Ultimate Flavours

By Cuisine22 Minutes
February 15, 2023By Cuisine

Kelli Brett finds plenty for everyone in the Bay of Plenty.

With one of the brightest new tastes on the New Zealand food-festival circuit just around the corner, now is the time to start planning your trip to the beautiful Bay of Plenty for Flavours of Plenty 2023 (24 March to 2 April). A packed festival calendar of events will keep foodies enthralled across 10 days of feasting and should you find a spare spot for a meal in between the festivities, here are my current picks for some of the ultimate Bay of Plenty flavours.

Given that Mount Maunganui is known as a coastal sunshine paradise, I’ve often wondered why no one had really taken the fish by the gills and presented a loud and proudly contemporary playground for seafood lovers. Until now. Restaurateurs Nick Potts and Jay Thomas have successfully blurred the lines between fish, chips and mushy peas and the likes of shashimi and oysters at Saltwater Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar, harnessing the many talents of chef Neil Sapitula to showcase some tremendous kaimoana options on a keenly priced menu. If you prefer not to have them naked (the oysters, not the owners) you can style yours with shallot vinegar, salsa verde or wasabi ponzu or perhaps take them beer-battered, Kilpatrick or Rockefeller-style, while the raw and cold bar sticks to well-executed versions of sashimi, tartare, cured fish and ceviche.

It’s the starters and mains where Neil’s intriguing approach starts to play, with superbly grilled octopus surrounded by beetroot, carrot and deep sweet soy or the fish of the day in his special barbecue glaze with capers and slick greens. The pleasingly messy Coromandel mussels in a coconut curry with spankings of ginger, tamarind and coriander were the absolute business – who needs the beach when you can swim laps in that sauce? I would not call this menu particularly innovative, however natural flavours are thoughtfully allowed to shine here and let’s face it, great seafood does not need to be over-tweaked.

Judging by the buzzing room, the locals have already taken to their new saltwater paradise and there are more than enough non-seafood options to be able to hedge your bets. You can sit at the ‘Hot Bar’ and watch the chefs or at the ‘Cold Line’ where you must not be surprised to find yourself gazing into the eyes of a freshly caught flounder; either way, I reckon the bar is always the best seat in the house if you want to clock the action and Nick and Jay certainly seem to have attracted some of the Bay’s hospo superstars to look after you. Cocktails and bites are also on offer if you don’t want to take the full ocean cruise.

203 Maunganui Road, Mount Maunganui
saltwaterseafood.co.nz

Deckchair Café opened in late 2022, just in time for the summer stampede and, boy, what a beauty this little eatery is. Here you will find chef Perrin Yates (ex Clarence Bistro) and some of the best-tasting café food I’ve had in quite some time. Perrin has done the yards working in high-end restaurants and has finally put some hard-yakka’d skin in the game. All of that experience is now showcased in a laid-back, casual and quite humble café setting where breakfast and lunch are always going to be focussed on premium ingredients and maximum flavour, and where you can indulge in a serious side-serve of people watching as you gaze out at the gorgeous Mount Maunganui beachfront.

The granola is organic oats, seeds and nuts, toasted and mixed through local Kamai honey, coconut yoghurt, fresh mint and fire-roasted pineapple – fire-roasted being the operative words here. The fish burger is local fresh fish, panko-crumbed on a brioche bun with a banging yoghurt tartare and the crispiest of iceberg leaves, a reminder that this much ho-hummed lettuce can still be a star – and the Reuben (oh Lord, that gloriously thick Rueben) is built to sustain the most rigorous of days at the beach with its 12-hour smoked beef brisket, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and pickles. Memories are made from the extra crispy finish created by the parmesan butter slathered on the outside of the sandwich before it hits the pan. The baker puts the beef on to smoke at sparrow’s fart and the chefs take it off late at night. Now THAT is a full commitment right there to a great sandwich. If you are in the mood for a smoothie, ask for the banana, honey, peanut butter and almond milk Yogi Bear and let Perrin tell you its somewhat colourful legacy. If you are in for the long haul, chef’s lemon meringue pie should be considered. Even I, with my decidedly savoury-focussed lens, was drawn to that undeniably golden crust with its towering waves of toasty egg whites and the sweet-tart lemony secrets within.

As your day progresses, you may want to head back here, take a couple of steps to the right and head in to Sundowner Beachfront Bar for beers, wines, cocktails and a mean bunch of chef Perrin’s ultimate bar snacks. Why not take in more of those magnificent views of Mount Maunganui Main Beach while you can?

2 Marine Parade, Mount Maunganui
deckchaircafe.co.nz

Local restaurateurs Kim Smythe and Noel Cimadom (Clarence Bistro, Bar Centrale and Alpino) have pulled out all the stops with their slick new venue Picnicka in the heart of Tauranga’s CBD and there is no denying these two hospitality stalwarts know how to design an experience that sparkles. It’s not just another restaurant and not just another bar, it’s almost like being in a resort with a variety of stylish spaces that flow seamlessly, providing all the feels of cosy, sophisticated and cool.

