In a tumultuous year bookended by lockdowns and restrictions that greatly impacted hospitality, eating out at a restaurant, cafe or bar often felt like a real luxury - and these special dishes and meals left their mark.
Sam Low, food and beverage creative
This question is always hard to answer, but the one dish I can confidently say that I’ve been telling all my friends to try recently are the handmade lamb pies from Jadetown Uyghur Cuisine on Auckland’s Dominion Road. To me it was the best thing I’ve eaten this year because it was surprising and exciting, the perfect catalyst to entering the world of Uyghur cuisine, a minority Muslim Chinese community in the northern west part of China. The hand pies are dry and solid on the outside (a flatbread style rolled dough) to contain and protect the hand chopped lamb chunks of juicy and flavourful filling perfumed with cumin steaming inside, expanding my mind on the vast richness of Chinese gastronomy.
Kim Meredith, journalist
One of the best dishes from the crappiest of years is Apero’s Burrata - grilled courgette, yellow pea miso and basil. We were celebrating and after the first taste everyone suddenly got quiet and very polite, holding back, inviting each other to have the next mouthful. Which of course is very out of character for my partner and our teenage sons.
Jos Ruffell, co-founder of Garage Project
New kids on the Wellington block, Restaurant Amok came out guns blazing earlier this year. Simple snacks elevated to another level, incredible hand made pasta, and beautiful charcoal grilled meats all making it an instant classic spot. Their crown jewel though was a potato - thinly sliced and layered into a little cube. Fried (as any good potato should be), and then smothered in steak tartare. Shaved cured egg yolk, with a dollop of caviar finished it off. It's a single bite. Perfectly formed. Salty, umami, and a touch of sweetness from the potato. It's the stuff dreams are made of and an instant crush for me.
Zoe Walker Ahwa, Ensemble co-founder/Stuff style editor
My favourite restaurant Omni didn’t do takeaways over the most recent lockdown, and so of course it was the first place we wanted to go as soon as the alert levels allowed restaurants to open (safely) again. I don’t think I’ve truly appreciated sitting down at a table, being hosted and served incredible food that’s made right in front of you as much as I did that first time back. The small Dominion Road restaurant, owned by Jamie and John, is known for its take on yakitori, use of a Binchotan grill, great natural wine list and friendly service - and the katsu sando. The cute, almost bite-sized dish is made with a chicken patty, mayonnaise and shredded cabbage between perfectly cut circles of soft white bread - so simple but it makes you smile when it arrives on your table on a small metal tray. That first bite into it on our first visit back was the best feeling after months of terrible at home cooking and an embarrassing amount of UberEats… Simple comfort food at its best.
Rebecca Wadey, Ensemble co-founder
My whole family is obsessed with the milk buns from Gochu. We ordered them a couple of times over lockdown and shockingly (yet, sustainably) the beurre blanc sauce came in just one container which we had to very carefully measure out to avoid fights (spoiler alert: fighting still ensued). The delicious hot pork and kimchi inside the most perfect bun with that incredible sauce poured over it… drool.
Gochu is one of my favourite places, the food is unbelievably tasty; chef Jason Kim has really perfected the art of taking comfort foods the whole family can enjoy and elevating them into an extraordinary blend of high low dining.
On a different note but just as good, I’ve become addicted to ordering the Little Bird Organics meal boxes, the taco and mezze boxes are my favourite. Rather than sharing them with my household I keep them in the fridge and have the most delicious five minute lunches all taken care of.
Mere Boynton, Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts Director Nga Toi Maori
I live in Napier and my husband grows a lot of our own vegetables and fruit so I am used to fresh kai straight out of the garden or off the tree. Hawkes Bay is known as the ''The Fruit Bowl of New Zealand", so during the summer I look forward to eating asparagus, stone fruit, cherries, berries and strawberries all straight from the farm - delicious! My husband and I can smash a 1 kg box of cherries in one go, not a problem! I love the fact that you can go and pick your own fruit, so you can choose the most succulent, sun kissed fruit and eat your fill while your picking. We have just planted some passionfruit vines and they are pumping. I’m looking forward to eating passionfruit with my porridge, over the top of vanilla ice cream or just straight off the vine. Fresh, honest and simple kai is my jam and we’re blessed to live in Aotearoa New Zealand where we have access to a lot of high quality produce.
