer and cider, and enjoy the diverse menu. 32A Somerset St, Frankton. goodgeorge.co.nz

Zealong High Tea Don’t miss these delicate delights and exquisite infusions at the only commercial tea estate in New Zealand. 495 Gordonton Rd, Gordonton. zealong.com

Rocket Coffee Go for the coffee and sit up at the bar, or you could pick up a quick lunch. 302 Barton St. rocketcoffee.co.nz

Sugar Bowl Café One of Hamilton’s most iconic cafés, renowned for their homemade food and great coffee. 150 Maeroa Rd, Hamilton and 107 Grandview Rd, Nawton. thesugarbowlcafe.co.nz

RAGLAN

If you are talking to the locals you will hear that the old shearing shed/café on the road to the beach is the best place for coffee and breakfast, brunch or lunch in Raglan. I’d agree. Owner-operator Sarah Kay offers an eclectic menu at Rock-it Kitchen that changes often but the kūmara hash cakes with bacon and hollandaise will always be available. To take them off the menu would be to risk local uproar. Stock up for the road, or for the beach, from the cabinet selection of house-made goodies. I can tell you that the scones look epic. 248 Wainui Rd. rockitraglan.co.nz

While on the Raglan road… Just before sunset, pop in to browse the beauties at Tony Sly Pottery and then head to Raglan Fish on the wharf for fish and chips as the sun goes down. 90 Wallis St. tonyslypottery.com

Raglan Artisan Bread This is the place for a superb range of handmade artisan breads. 3 Wainui Rd. @raglanbread

Raglan Roast A barefoot roasters’ atmosphere where you can enjoy great coffee at prices that will take you back in time. Volcom Lane. raglanroast.co.nz

 LaLa Land The cutest café with chocolates, coffee, waffles and other delights, all organic, fairtrade and New Zealand made. 2 Wallis St.

Isobar Casual food, cool cocktails, craft beer and an element of adventure! 23 Bow St. isobarraglan.nz

CAMBRIDGE

I’ve discovered a country house hotel in Cambridge that is captivating in every way. Super sophisticated, a little eclectic and with an amusing British twist, The Henley’s team of professionals will blow you away with their personable approach. The inhouse restaurant, Henley Social, is not just for their lucky guests and is open for decadent dinners, cocktails by the fire and their world-famous (in Cambridge) high teas. Chef Corey Moratti delivers food that is both beautiful to look at and marvellous to eat. I found myself staring into my diminishing bowl of the most delicious spring risotto wishing that the dish would magically regenerate so I could eat it all over again. Nicolas Simmonuci runs the floor with huge attention to detail and so much joy. His wine knowledge is impressive and his ability to make each and every guest feel genuinely special is a skill to be valued. Clever owners Darryn Whitehead and Brent Webster have created a terrific blend of relaxed luxury and are building on their already reimagined manor house, with plans underway to extend accommodation, dining and leisure facilities. 151 Maungatautari Rd. thehenley.co.nz

Lunch or dinner in Cambridge deserves to be taken at Alpha Street Kitchen where good food can be enjoyed with great coffee, boutique wines and craft beers. Located in the historic National Hotel and overlooking the town clock, it’s a lovely spot to while away a few hours and enjoy some really good cooking by chef Davide Martinenghi and team. I just loved the surprise of a coffee crumb on the Scotch fillet carpaccio with pickled eggplant and wasabi. The smoked potato ravioli with sage, brown butter, parmesan and almonds is a winner. 47 Alpha St. alphast.co.nz

Alpino would be my choice if you have only one dinner in Cambridge. The heritage building used to be the post office and the room has just the right amount of buzz while still feeling intimate. As to be expected with its Italian roots, the pizzas are top notch and the antipasti and mains are fired from the kitchen with gusto. My first vitello tonato in many years did not disappoint nor did the market fish with perfect asparagus, wild charred garlic and lemon-caper butter. I skipped dessert and headed to the bar for a Sovrano limoncello, expertly served by @the_tall_bartender. Look him up… 43-45 Victoria St. alpino.co.nz

A slice of homemade blueberry baked cheesecake and a coffee overlooking the blueberry farm at Café Irresistiblue at Monavale Blueberries is a splendid way to spend a morning. It’s just 10 minutes from Cambridge and there is something quite soothing about this beautiful family-owned-and-operated organic orchard. A quick trip to the outdoor play area to cuddle the resident rabbits is mandatory, before you stock up on punnets of plump fresh blueberries and the gorgeous artisan range of blueberry dressings, sauces, chutneys and jams on the way out… 178 Turkington Rd, Monavale. monavaleblueberries.co.nz

If you are going to do berries then you also have to do the Newell Road Strawberry Farm and make a visit to Punnet, where head chef Sophie Beck and owner-operator Haley Bicknell serve up some mean plates of food. Berries with Clevedon Buffalo ricotta hotcakes are show stoppers with their caramelised white chocolate, macadamia fennel crunch, crème fraîche and Canadian maple syrup. The chilli scram with its tomato chilli jam, roasted nori, candied black sesame and miso butter on toasted sourdough is also a glorious plateful. The full menu at Punnet is worth also exploring so pleaase don’t be in a hurry… 337 Newell Rd, Tamahere. punnet.co.nz


WATCH OUT FOR

Family-owned Takapoto Estate, is a 600-acre property that sits on three kilometres of breathtaking waterfront on Lake Karapiro. With exquisite vineyards and wine tastings by appointment, a world-class horse- and-bull-breeding programme and plans to present numerous ticketed events, this glorious estate should be on your radar, particularly in February when they present their estate show jumping events. Cuisine will be back… takapotoestateshowjumping.co.nz

 

KEEP AN EYE ON THESE EVENTS

FEAST WAIKATO (APRIL)
A magnificent selection of fabulous foodie events, from dinners, pop-ups, open days, tours, talks and markets.

MATARIKI DISH CHALLENGE (WINTER)
Each year, local chefs create a dish celebrating both Matariki (Māori New Year) and Waikato produce.

MEYER CHEESE MELT CHALLENGE (JUNE)
Waikato eateries set out to melt your heart and showcase the not-so-humble cheese toastie.

FERMENT FEST (SEPTEMBER)
Waikato’s artisan beer, cheese and fermented food festival.

CULINARY CAMBRIDGE (SEPTEMBER)
A week long celebration of Cambridge’s eclectic foodie scene. Dates to be announced.