Head chef Ryan Allen returned to New Zealand from a stint in Dubai in 2018 and went on to head chef roles at Cable Bay Vineyards on Waiheke and The Grill at Sky City. Now he is finding new inspiration for his menus while working with the magnificent wood-fired Argentinian-style barbecue that provides the smoke and fire that makes Picnicka sizzle. Small plates offer a multitude of grazing options and I strongly suggest ordering up a selection to share that includes the tuna ceviche, the venison tataki and some of the outrageously good barbecued flatbread. The larger plates are where Ryan can really showcase the capabilities of the kitchen with smoky mushrooms in a vibrant sauce of seeds, nuts, herbs and spices, fish gently cooked over embers and boosted with flavours that will transport you straight to an Italian summer, and all of the super- caramelised meat cuts that you might expect from a skilled grill-master. The food here is slick but not complicated, in fact it was the barbecued chicken that thrilled me the most. If you are not happy eating a great chook swathed in the gentle heat of good harissa and cut with a creamy yoghurt and charred lime alongside a tangle of crispy, leafy green goddess salad, you never will be…

Elizabeth Towers, Level 1/38 Elizabeth Street, Tauranga
picnicka.com

The biggest surprise of this trip was a little side-step of about 20 kilometres for an Italian-inspired lunch with Ewelina Large and Marko Velickovic, co-owners of Alma Eatery in Ōmokoroa. Locals are already smitten by this beachside haven with an offering that is far from your average all-day beach café. In fact, they probably won’t be happy to share, but it’s only fair, right? Marko heads up the kitchen while Ewelina manages front of house and together with their tiny team they produce what I can only call our very own version of an Italian beach club. Of course, their beach overlooking the Ōmokoroa harbour is not private and to find them you must mount the stairs beside the local beach store, but once you are there the enthusiasm, warmth and casual comfort will make you want to settle in for their delicious ride.

This is not the endless Mediterranean menu where far too many items are dressed in the same garnish and sauce. Marko has chosen carefully to include a range of classics with just enough sprinklings of New Zealand flavour to pay homage to their undeniably Kiwi setting perched closely to the magical pōhutukawas. You will not be disappointed with the crispy Bluff blue cod wings with lemon and pilacca, a fried chilli sauce. Cloudy Bay tua tua clams in the shell are ever-so-lightly cooked in white wine, swirled through fettuccine and topped with parsley and garlic pangrattato, and finely sliced discs of house-made octopus salami come with ’nduja, shards of preserved lemon and fresh sorrel. Sicilian anchovies served in the tin with pickles, pizza crust and balsamic onions followed by squid, flash fried with dried chilli, capers, sesame and sage were the start to an unexpectedly perfect summer lunch. Kids are welcome and the pizza is fab, so plan ahead and enjoy the calm.

4 The Esplanade, Ōmokoroa
almaeatery.nz

About 30 minutes from Tauranga you’ll find a casual French bistro in a special little corner of Paengaroa that is very much worth a look-in. Owner- operators of The Trading Post, Nina Vergnes and Jordan Baudeche are the proud keepers of this quaint and rustic little cottage where they showcase so many of the remarkable flavours of the Bay of Plenty on their French and Mediterranean-inspired menu.

Although the pastry cabinet is next level, the full menu at this countryside gem deserves your attention and it is clear from the very first dish that head chef Jordan is only interested in playing with premium ingredients that are in their prime. The sourdough and smoked butter are deliciously good, the roasted heirloom tomato gently perched on a yoghurt and tahini labneh and drizzled with a vibrant green herb oil is a smack- in-the-face taste of summer. The confit lamb comes with lightly sautéed baby spinach and wafer-thin slices of potato, stacked and golden from their bath in all of that butter until crispy to the touch and melting within. All these leave me with no doubt that this menu is rooted in cosy, hearty joy. There is really nowhere for the chef to hide in these classic, simple dishes and the world feels like it is truly a very good place to be in when you are eating like this. As you might imagine, the local truffle season is approached with great anticipation by Nina and Jordan so if you love a good truffle keep an eye on their website for the opportunity to grab a seat at one of their truffle lunches or dégustation dinners.

1 Hall Road, Paengaroa
thetradingpost.nz

The team at Solera: sous chef David Bryson, executive chef Neil Sapitula, chef de partie Ryuma Hashimoto and pastry chef Darlyn Orzo

If (God forbid) you only have the time to visit one restaurant while in the Bay of Plenty, and you are the type that enjoys the search for unique flavour (and why wouldn’t you be if you are reading Cuisine?) then a meal at Solera is the one not to miss.