Claire Mabey, Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts Writers Programme Manager
I thought I was going to find this terrifically difficult (difficult if you're a Bluey fan like me and my son). But then remembered that I go out so very rarely these days that of course my answer arrived in the memory of the one date that my partner and I managed to organise this year: dinner at our favourite restaurant, Field & Green, for Chef Laura Greenfield's Wellington on a Plate pop up menu called Bar Salonika. The Kodredo kon bezelia (slow-cooked lamb with lemon & peas), Boureka (eggplant & feta in pastry) and the Yaprakes finos (sephardic stuffed grape leaves) took me right back, deep into glorious time spent in Greece where you cannot find bad food if you tried. We wanted to go back for more but the season was so popular it had sold right out. I still dream about the dessert, Dolce de prounes (Prune & Disaronno chocolate pot with walnuts). Pure joy.
Damaris Coulter, head hustler of The Realness
Back in July The Realness collaborated on a very special evening with Coco’s Cantina, Eat New Zealand & Professor Rangi Matamua. It was a Kaihaukai, which is a feast that acknowledges the exchange and sharing of food and knowledge, and recognises the importance of creating and maintaining relationships. Professor Matamua shared some of his knowledge and learnings about Matariki and the importance of how we celebrate, we ate till our puku were full, we exchanged korero and we got to choose from a tepu of taonga that had people brought as koha (everything from fresh pipi in a handmade kete, poetry, preserves, paintings, home brew, things from the garden, art, you name it, it was there).
The menu was simple (kina crostini, crunchy arancini, steamed mussels, creamed paua, fry beard, winter salads, whole roasted kumara with nasturtium aioli, smoked fish pies, smoked pork, chocolate cake & tiramisu). And although it was simple, everything we ate was exceptional. It was definitely my favourite meal of the year, maybe the decade, I think because of the aroha that had been invested into it by The Realness community who collected it, cooked it and contributed.
(So you have an idea of the specialness, Nate from Gravity Fish in Bluff dived especially for our kina and paua; Tiffany and her mum from Curionoir made our fry bread (200 pieces), Yael of Ima Cuisine made the salads and worked the kitchen on the evening; Greta of Hapi in Napier sent the pickles, dressings and fermented goodies; Sawmill supplied the beer, Odyssey the wine, Coffee Pen the cakes, Mt Atkinson the coffee, Thea Ceramics donated the food displays; Coco’s Cantina cooked the pork, polenta, tiramisu and all the trimmings; Matakana Smokehouse smoked the fish which Emile of the Tuck Shop turned in to the smoked fish pies, Will of Frat’s Pizza came to support the kitchen kaupapa and Lula Cucchiara who took the photos).
Emily Brookes, Stuff food editor
Everything I ate at Omni was off the hook, honestly - one of those situations where for days afterward one of my tablemates or I would randomly yell out "chicken heart yakitori!" and we would all moan with the remembered pleasure - but it's the katsu sando, quickly becoming Omni's signature dish, that really stands out. It's hard to cut through the noise of the fried chicken boom, but this delicate sandwich does exactly that. As ever, it's in its simplicity where the sando's artistry lies: Perfectly seasoned chicken, fresh, crunchy cabbage, house mayo on soft and uncomplicating white bread. Perfection.
This narrowly beats WBC's cabbage and black fungus potsticker, a wildly moreish dumpling rich in umami that came to the table for our vegetarian guest and of which we immediately ordered three more rounds.
Nicole Miller Wong, art director, graphic designer
The Wagyu beef tacos from Coffee Pen are one of my favourite things on the menu, everything about this dish is so tasty. I’m a huge fan of fresh herbs so the amount of coriander that comes with this taco is perfect for me (sorry to the coriander haters out there). I highly rate the side of duck fat potatoes that comes on the side too. I was introduced to Carmel's pitas over lockdown and it’s the best pita I’ve ever had, hands down. They’re fluffy, soft and the perfect amount of food for a lunchtime snack.