The massive changes that have taken place in New Zealand since my last visit here in 1988 were obvious from the moment I walked out of Immigration at Auckland airport.
Like so many other countries, New Zealand has got, and even perpetuated many miles from home (as witness the success of the Kiwi-owned Caravan and Allpress in the UK), the coffee bug. Right opposite the exit into the free world is a branch of the Long White Coffee Company.
And next to it is a Hayama sushi and noodle bar, the manifestation of an Asian influx during the past quarter of a century that was apparent to us as our plane from LA landed next to another plane full of Chinese. A Chinese interpreter was on hand to help the New Zealand official in charge of stopping the import of livestock, fruit and vegetables. (The Chinese are big buyers of much of what New Zealand produces, from its honey to its racehorses.) In fact, Auckland's Asian population is reckoned by some to be as high as 25% of the city's total and the route taken into the city by our Indian taxi driver, who moved here 20 years ago from Mumbai, was lined with restaurants and food shops featuring Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese cuisines.
Then, equally obvious, are the changes around the city's harbour. The 'petrol farm' is how my friend, a keen sailor, refers to it, remembering fondly the inexpensive places where he could get his boat fettled up. It is now much, much cleaner as the city has decided to chase the tourist dollar instead. The silos that used to contain petrol have been cleaned up, some being converted into art galleries while another was used recently for a fashion show. One stretch of the quay was cordoned off as the chandlering of the boats that are the playthings of the super-rich in this part of the world now provide a bigger income than the locals' smaller boats – exemplified by the attention that was being lavished on Senses, the vast boat that belongs to Eric Schmidt of Google.
It was here that we began our culinary tour of this rapidly changing and fascinating city, as tourists out on a warm and sunny Saturday evening. I had been told about Baduzzi and had asked our friend to book a table but she had received what has become today the all too common response – that theirs was a non-booking restaurant and just to come along. We were returning from an afternoon wandering round Gibbs Farm overlooking Kaipara Harbour west of Auckland and were still lost in admiration at the sculptures its founder Alan Gibbs had commissioned – a 30-metre steel wall by Richard Serra, an enormous red 'tube' by Anish Kapoor and a kinetic sculpture of pure joy by George Rickey among many others - but realised quite how close to this bustling Italian restaurant we were. We parked by the fish market and walked in. (The photo below is taken from Baduzzi's website.)
The connection between this very Italian restaurant with its interesting list of wines arranged by price (at NZ$40, 50 and 60 as well as a number of more expensive bottles) and the city's growing Asian community came via our waiter. Perfectly turned out and well mannered (he recognised Jancis but only made a small fuss of our table), he turned out to be of Chinese origin and a product of the local, and highly prestigious, Auckland Grammar School.
The menu tries to be different and succeeds although not with the two dishes I chose. Whereas my friends were much happier with a salad of white beans and squid, crayfish 'meatballs' (baduzzi in Italian), beetroot papardelle topped with a soft boiled quail's egg and a sweetcorn risotto topped with prawns, I was somewhat disappointed by an interesting-sounding first course of wagyu tongue and bone marrow wrapped around asparagus stalks and their version of spaghetti alle vongole in which the clams were served in their shells and the sauce had not been reduced sufficiently. But the place seemed very popular, a tribute to its owner, the restaurateur Michael P Dearth who also owns the more upscale Grove.
Lunch the following day was on Waiheke Island, the popular resort and home to 9,000, which we had also visited in 1988 when Goldwater Estate was virtually the only winery on the island. Today there are 36.
We visited one of the newest, Tantalus, which opened in September 2016 and which, if it carries on with the same dedication, is likely to become extremely popular. (It is already booked with weddings through to the end of March, the end of the 'wedding season'). A combination of factors contributed to an excellent lunch: the dedication of its young owners Campbell Aitken and Carrie Mendell; his family money, from the fuel business; a stunning interior design by Nat Cheshire of Cheshire Architects, particularly in their use of old vines for the overhead lights (see above); an Argentine winemaker; stunning scenery; and a very talented chef in the highly experienced Paul Jobin.
It was a lunch of contrasting flavours. While I, somewhat overcome by the heat and the light, ordered the lighter dishes – six stunning oysters from Te Matuku, the bay we passed en route to the winery, and a dish of cured Ora King salmon with fennel – others preferred to test Jobin a little more extensively and ordered the crisp pork belly, which remained admirably moist, as their main course. While several of the party stuck to the Tantalus wines, I and a friend tried the range of four Alibi beers brewed on the estate and served in a specially carved and re-polished wine barrel stave. All were as impressive as the food and the set-up.
However, it was a combination of my wife's looks and her following Down Under that led us to our most charming marriage of food and wine during our brief stay in Auckland, a Sunday night supper at Apéro on K (short for Karangahape) Road.
We had been walking past the windows of this narrow restaurant, on the way back from a charming Lebanese lunch at Gemmayze Street, when a man wearing a T-shirt from California's famous In and Out burger restaurants popped out, introduced himself and said that really we should call in here. This we did, shook the very firm hand of Mo Koski, the restaurateur, who recognised both of us, and I made the reservation.
I was partly convinced to do so by the fact that while Mo patrols the central alley between the tables on either side, his French partner, Leslie Hottiaux, is firmly in the kitchen at the back of the long, narrow building that had been a tattoo parlour but also many years before that had been a café, so the fundamentals of the kitchen were already in place. What sealed my approval was the ease with which Mo could show us his menu and wine list. These are printed on A3 paper, the menu on the top followed by the extensive wine list, then clipped on to a piece of board which hangs just above every table on the bare brick walls.
This approach seems typical of the man, Australian by birth with a Finnish father. Wearing a full-size apron and sporting a cap he bestrides his space. Nothing seems to faze him and he is very keen to impart his obvious wine knowledge. We nibbled on falafel, croquettes and an unusual salad of cucumber with brewer's yeast; ate burrata with green tomatoes; the house sausage that they serve by the quarter metre (as pictured above, from their website); a quarter of roasted cauliflower; and a plate of lambs' sweetbreads enlivened with crème fraîche. We finished with a wodge of Valrhona chocolate with cherries and a peach ice-cream sandwich. With two bottles of red wine and two glasses of delicious Pyramid Valley Pinot Gris 2015, my bill came to NZ$400 for the five of us.
Baduzzi 10-26 Jellicoe Street, North Wharf, Auckland; tel +64 (0)9 3099339
Tantalus Estate 70-72 Onetangi Road, Waiheke Island, Auckland; tel +64 (0)9 372 2625
Gemmayze Street 183 Karangahape Road, Auckland 1010; tel +64 (0)9 600 1545
Apéro 280 Karangahape Road, Auckland; tel +64 (0)9 373 4778