Well-seasoned hospitality professionals Chloe Ashman and Nick Potts seem to have come up with exactly what Mount Manganuians always wanted before they knew they wanted it, by teaming a distinctive and tailored drinks list with full-flavoured wine-friendly food. It is here that executive chef Neil Sapitula is in his element, producing food that is unpretentious and unpredictable and that seems to find its heart in the essence of the main ingredient. The à la carte menu is a thing of beauty but with plans afoot to have the seats at the bar reserved specifically for those interested in the chef’s set menu, I suggest you book ahead and trust the chef.

My most recent visit had me feeling a little bit Melbourne, a little bit The Mount and a whole lot of excitement as I watched Neil, sous chef David Bryson and pastry chef Darlyn Orzo, perform a tightly choreographed dance behind the bar, dishing up plate after plate of small bites that were, for the most part, mesmerising. A tiny wagyu nigiri umami bomb set a smart pace for the smoked mosaic kingfish that followed, beautiful to look at and popping with the flavours of namjim, black garlic and crispy curry leaves. I’m always thrilled to see our humble mussels cleverly elevated and the smoky marinated mussels in a tomato vinaigrette were exceptional.

Potato and veal cheek were crowned with a pale-pink swirl of chicken liver that I swear had a miso connection hidden somewhere within its delicious layers, and perfectly cooked lamb cutlets on buffalo labneh were hit with a dash of curry, sesame and green garlic chive oil. Charred broccolini and asparagus had just the right amount of bite and were lifted with Vietnamese mint, cashew, lemon and bacon, and the dry- aged kurobuta pork in a rich and thick peanutty stew (kare kare) with XO and pāua reminded me once again why I reckon Neil Sapitula is a chef to watch.

On this particular evening I did not need to look at the dessert menu as to do so would have risked losing the sense of vitality that I felt after this meal. What a great pleasure to pull up a stool and be entertained by the outstanding restaurant manager and sommelier Tim Lewis, devote myself to the pleasure of learning and eating and yet have none of the exhaustion that comes so often when committing to a dégustation menu. I can always come back for the dessert, right Tim?

165 Maunganui Road, Mount Maunganui,
solera.nz

If you are looking to base yourself in a central location with a boutiquey feel, then Hotel on Devonport is worth considering. Comfortable rooms provide a great space to work from if you are in town for business; the beds are plush, you get a welcome drink on arrival and you can stroll around to another of my favourite dining destinations: Sugo on Wharf Street. What more could you want?

Hotel on Devonport,
72 Devonport Road, Tauranga
hotelondevonport.net.nz

 

Kelli travelled to the Bay of Plenty courtesy of bayofplentynz.com

CHEFS’ SNACKS

We asked our chefs for their favourite locals…

JORDAN BAUDECHE,
THE TRADING POST
Mount Made is a must for its crème brûlée ice cream – delicious and decadent. Also very good cardamom buns!

Mount Made,
262 Maunganui Road, Mount Maunganui

NEIL SAPITULA,
SOLERA & SALTWATER SEAFOOD GRILL & OYSTER BAR
Recently, Palace Burger has relocated and given the place a new American burger-bar feel at Palace Tavern. Many of our team will often be found there during breaks or days off having a burger and beer. Best burger in town, great vibe and really good people.

Palace Tavern,
1c/217 Maunganui Road, Mount Maunganui

PERRIN YATES,
DECKCHAIR CAFÉ & SUNDOWNER BAR
We love to pop in to Sugo for a drink and a snack, plus the Double Hoe Down burger at Palace Tavern is sweet, spicy and meaty delicious.

Sugo,
19 Wharf Street, Tauranga

Palace Tavern,
1c/217 Maunganui Road, Mount Maunganui

RYAN ALLEN,
PICNICKA
I quite like going to Rising Tide. It does some really good dumplings and brews its own beers and ciders. There’s a park adjacent which the kids can run around in so you can enjoy your meal without interruption. Very relaxed vibes.

Rising Tide,
107 Newton Street, Mount Maunganui

MARKO VELICKOVIC,
ALMA EATERY
When you need a great steak it’s Fife Lane for the variety of cuts and the blue-cheese butter. For our Vietnamese fix we always head to Rice Rice Baby for the pork rolls – consistently a great vibe and as close as it gets to authentic Vietnamese street food in the Bay.

Fife Lane,
512 Maunganui Road, Tauranga

Rice Rice Baby,
136 Maunganui Road, Mount Maunganui

BATTLE OF THE SNACK
Join chefs Ian Harrison (Sugo), Perrin Yates (Deckchair Café & Sundowner Bar), Neil Sapitula (Solera & Saltwater) & Cuisine editor Kelli Brett on 26 March at Saltwater Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar for the ultimate battle of the canapé.
flavoursofplentyfestival.com